Monday, November 11, 2013

The Bambi Debate

Deer season begins and so does the annual debate about hunting. I listen carefully to this argument because my own feelings have changed over the years. When I lived in Washington, DC it was very easy to have disdain for hunting and hunters. But when I moved to upstate New York I got a crash course in rural living. There were wild animals in my back yard. My neighbors had dead deer hanging from porches. I was horrified. But when I learned that my neighbors depended on hunting for food, I had to examine my facile city-girl opinions.

Because I’ve lived on both sides of this game I have my own totally subjective rules for who gets to play. First, if you eat meat, you don’t get to debate. I mean, how arrogant can you get? If you eat steak or hamburger and you object to hunting, you are arguing about style not substance. What you are preserving is your right to act fussy and squeamish about seeing an animal carcass. Believe me, steaks and hamburgers have carcasses too.

Hunters don’t get off easy in my book either though: they need to clean up their language. Let’s lose the word “harvest”. This bizarre euphemism isn’t fooling anyone. Deer are mammals, not carrots.  Playing word games to obscure killing is not necessary. After all, we kill human beings all the time: in war, in our criminal justice system and with our cars.  Linguistic obfuscation always heralds a lie. Remember “advisors” in Viet Nam?

One factor that confuses our debate is that we roll all hunters together when we talk about the problems. There are 750,000 registered hunters in New York this year, but there is no prototypical hunter. There are some, like my former neighbors, who hunt for the food their families depend on. Then there are the sportsmen who love the equipment and the ritual. There’s another group for whom hunting is about having an all-guy get away with porn and beer and shooting guns. Then there are the city guys up for the weekend, who, in their Hemingway-esque fantasies, may be the most dangerous people in the woods.

Some hunters are responsible and sane, and others are rude, drunk and dangerous. We need to be specific about which hunter we are talking about when we complain, and we also need the responsible hunters to police their comrades a whole lot better.

Because I know how emotionally charged hunting talk can get I decided to look at the essential document in this debate: I downloaded Bambi. There, in Disney’s anti-hunting polemic, are the images that underlie our emotional conflict. I’ve seen this movie several times, but watching it again I gasped when Bambi’s mother is shot, and I cried at Bambi’s, “Mama, where are you?”  Most of us were babies when we saw this baby animal’s parents get killed. You don’t need Freud to analyze this.

The real issue is hard to put into words. You can hear just how inarticulate both sides become when we talk about the hunting mentality. And those who don’t hunt are quick to add,  “Ah, hunting is so primitive and barbaric.”  Well, it is, but we’ve got tons of leftover “barbarism” in our culture. Gardeners may be the most common “throw-back”. Few of us need to grow flowers but we say, “ I need to get my hands in dirt”.
It’s very easy to think of hunting as evil, but it’s part of our nature. Wasps hunt and owls hunt, lions hunt and so do humans. When children play hide-and-seek they are hunting, and the bargain hunter is, in fact, that.

Perhaps what troubles us most in this debate is not whether we shoot animals, but that, whether we like it or not, hunting reveals the animal in the man and the long ago past that is still at the heart of our human condition.

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