If there’s a more redneck way to hunt feral hogs, I’m not sure what it is.
It started with my dog. Not a hunting dog, mind you. Halifax is a mix between an Alaskan Husky and the Queen of Sheba, so when she requested passage out of doors at 3:30 on a Saturday morning, I stumbled out of bed and humbly acquiesced.
My wife and I were visiting my in-laws, who own 40 acres of God’s country west of Fort Worth. Like much of the South, their land has succumbed over the last decade to roaming gangs of wild hogs. I and my keen suburban hunting acumen had been attempting to harvest one for the last few nights, with no success. The herd hadn’t shown itself, but I knew it wasn’t because they were afraid of my skill with a rifle. I’d never hunted anything larger than a bird, and my brief time at the range hadn’t won me any awards.
But I was eager to prove to my father-in-law that I could, in fact, bring home the bacon. So, after I opened the back door to let the princess do her business, I forgot about the sleep in my eyes when my ears caught a chorus of squealing, grunting, snorting, and shuffling not 50 yards from the house.
“I’ve got you now,” I muttered, à la Elmer Fudd.
I threw on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt and went searching for the borrowed rifle I had left leaning by the side door. When I reached a spot 40-odd yards from where the snorting seemed to emanate, I flicked on the red flashlight affixed to the rifle’s handguard.
Twelve black hogs of various sizes were rooting around the pasture under a clump of oak trees. Their eyes glowed in the red light, and the jerking movement of their heads made them look like so many acorn-hunting demons. The herd didn’t notice me, so I had ample time to survey my quarry and select the largest outlaw of the bunch.
I crouched there for several minutes, glasses slipping down my nose, sockless feet sweating inside some hole-y tennis shoes, ears pounding from pig fever and adrenaline. I was, in short, the veritable essence of Esau reincarnate. I leaned into my newfound prowess, took a deep breath, and pulled the trigger.
In the days leading up to that moment, I had thought a lot about Michael Pollan’s now-famous critique of the modern industrialized food system in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, especially the chapters he dedicates to his journey from mild-mannered author to mighty pig hunter. It’s a thoughtful, amusing tale, and Pollan self-consciously wonders at the ease with which a well-educated intellectual like himself can slip into an unironic manifesto on the “hunter’s instinct.” He assures his gentle readers of his embarrassment when he pontificates about the thrill of the hunt, but he sounds pretty thrilled nonetheless.
The first time I read the book, I, like Pollan, had never killed another mammal. I had always been a sucker for “those hard-bitten, big-bearded American wilderness writers” whom Pollan both derides and extols, so I appreciated the honesty with which he critiqued the likes of Hemingway and Ortega y Gasset. Romanticizing blood sports obscures the reality of death and suffering. At the same time, for anyone on the inside of the hunting experience, there’s something essentially romantic about immersing oneself in the natural world, in search of prey.
Pollan also offers a variety of lenses through which I can consider my own motivations. I married into a family of sportsmen (and -women), which contributed to my desire to “harvest” a pig (to borrow the euphemism from my online hunting-safety course). But the experience also attracted me because, quite simply, I wasn’t sure if I could pull the trigger. As Pollan observes after his first failed attempt to bag a hog, I was “hungry for the experience, to learn whatever it had to teach me,” both about myself and about the natural world.
Pollan learns, among other things, that hunting forces one to consider life’s big questions.
“Here, I decided, was one of the signal virtues of hunting,” he says. “It puts large questions about who we and the animals are, and the nature of our respective deaths, squarely before the hunter.”
For even the least thoughtful sportsman, killing another animal forces one to consider one’s relationship with that animal and to confront the fact that death is an all-too-real part of life. It allows the meat-eater to see what must happen every time he or she takes a bite of steak or cheeseburger. The pre-packaged nature of our food obscures the realities that hunting and cleaning an animal so viscerally incarnate. To see the animal and feel the unease of death is to reconnect with a process that our industrialized economy has hidden, a process that responsible consumers must understand before it is accepted or rejected.
None of this crossed my mind that morning. It’s one thing to think philosophically in a tree stand on a calm summer evening. It’s quite another to consider life, the universe, and everything with game in sight. The neurons that happened to be firing were consumed by simultaneously breathing and holding the scope’s reticle on target.
Two explosions erupted the moment I squeezed the trigger. A literal explosion occurred three inches from my nose, but I remember most vividly the explosion of the herd. The terrified squealing was louder and more disturbing than the .308 round. The small clump of hogs expanded into a frenzy of black, brown, and spotted blurs running back and forth across my field of vision in a desperate search for safety. Some of them were too afraid, apparently, to know in which direction to run.
