Hunting deer.

One of my work colleagues, Zac, is a hunter. In July 2017, I interviewed Zac to write a story I wanted to enter into a non-fiction writing competition. I wrote 3000 words and added in some photos of him butchering one of his kills. Not as gruesome as it sounds. It was just the hind leg that had been hanging up for a while in a big fridge. No blood. No guts.

The thesis of my story was that while most people are OK with fishing, not as many people are OK with hunting and hunters. I explored the fear of guns, the access to guns by non-hunters for crime or self-harm, animal welfare and our complicated relationship with killing animals for food. I contrasted factory-style meat production with the concept of ethical hunting.

Zac told me that he gets very polarised responses when he tells people about his hobby. He has been threatened when seeking permission from property owners to enter their land to hunt. On the other hand, some landowners are very keen to get rid of the Rusa deer that graze on their land.

Rusa Deer have become a big problem in the Illawarra region, as well as elsewhere in Australia. They are causing havoc in the Royal National Park, north of Wollongong and have been linked to several fatal car accidents along the Southern Freeway when they wander onto the verge.

There is some dispute between hunters, environmentalists and the local council about whether their numbers are increasing or whether they have just been pushed into a smaller range due to the residential development of the hinterland areas. Either way, their presence has become more obvious.

Deer are only part of the problem of introduced species in Australia. The coming of Europeans brought with them foxes, deer, rabbits, horses, water buffalo, mice, rats, cats, dogs, pigs, camels, goats, cane toads, carp, weeds of all sorts, honey bees, wasps etc etc etc.

These introduced species have had a disastrous impact on Australian ecosystems, already fragile due to the relatively harsh climate in parts and the long-isolated nature of our island home. Our little herbivorous animals were no match for the superior hunting skills of cats and foxes. Plants are trampled and watercourses sullied. In the absence of predators for the ferals, native species extinction has been an inevitable consequence.

There have been attempts to control these pest species, rabbits in particular, through diseases such as Myxomatosis and Calicivirus with limited success. Baiting is another less than perfect control method. Biological controls and sterilisation programs are costly and unlikely to work for all species.

Killing pest animals and using them as food would seem a good solution to the problem especially for the likes of deer, goats, rabbits and pigs as they are already items on the menu. This option, however, is not likely to occur any time soon.

Many people link hunting to rabid gun owners shooting anything that moves. We think hunting is cruel and that the animal will suffer. From the conversation I had with Zac, I don’t think this is always the case. He described that ethical hunters will only take a shot if they are certain they will have a good clean kill. That is if they can be sure they will hit the major artery in the neck which will lead to a quick death.

Zac spends as much time behind the camera as the rifle and he posts videos to his own YouTube channel. As with most things, there are some hunters who break the rules and act like idiots and give all hunters a bad name.

Australians, in general, are confused about hunting. This confusion rests I think, in our sanitised vision of meat production. Very few of us have been to an abattoir and witnessed sheep or cattle being killed and prepared for sale. We are happy to buy our meat in plastic trays but not happy with those who have the desire to harvest their own. If we eat meat We must be prepared to admit that an animal has died. Surely, killing an animal who has lived its life in freedom in the wild is better than killing one trapped in a shed? Where are the ethics in that? Our objection should then not be against hunters but against the industrialisation of meat production which turns animals into widgets.

On the other hand, would there be a market for these animals? In New South Wales it is illegal for hunters to sell the animals they kill for human consumption. They can give it away or consume it themselves but not sell it. I can understand some of the reasoning behind this in terms of public health and safety. Hunters may be able to kill the beasts but are they able to butcher, store and distribute meat safely and without risk of microbial contamination? Perhaps not, but a regulated and managed program of “harvesting” of wild caught game using licensed and trained hunters who deliver their carcasses to a central processing plant could work. It sounds a bit like commercial fishing, doesn’t it? No-one owns the fish. They are “wild”. They just get caught and brought to the fish markets. As consumers, we are even prepared to pay extra for ‘wild-caught’ fish.

The catch for feral mammals, however, is that if the industry became successful it would be self-limiting over time because beasts would be killed at a greater rate than they could breed. This would be the ultimate goal, to eradicate them from our fragile bushland and limit further native species extinction.

I am not sure where I stand. I don’t think I could kill a deer, but I have eaten venison and I do eat other meat. I have gone fishing then killed and eaten my catches. I am not sure what the difference is. Perhaps I am just fish-ist.