As I cradled the doe’s head in my hands, carefully turning and appreciating every curve of her face, her long lashes and fine bone structure, I felt of wave of respect for this beautiful animal. My adrenalin had subsided and the blood trail told its own story. Forty-five minutes ago, three deer had entered the food plot 80 yards away and my arrow flew true, killing the largest of them. I had patterned this particular doe and knew she was quite wary, so I would need to act quickly and wisely to harvest her. Last summer after spreading fertilizer on the food plot, I had walked into the woods twenty yards to check for deer trails. There, staring intently at me with her head cocked and tail straight up, was this doe. For ten seconds we checked each other out and then she bound away, stopping again thirty yards further to look back. Today, two months later, I knelt beside her and gave thanks. Hunting and harvesting an animal are not things I take lightly. It was Minnesota archery opener, 8 AM. I was solemn, but happy.
In the Firearm Safety classes, we teach respect as an integral part of hunting. It’s a simple word with a complexity of meaning, especially for hunters. Hunters are unique insofar as they are largely accountable only to themselves and mostly without any watchdogs to monitor integrity. The integrity of a hunter and the corresponding respect for their sport, can be measured by what they do when no one is looking. It is respect for the land, for the animals hunted, for non-hunters, for fellow hunters, for landowners, for the law, and respect for the legacy of the sport in general.
Respect for the Land
Respect for the land is manifest both in what we do with it, and what we do not do. We groom and farm the land for Quality Deer Management, or we may employ a Woodland Stewardship plan. Respect for the land involves both preservation and conservation. Certain areas we want to protect, or preserve, while others we want to conserve or manage. For example, we might want to protect oak saplings by putting wire cages around them to keep deer from browsing them to stubble. Or, we could do clear cuts or controlled burns to improve old growth areas or prairies to open them up for new growth to attract wildlife. There are just as many things we should not do. Whether we hunt our own land, private land, or public land, we should not do things that destroy the land or endanger its resources. Carrying all litter out of the woods is a given. Another good example is being low impact on the land while hunting. Some hunters slash trees to blaze trails, or kill trees by building permanent stands improperly. Some hunting, like hunting bears over bait for example, lends itself to being very messy, especially with oil that is dumped around bait sites. Too much oil is not only unnecessary, but can kill native flora and small animals similar to an oil tanker spill, and sometimes requires more than one controlled burn followed by disking to be fully eradicated from the soil. The hunter who uses moderation is the one who will be invited back to hunt again.
Respect for animals
The primary focus with respect for animals, is to make a quick and humane killing shot, and to make every effort possible to retrieve the game. Respect in transporting game is important too. In our grandparents’ time, displaying dead animals on car fenders was en vogue, but in present times such a display gives anti-hunters reasons to vilify hunters. Respect for animals means adhering to the rules of fair chase. We only cheat ourselves if we bend the rules to gain the upper hand in hunting our quarries by unethical means. There is no pride in taking even a trophy animal, if you used laser sites on bows, hunted at night, or illegally baited where it is against your State’s laws. A harvested animal used to be a living creature after all, and responsibly knowing and obeying the rules of fair chase goes along with the taking of that life.
Respect for non-hunters
To hunt or not to hunt, borders on being a spiritual issue for many people. Some hunters have an "If you don’t like my hunting, stick it" type of attitude. We won’t win over the vast majority of non-hunters, but we certainly don’t want to convert them to anti-hunters either. Simple respect for their differing opinion, and having a non-judgmental attitude will diffuse objections and might just create in them an interest to try hunting some day. The best response to a non-hunter is agreement. Find a minor point of their view that you can agree with and they just might listen further to your opinions.
Unfortunately, there is more friction among the rank of hunters, than with non-hunters. This is another area where respect for differing opinions is critical. If hunters become factionalized because of their differences, they will not be united in the preservation of our sport. I have seen arguments arise over methods of hunting, what gear is best, criticism of Outfitted hunts, who is a real hunter and who isn’t, etc. Hunters need to accept that the selection of equipment and method is akin to the selection of a mate, and no two hunters will do everything the same no matter how much preaching fills the air. Hunters also need to accept that if certain hunting methods are legal in some areas, like hunting over bait or with hounds for example, no other person has an ethical right to criticize the choice of method. Discuss, yes. Judge, no. Also, if one hunter chooses to hunt with an outfitter, and another hunts on public land, neither has the ethical right to say their way is the best way.
Respect for the law
Knowing the law of the area you in which hunt is the first step. If you don’t know the law of the land you hunt, you have no business being in the woods. However, some hunters like to bend the law "just a little" in order to give themselves the edge to harvest an animal. I have observed people who illegally baited before bear season, or who threw fruit under their tree stand to bait deer in non-baiting states. I have known others who said that hunting miles apart was "party hunting" in order to fill as many tags as possible. Still others feel they break the law if no one can see them do it. There is no pride or dignity in cheating the system just to say you killed something. A hunter only cheats themselves in breaking the law. Their success is a sham. Some hunters have an abnormally competitive attitude with other hunters, and in our Firearm Safety classes, we teach that being competitive has no place in the woods, unless it is with yourself. Doing your personal best is why we are out there. Having a competitive attitude creates the urge to bend the rules in order to win at all costs. Hunting regulations are in place to manage animal populations and to create an equal playing field. Not adhering to hunting regulations just makes hunters look bad to other hunters and to the general public. It also tempts other hunters to break the law because human nature often stoops to the lowest common denominator.
Respect for the heritage of the hunting sports
You going to your tree stand today has a huge history behind it. My parents, grandparents and great grandparents were hunters. They instilled in me a love for the hunting sports even though I had to wait until I was 38 years old to start hunting. Our country’s forefathers obtained for us the right to bear arms and to have the hunting privileges we enjoy today. It is our serious responsibility to continue that heritage with the same integrity, and to pass it on to other people. We are all riding on the efforts of those who went before us. The more mature we become as hunters, the more we will realize that we need to pass the tradition on to new hunters and we might even need to get involved politically to safeguard our sport. There is pride in our tradition and all the elements of respect noted above are key components in continuing the hunting tradition in the future.
I respected and admired that beautiful mature doe so much, I had her mounted. Every time I look at her on my wall, I am reminded of that that warm day last summer in the lush green woods as we stood ten yards from each other, each with her heart pounding and each with a curiosity about the other. As you head out for your various hunting seasons, think about these elements of respect. Whether you are rural or urban, old or young, respect is the tie that binds us and that carries us to many future years of hunting.
© November 2003