Should Kids Hunt?

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First day of gun season: sky lowering gray, trees like dark iron. Pickups tucked in the bushes along dirt roads. Men, bulky with layers under hunter's fluorescent orange, have slipped into the forest and up the ridge. Now and then from the interior, a dull, concussive pop!

The leaves are down and wet enough to muffle bootsteps. Color gone from everything, except from larches and pines and, if it counts as color, the chipped-porcelain white of birches, ghosty in November dusk. It is just cold enough and bleak enough to call up a tribal recollection: an imminence of winter death in the air and desperation for warm meat to survive--the Neolithic memory that makes hunting poignant.

Beside a dead maple, my neighbor from the next farm, Mark Shepard, cradles a Remington .280 rifle. I am a spectator today. So is Mark's son Glenn, 14. Glenn, a crack shot, has hunted turkey and pheasant with shotguns and deer with bow and arrow. But in New York State, he cannot legally go after deer with a gun until he is 16. That doesn't matter today. Glenn is excited but silent, testing the wind with a wet finger, flicking his eyes through the woods like any good hunter, alert to motion.

The Shepards do not discuss it much, but they have taken sides in a simmering national argument. The question before the house, as the deer season bangs on in the rural background this Thanksgiving week, concerns the morality and future of hunting--and specifically whether children, who are its future, should be taught to hunt. Does it help them connect with their elders and the outdoors; to respect the power of weapons and the realities of life and death, as hunters believe? Or does killing animals, as hunting's opponents claim, damage young psyches, making children indifferent to suffering and ready to see deadly violence as acceptable behavior?

Parents and experts in child psychology have quietly debated these questions for years, but the volume is getting turned up by activists on both sides during this hunting season--the first since two troubled boys, 11 and 13, reared in Arkansas' culture of guns and hunting, used stolen weapons to kill or wound 15 of their teachers and classmates in Jonesboro last March. The indelible image left by that horror (published, among other places, on TIME's cover) is the picture of one of the killers, barely out of diapers, dressed in hunter's camouflage and toting a rifle.

In its mailings to school districts across the country, The Fund for Animals, based in New York City, points to the Jonesboro shootings and calls for an end to hunter education and safety courses in schools, which often are sponsored by state wildlife agencies with support from firearms manufacturers. "Hunting breeds insensitivity to the suffering of others, whether animal or human," says Susie Cutler, 39, a Porter, Ind., lawyer who demonstrates against hunters in a nearby state park. "You can look at some of the shooting rampages in schools--a lot of [these kids] were taught to hunt by adults. In their minds, killing is a viable option" in dealing with problems.

Animal-rights groups also object to the youth hunts now sponsored by some 40 states in hopes of teaching gun safety and attracting fresh recruits to a sport whose participants are aging and dwindling, a sport in danger of losing its place in our national life. Says Heidi Prescott, national director of The Fund for Animals: "Both sides are going after the same target: the kids."

Sometimes a society makes a tectonic shift, some great half-conscious collective decision. That happened with smoking, which was once, remember, a glamorous ritual of romance and adulthood. (Watch Casablanca and count the cigarettes.) It may be happening now with hunting. In 1997, the various states issued 14.9 million hunting licenses. Ten years earlier, the number was 15.8 million--not a dramatic change, but a trend. The average American hunter is white, male and 42 years old. Young people who once would have gone hunting naturally and casually in nearby fields and forests (as Glenn Shepard does) instead play soccer and go to the mall.

At one time hunting seemed heroic: a test of manliness, a mythic pageant, a recreational surrogate for war. Ernest Hemingway was savagely, sometimes childishly competitive for trophy animals. The '60s brought a shift, and Vietnam a sort of anti-Hemingway revulsion. Michael Cimino's 1978 movie The Deer Hunter ended with the hero lowering his rifle, declining to kill a good-looking buck that, before Vietnam, he would happily have slaughtered.

Or maybe a class-based aesthetic revulsion against hunting preceded Vietnam. Just after the election in 1960, Lyndon Johnson brought John Kennedy down to the L.B.J. ranch in Texas and, much to Kennedy's distaste, forced him to go out shooting deer. Urbanity recoiled at bloody, redneck crudeness. That's how the moment was interpreted at the time. Hunters belonged to the oaf class, Elmer Fudds who were dumb enough to be flimflammed by Bugs and Daffy: "Duck season! Wabbit season!"