Once the herd dispersed, I spotted a black mass lying about 50 yards from where I stood. I felt nearly as spooked as the pigs, so I circled around beside it, for fear it might spot me and charge. The pig, I soon saw, couldn’t move its back legs. It was still breathing, lying perfectly still, and looking right at me.
I’m a child of Walt Disney, which means I anthropomorphize animals just about as naturally as I breathe. I didn’t hear the pig speak (thank God), but I knew exactly what he was thinking. The pain and fear I saw in his eyes made me wonder what, exactly, I thought I was doing alone in the woods in the middle of the night dumbly holding a rifle. I’m supposed to be asleep in bed; this animal is supposed to be rooting around under an oak tree. Why had I ventured into this space and destroyed what should have been another peaceful night?
I shot him again, in the vitals this time rather than the backbone, and he died within seconds. Listening to the breath wheeze out of his lungs, I wasn’t sure if I could answer the question his living eyes had posed a moment before.
“Every good hunter is uneasy in the depths of his conscience when faced with the death he is about to inflict on the enchanting animal,” Ortega y Gasset wrote in Meditations on Hunting.
Feral hogs are not enchanting, of course. Feral hogs are gross. They’re ugly and dangerous and, in enough numbers, destroyers of natural habitats. But I felt Ortega’s unease nonetheless. Witnessing the death of another living creature — a creature I had killed — was a profoundly uncomfortable experience that no amount of adrenaline could erase.
This is not to say that I wasn’t also proud in the hours and days that followed. I had done the thing I set out to do. I had pulled the trigger, and over a year later my wife and I are still working our way through the 87 pounds of meat I “brought home.” Wild game is also antibiotic-free, and, provided the right equipment and expertise, hunting is cruelty-free. Killing a feral hog allowed me to avoid the kind of industrialized agriculture that so often treats animals as commodities, and my wife and I have since used that responsibly “raised” meat to cook delicious breakfast sausage and butter-glazed pork chops.
But even though I’ve been hunting many times since that night, my unease hasn’t diminished, and I know I’m not alone. Only 6 percent of the U.S. population hunts, but a full 79 percent of Americans support the practice. Why such a disparity? Urbanization is the biggest culprit, but what if those who support without participating simply feel squeamish about killing anything more evolved than a cockroach?
I was lucky enough to have a framework within which to understand my first hunting experience. Pollan’s thoughtful testimony helped me see the deaths that feed my meat-eating habits: If I’m willing to consume grocery-store meat, I should be even more willing to consume meat from an animal that wasn’t raised on a factory farm. Others haven’t been as fortunate, and their discomfort with killing could be keeping them from getting out into the field.
To make matters worse, the mainstream hunting community rarely discusses the unease new hunters feel. To admit such a thing sounds too much like a PETA promotion, so we pretend like the only natural response to killing an animal is the grin that accompanies an Instagram photo. An emotional response one way or the other doesn’t dictate the ethical nature of hunting, but if hunters want to provide an inviting atmosphere for our country’s diverse demographics, they must incorporate the reactions of hunters who didn’t grow up harvesting their own meat.
Hunter recruitment doesn’t concern just the armies of camo-clad men, women, and children who clamber into tree stands every fall. The 11 percent excise tax levied on hunting gear funds a large portion of each state’s wildlife-conservation budget, money that helps preserve habitats and species that all Americans enjoy. As the number of hunters declines owing to increased urbanization, state agencies across the country are frantically working to recruit new hunters in an effort to maintain the funding necessary to protect wildlife and the environments they need to survive.
Acknowledging the discomfort inherent in hunting — and providing a way for new hunters to understand that discomfort — is a crucial part of (re)growing the hunting population in the United States. Hunting can change how a person understands animals, food, and death itself, but those realizations won’t happen if Ortega’s unease isn’t recognized as a valid response to downing a trophy buck. As longtime outdoor writer Pat Durkin pointed out earlier this year, hunting needs to become a bigger tent — that includes those of different races, genders, and emotional reactions.
The increased participation of people from demographics that are not traditionally given to hunting offers reason to hope. State wildlife agencies are looking for hunters who “don’t fit the traditional mold,” by advertising in urban areas, on college campuses, and at farmer’s markets, with the goal of capitalizing on the locavore movement, of which Pollan himself is a part. They’ve found hunters who hunt not for the trophy or the bragging rights but for the experience of connecting with nature, harvesting their own food, and gaining a better understanding of life and death.
If those individuals can be brought on board in a way that respects their unique reactions to killing an animal, hunting in the U.S. stands a chance of a comeback.