Are they wild animals or are they pets?
October 11, 2006
“The summer’s over, girls,” I said as I swung off my horse. A mule deer doe and her two fawns stood 30 feet off the trail, placidly looking at me. Our horseback riding clients had delighted in seeing these beautiful animals all summer, and the deer had gotten habituated to people.I picked up a rock the size of a hen’s egg and hucked it at the mama deer. It thumped her in the butt, and the three of them ran off, startled. “Yup, the archery hunters are coming,” I called after them. “They’ll shoot does if you make it easy for them.”I write this anecdote because of a letter that appeared in the Aspen dailies a few weeks ago. A fellow from Montrose was questioning the hunting regulations that allowed a hunter to shoot a bighorn ram near the Maroon Bells. He complained that the ram had obviously gotten habituated to humans, and questioned whether the monetary value of the sheep was greater as a photo subject for hikers than as a trophy for some hunter to take home.When I was 10 years old, I learned not to name anything I wanted to eat. We had a milk cow, and I was the only one in the family who could milk the cow. I came home from school one day to find her lying on the ground giving birth to a black calf. I pulled the calf by looping a rope around his emerging hooves and giving several big heaves, and “Rascal” came into the world. He was a fantastic animal, with a sense of humor and play, a curiosity about the world, and he was very, very gentle. He liked to eat cherries out of our hands, and we spoiled him. He was a sleek, beautiful steer, but at 1,100 pounds, a big, dangerous pet.When Rascal went to the slaughterhouse, my sister was traumatized for weeks. She practically became a vegetarian overnight. She still doesn’t eat much red meat. There are lots of you out there who have made pets out of your local wildlife. Be it squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, deer, coyotes, fox, elk or even bears – you know who you are. You’ve talked baby talk to them, you’ve taken pictures, you’ve set out food, and you’ve given them names.Now that you’ve insinuated yourself into their natural habitat, fed them (which is illegal), and named them, you’re going to be extremely pissed off if a hunter harvests them.Don’t be. You don’t have any more right to that animal than a hunter. The hunter has undergone a training course that teaches safe firearms handling and ethical hunting. He is obligated by law to use the meat. He often donates some of his harvest – which is, by the way, totally organic, rich in vitamins, steroid-free, hormone-free, low in cholesterol and very tasty – to feed the less fortunate. Quite often, he’s paid a lot of money for hunting licenses to support our wildlife agencies and purchase habitat, which I know you haven’t done.Often I talk to people who shy away from horseback riding or hiking on established trails during hunting season. This is ludicrous. On average, there is one death a year in Colorado during hunting season, and for about the same number of participants, there are usually about 15 dead skiers and snowboarders a year in the state of Colorado. Are you afraid to go skiing?Both sides have their detractors. Some hunters are unethical. They trespass on private property, shoot over their limits, and leave a mess behind. Then again, there are the homeowners who let their dogs run deer and elk until they collapse from exhaustion, and we all know about the speeding drivers who mangle animals with their cars. (I found a red-tailed hawk dead on the road last night – how fast must that driver have been going?)But let’s talk about that bighorn ram. The hunter was one of my hunting guides, Ian McLendon, who is also a good friend of mine. He is as ethical as anyone who has ever taken to the field in pursuit of game. Ian applied for a license for six years before finally drawing a tag, for which he paid $250. Ian scouted for several weeks prior to the hunt, spending as many days as he could at high elevation. He hunted hard for two weeks before finally locating the ram at 12,300 feet, and was stunned to see a hiker standing 75 feet from the ram taking pictures of the animal.Ian politely waited until the hiker moved on, and made a killing shot on the animal. He and his hunting partner then packed every bit of meat out on their backs, carrying 100-pound loads across rocky scree slopes. Ian was lucky. He drew a tag in only six years and paid only $250 for the tag, and hunted on his own. Many hunters wait up to 15 years for a tag and many states charge up to $2,000 for a license. A quick check of the Internet says that guided sheep hunts are going for anywhere from $6,000 to $18,000. As a professional photographer, I can tell you that it’s hard to justify paying that much for a photo shoot.I’ve been to places like Mount Evans in Colorado, where I saw a skinny, malnourished-looking bighorn ram standing on the side of the road, begging bread crusts, apples and lettuce from the tourists. I once saw a coyote wandering through heavy traffic down the middle of the road in Yosemite, and I couldn’t for the life of me fathom a coyote behaving that way, until I realized he was begging for scraps of Subway or Burger King.Whether you like to take pictures of wild animals or hunt them with a rifle or bow, you have one obligation: To let wild animals be wild. If anyone should be chastised for their behavior, it’s the hikers who didn’t pick up a rock and teach that ram to be wild again.