The baby boomers now have children of hunting age; surely the approach many boomer parents take to hunting is colored by such influences long ago. The nation's culture wars--and the absence of big real wars as the theater of heroes--meanwhile have changed the balance of attitudes toward male and female virtues. Nurturer's virtues, in some circles, find it difficult to coexist with warrior's virtues--as if the nurturer now aspired to surpass the warrior in self-righteousness and sentimental hypocrisy.

Animal-rights activists talk as if hunting were a form of dope: an addiction that profits only the pushers. There's big money at stake, observes Wayne Pacelle, the senior vice president of the Humane Society. "If you hook a kid at 12, and he hunts till 60, how many guns and rounds of ammo have you sold?" And there's no doubt the gun manufacturers are concerned. They send books and videos into school classrooms to introduce kids to hunting and gun safety. And they encourage state wildlife officials to promote youth hunts, like the ones that kicked off hunting seasons in many regions over the past month.

Mckenzie Whitmer, 12, dressed stylishly in beads and hunter's cap, stares into a clot of sagebrush near the Feather River in Northern California. "Can I take the safety off now?" she whispers to her father. He nods; she readies her 20-gauge Remington shotgun, just the way the California department of fish and game taught her in the 10 hours of training required to get her junior license. The department this weekend has trucked in some 800 cackling, brilliantly colored pheasants and loosed them in the fields for a band of 250 young hunters. And now the Whitmers' German shorthaired pointer, Ticky, is frozen in the pose. He's found one of the birds--only a few steps away.

Someone kicks the sagebrush. A plump rooster pheasant squirts out, runs a few feet, then takes to the air. Mckenzie tracks him with her gun barrel. She squeezes the trigger. The bird crumples, hit cleanly. Grinning, the girl beats Ticky to the retrieve. She cradles the bird in her arms, admiring his bright green, red and white plumage. All she says, still smiling, is, "That was great!"

For Mckenzie, a seventh-grader in nearby Yuba City, and two girlfriends who took part in the hunt, it's another pleasant weekend diversion, like the soccer match they played the day before or the movie (The Waterboy) they will attend that afternoon. Talks with other young hunters underline one of the persistent dangers to the sport: its core constituency remains largely rural and small town.

The carnage of hunting looks impressive enough, or depending on your point view, horrifying. Every year in the U.S., hunters kill about 200 million animals. The toll includes 50 million doves, 25 million rabbits and squirrels, 25 million quail, 20 million pheasant, 10 million ducks, 2 million geese, 150,000 elk and 21,000 black bears. Some 4 million deer die at the point of hunters' guns and arrows; many thousands more die on the roads, killed by speeding cars. Hundreds of thousands more deer will die of starvation because there are too many of them with not enough food to get through the winter.

For America's hunting ground is shrinking: suburbs sprawl and farms get sold off for shopping malls. The real threat to wildlife is not hunters but rather loss of habitat, through pollution, farming and human sprawl. Friends of the Earth takes no position on hunting and finds it almost irrelevant to the group's environmental mission. Says spokeswoman Lynn Erskine: "The worst thing you can do to animals is to destroy their habitat."

Hunting, in fact, is the primary--and most humane--instrument of wildlife management in much of the country. In Colorado, the elk population has more than doubled in the past 20 years. Yet a building boom in the Rockies is shrinking the wild habitat and hunting grounds. So people in resort areas like Summit County pressure hunters to stay on public lands. In Maryland, whitetail deer, rare at the turn of the century, now number about 250,000; they cause an estimated $38 million a year in crop damage and nearly $10 million in other property damage. Unless the herds are brought under control by hunters, they cause auto accidents and the spread of Lyme disease through deer ticks.

Many people in rural America, just getting by, still depend on hunting for meat to fill the freezer. But mostly the country buys its meat in cling-wrap packages at Safeway and Winn-Dixie. "We've lost our connection to the land and the outside world," says Jerry DeBin, Alabama's coordinator of conservation education. "Most people don't even notice which way the wind is blowing today. The squirrel or deer may be eating more today because a change in the weather is coming, but we don't pay attention to these things anymore."

