I have killed my own dinner before, but always shellfish. Oysters and clams from a raw bar are alive until swallowed, about which my conscience troubles me not, and I have done terrible, terrible things to lobsters to prep them for grilling. I learned from the great Jeffrey Steingarten that the most humane way to kill lobsters is to guillotine them, lengthwise and abruptly, with a chef’s knife. It’s gruesome, but it gets easier with practice. I’m okay with the violence, not least because grilled lobsters are fucking delicious. If lobsters tasted like balsawood airplanes I would be more supportive of their right to life. But my previous exposure to guns has been limited to shooting the ones usually wielded by movie terrorists at a gun shop in Las Vegas, and my previous experience with hunting comes from thirty-five years of watching Bugs Bunny and from a deep admiration for Woody Allen’s standup routine about moose hunting. So I was a little trepidatious when my friend Jon suggested a handful of us go pheasant-hunting at his hunt club. But I’ve heard pheasant is delicious.
Jon, Jeremy, JP — my friends are a cluster of “J” names, as we were born in the 70s — and I arose at 6 a.m. Friday morning, after a nice evening. Which for us meant mild hangovers.
We decided we needed ringers, since our team was otherwise three non-hunters and Jon, who has been hunting maybe four times. So we picked up Tom, an avid hunter and friend of Jon’s, and rolled out. (Randy, another ringer, joined is in the field. Brave man. I would not have come looking for the six of us in a field where people like me were walking around with guns.) Jon, JP, and Tom were dressed like people who knew how to hunt. I had gone with a red flannel shirt and jeans over a union suit (the red, butt-flap kind), and a hat like the one Cousin Eddie sports in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Jeremy was dressed like the villain in a 1953 Labour Party advertisement decrying the peerage. For once, most of the odd looks went his way instead of mine.
We arrived at the club and I began playing with dogs. The dogs were my favorite part of the hunt. The guide, Josh, worked with a pair of them, a “pointer” and a “flusher”. Here’s how hunting with the dogs allegedly worked: We would walk up and down the rows of a cornfield, until the pointer showed us where a bird was, we would get ready, and then the flusher would run over and scare it into the air. We would, then, shoot it out of the air, and one of the dogs would grab it and bring it back to Josh the guide. For the most part, this system worked very well. For me, however, it worked less well, because I was absolutely paralyzed at the thought of accidentally shooting one of the dogs. So how it really worked was that we would tromp around in a snowy cornfield for a while, and then a pheasant would launch into the air, and I would begin thinking.
“Okay, first release the safety. Now pull the stock really tight against my shoulder. Okay. Now, start tracking the pheasant over the sight-bead. Wait. Where are the dogs? Okay, there they are. Where are all the other guys? Okay, good. All right now, where’s that pheasant?”
“That pheasant”, of course, had by that point long since received the Sonny -at-the-tollbooth treatment from the other guys and was en route back in the mouth of one of the dogs I was so anxious not to shoot.
I held my fire on a few and just observed the process. A pheasant tends to take off straight up, like a helicopter, and then whiz off laterally from there. There’s a pause at the top of the initial ascent, and once or twice one of us — including me — got it there. That was somewhat uncomfortably execution-ish. I felt we should have given the bird a blindfold and cigarette. Once it starts moving, the shooting-down is more like watching airplanes being shot down in a G.I. Joe cartoon; parts burst off the bird, after which follows a long arc down. You almost expect to see an ejected pilot parachuting to safety.
Every so often, one of the birds would be brought back not-quite-dead. They were always sorta dazed, as I assume I would also be upon being shot out of the sky, and Josh would swing them around by their necks. I assume this is the humane method, the pheasant equivalent of the lateral bisection of a lobster. It’s certainly neater than chopping them in half lengthwise would be. If lobsters had necks I would feel no guilt about whacking them by this method at all.
And this is where the pheasant enters my domain. It is no longer a bird. It is now food. The birds at this club are obtained from a farm that raises pheasants for restaurants. (I asked if the hunt club was considered unsporting. The answer was mostly no — it’s not like the birds were staked out on leashes like the goat in Jurassic Park. An apt comparison for a hunt club is charter fishing: You have a captain, he has a sonar fish finder, there’s a mate to do the dirty work, but you’re not just going to the fishmarket with a net.) Was the bird’s slightly less clean death after a few days of freedom better than the death it would have had if there was no layover in a cornfield between farm and fork? We can’t ask people who are against hunting. We can’t ask hunters. We can’t ask the bird. (“I enjoyed the field, though I would have liked to have been shot by a less-absurdly-dressed man.”) They all have a horse in the race.
But as someone who is not terribly vested in the sport’s ethics or the prevention of harm to all things cute, I felt a little bad at first, but it’s surely more honest than pretending meat is born on those styrofoam trays. We killed birds that were destined for the table anyway, there were enough of us that no bird escaped injured, and we did eat all that we brought home. I think that’s fair. Responsible hunters kill it and eat it. I can’t argue against that. Might even be willing to try hunting ducks. I love duck.
But I also love venison. And I could never shoot a deer, no matter how much of it I would eat. I know that the health of deer populations (and highway safety, and gardening) are significantly improved by the existence of hunting season, but I just couldn’t do it. Is that dishonest? Is “No Mammals” a reasonable rule, or am I drawing an arbitrary line?
Or do I just need to get out there and do it?
The first lobster was hard, too.