Recently, my buddy Sam posted to social media about his first game kill and only a few days later he got his first deer. I was over-the-moon for him because he grew up in the city and found bowhunting as an adult and he has put his heart and soul into not only archery and hunting, but conservation as well. While far from identical, our stories overlap enough that I feel invested in his success just by rooting for him and staying up to date with his journey.
Reading his thoughts about his first successes in hunting lead me to thinking about all the animals I’ve killed and how I felt about the two, less than normal, experiences I had with my first kills.
My first hunting experiences were coon hunting in the thumb of Michigan with my buddy Clark and his friend Blaine. Blaine had two coon dogs which we’d let loose on some sugar beet farm and the three of us would traipse through the woods, in the dark, one of us carrying a .22 and the other two of us carrying beers. The rule was every man got three shots, whether it was three misses or three kills, after three shots, you handed the rifle to the next man up. I killed dozens of raccoons on these trips to Michigan and to this day, I don’t think there’s a way to have more fun in the world than coon hunting like that.
I have to admit, I didn’t feel a whole lot when I killed raccoons. We were essentially performing pest control services for the local farmers and the pelts we brought in went in with the pelts Blaine got trapping and that supplemented his income in the middle of the recession. The first one I killed, I felt something, but it was nothing more than a twinge of sadness. Raccoons are nasty animals and after I saw them get tangled up with Blaine’s dogs, I had no regrets about putting them down.
The first game animal I killed is a story my wife is fond of telling. When we lived in Louisville we had a pretty productive garden but nothing I did kept the rabbits out. I tried all kinds of things including fencing but those wily animals continued to eat our garden and I never could catch the thing.
One morning, I woke up and, wearing only my underwear, walked into the kitchen to make coffee like I did every morning. When I looked out the back window I saw the rabbit in the middle of the backyard. I quickly grabbed my air rifle that I kept in the kitchen and loaded it with pointed pellets. I eased open the back door and pushed open the storm door that didn’t have a screen in the top. Using the middle bar of the screen door as a rest, I positioned myself on the back porch and took aim at the small rabbit. I fired one shot that severed the rabbit’s spine at the neck and he went down. I then went to put on some gym shorts before I walked out into the backyard to retrieve him.
While the emotions of that moment have dimmed with time, I still remember the mix of sadness, remorse and satisfaction I felt. I remember saying to the rabbit when I walked up on him, “You son of a bitch, I didn’t want to kill you. Why couldn’t you have just eaten out of someone else’s garden?”. I was genuinely sad, but I knew I had done the right thing. It’s a strange feeling and it’s one that I don’t think you can truly understand unless you’ve been there and done it.
In some ways, it’s strange what we do. We willingly put ourselves through emotions that most people spend their whole lives trying to avoid. I think we’re better for it though. I think this world is a complex and contradictory place and knowing how to navigate how we feel about complicated things helps us better understand other people and the world that we live in. You don't get better at things by avoiding them, you get better at things by enduring them. Some people might find it strange that by harvesting my own meat I think I better understand the world, but I know in the deepest places of my soul that its true.