The link between the food on the plate and the living, breathing, warm-blooded creature (in the forest or in the commercial gulag-cum-slaughterhouse) is getting thinner by the year, to the point of metaphysical disconnect. The disconnect is a form of stupidity or of moral carelessness. How can anyone object to hunting but also eat meat raised in misery for the slaughterhouse? Who has clean hands? Surely not the consumers of the 38 million cows and calves, the 92 million hogs, the 4 million sheep and 7 billion chickens killed last year, to say nothing of the animals slaughtered to give us our belts, shoes, wallets, handbags, and fur coats. The saint, of course, may forsake meat and leather. But virtue always comes with its ironies. Hitler was a vegetarian.

How can someone love animals--cats, dogs, beasts of the field--and then shoot to death an animal as elegant as a deer or a dove? To answer the question, begin with the paradox of Teddy Roosevelt: America's greatest conservationist, creator of the national park system--and archtype Bambi killer. Roosevelt blazed away at all the animals of creation.

Consider a scene in his magnificent 1893 book, The Wilderness Hunter: one minute Roosevelt watches, with a benign Wild Kingdom-documentary fascination, as two rutting bull elk clash in the Bitterroot Mountains, with a third bull, whom Roosevelt calls "the peacemaker," trying to intervene, and the next minute, having made the reader see and almost love the animals and wish them well in the exuberant politics of their courtships, Teddy lifts his rifle and blows away all the bulls, dropping them one, two, three.

Then, with the carcasses still warm, he and his companions kindle a fire, carve choice pieces from an elk loin, and roast them on a willow stick. "We had salt; we were very hungry; and I never ate anything that tasted better." Teddy, the bulliest of the bull elk--armed, articulate, carnivorous--slept out among the stars that night with a conscience gloriously untroubled.

Roosevelt integrated the paradox of hunting--killing as part of a love of nature and of life. We, a century later, have separated it out and, being morally literal-minded, feel obliged to take a stand on one side of the paradox or the other.

Hunters tend to be a little defensive these days. They donate venison to homeless shelters. They shun confrontation with animal rightists--and lobby for laws to prevent activists from harassing them in the woods as they hunt. When hunters bring a buck home from the woods, they are less inclined to tie the carcass on the fender or luggage rack; they hide it under a tarp. The image of idiot hunters fueled by beer and bourbon and blazing away at anything that moves in the forest--sometimes firing from the cabs of pickups--has made many hunters sheepish. They have developed a sense of image and public relations. Any residual tendency toward the killer's swagger has been replaced by an official vocabulary that comes dangerously close to the touchy-feely.

David Knotts, executive vice president of the Colorado-based International Hunter Education Association, says, "Hunter education has evolved beyond safety to responsibility and ethics and wildlife conservation." Among the states, only Alaska lacks mandatory instruction; minimum instruction is usually 10 hours, and much of the teaching is devoted to the moral issues raised by hunting.

Patt Dorsey, who coordinates youth hunts for Colorado's division of wildlife, is concerned about the vast disconnection between hunters and nonhunters: "People who do not hunt do not have a feeling for what it involves." She claims to see a slow return to "the belief of the very early hunter-gatherers that if one bragged or displayed a killed animal, its spirit would come back and do terrible things."

Part of the change may be due to women. The number of women hunters has doubled in the past 10 years to 2.6 million. Some, like my neighbor in upstate New York, Karolyn Kern Shepard, Glenn's mother, are as fiercely competitive as men; Karolyn was taught to hunt by her father. But hunters' organizations claim the arrival of new women hunters, including a number of single mothers taking their children out, has dampened the trophy mentality. One woman in Alabama recently took up hunting and says it saved her marriage; she finally had something she and her husband enjoyed doing together.

Despite some highly publicized incidents each year--like the fatal shooting two weeks ago of a camouflaged hunter by a 13-year-old Wisconsin boy who mistook him for a squirrel--hunting's defenders point out that the sport is one of the safest outdoor activities, with fewer casualties than climbing or boating, for example.

But is hunting safe for children's minds and emotions? Does it, as Lisa Lange says, speaking for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, "teach children that life is not valuable?" A skeptic might observe that if anyone is teaching children in American society that life is not valuable, that teacher speaks through the media of television and movies and gangsta rap, not hunting.

To the contrary, Al Fehlman, a high school math teacher in Grand Junction, Colo., feels passionately that "there's something about hunting that nurtures my existence. There are many lessons about nature and life and death that can only be learned from hunting. Many plants and animals die daily to keep us fed, and hunting brings us into that process." Like many hunters, he teaches his son, 12, not to shoot anything he doesn't mean to eat. The hunting question always comes back to the Teddy Roosevelt paradox: Can we love animals and eat them? Can we love them and kill them?

Not far from Big Coon Creek, near the town of Skyline, in northeastern Alabama, Cedric Stephens, 13, and his father wait for two hours on a mountainside, leaning against a hardwood tree in a misting rain. Miserable hunting. Just as they are about to give it up, Cedric sees antlers coming toward him.

Cedric aims his father's .44 Ruger. Hesitates. His father has always told him to wait until the deer turns, so that he can have a clear shot at the side, through the heart and lungs just behind the foreleg. The buck senses their presence. Cedric swears the buck looks right at him. His father whispers, "Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!"

Cedric squeezes the trigger. The big buck drops a mere 28 steps from them: A nine-pointer with a 14-in. spread of antlers. It is the second largest buck killed in the statewide youth hunt that kicked off the deer season last weekend.

It was a good shot and a clean kill. The 50-odd lbs. of venison will make cube steaks, stews and sausages. Cedric wastes no time on the Bambi syndrome. But to associate him with a Jonesboro syndrome is an error of human intuition.

Terri Royster teaches a class in juvenile crime and behavior at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., and for years has studied correlations between childhood cruelty to animals and later criminal behavior. While many serial killers were found to have tortured animals as children, she says, she knows of no research that links hunting and violence against humans. "I can't think of any cases where hunting has been a factor." Similarly, Ronald Stephens, director of the National School Safety Center, created in 1984 to study violence in schools, has studied characteristics of children who kill at school, and says flatly that "the notion that anyone who hunts is violent is nonsense ... There is no reason in my view to condemn hunting."

Teachers and counselors report that kids who are taught to hunt responsibly are generally among the more mature and better-mannered--and saner--adolescents in the wilds of modern American culture. Cesario Guerrero, an agricultural-science teacher, leads kids from tough neighborhoods in inner-city Houston on hunting trips for deer and wild hogs and observes that these students often "become part of a different crowd" when they return. "It gives them a pride."

Lea Rose Leonard, a blond pixie and "hunter-in-training" who accompanies her father, a logger, when he hunts for food in northern Minnesota, reports that "my favorite part is taking time to wait and see what you're hunting for. Sometimes you have to wait a long time. You have to be quiet. You have to be patient." This from an eight-year-old.

Many young people probably feel more ambivalent about killing animals than they will let on when talking to strangers. Lea's uncle, Steve Leonard, for example, has nothing against hunting. But he gave up the sport at age 16 after he made a poor shot at a doe and only wounded it. "I had to shoot two more times to knock it down," he recalls, the regret still raw in his voice. "And when I got close, I saw it still wasn't dead, and I had to shoot it again in the head to stop its suffering."

I know people who hunted for a long time and then gave it up, or now hunt only with a bow and arrow, a more interesting challenge. But they do not, like the animal-rights advocates, get political about it. One friend of mine carries only a pistol with him when he walks in the woods; he uses it to administer the coup de grace to deer that sloppy hunters have merely wounded. For myself, I sometimes wish that hunting were catch-and-release, that, as I do when muskie fishing, I could somehow throw the deer back.

The Shepard males are on the ridge now, up at the place they call "the pretty spot." As in another great American pastime, baseball, there are long intervals of waiting, punctuated by sudden action. The beer louts don't know it, but the sweetest part of hunting is waiting: it produces a transcendent, settling clarity. A hundred yards off through the trees, a white tail flips; the doe hobby-horses off slow motion, away from us. No shot.

This morning, Mark's wife Karolyn, who has not missed an opening day in years, was stationed up on the mountain and allowed three spike-horned bucks, each bigger than the one before, to pass unharmed. The fifth or sixth was bound to be a monster, she thought. But the trend ended with Buck 3. The guys got nothing either. No one seemed to mind, and there was much teasing of Karolyn for taking a cell phone up the mountain along with her Winchester.

The Shepards live for hunting. Karolyn's family has been here in this valley since the 1700s. Her father was born in the farmhouse in 1908 and worked the land and enjoyed its venison steaks, sausages, chilis, stews, until he died in the house 88 years later. Now Glenn and his older brother, Daryl, off at college at the moment, are being reared as hunters. When Karolyn says, "This is our heritage," she speaks literally.