On a cold morning last fall at my parents’ house in rural Montana, I stumbled downstairs for a glass of water. I reached for the faucet and saw a deer heart in the sink. My stomach lurched at the sight of the large, maroon organ against stainless steel — a muscle designed for constant motion now sitting still. But I knew what it meant: My father came back from another successful hunt.
This wasn’t Dad’s First Kill. He started at 9, and in the six decades since he’s killed hundreds of animals. There’s a wide variety of life on the Smith cattle ranch, from badgers to weasels to antelope to black bears. All are welcome — even the coyotes that prowl the edges of the fields and yip in the night. Until they are not: That’s when my father’s .300 Savage comes out.
In a voicemail to me, he dutifully listed all his victims by species and respective body count. He’s killed for practical reasons: dying calves in need of mercy; rattlesnakes rattling near his kids. He’s killed for sport: deer, moose, antelope, and elk. He ended the call with: “And then there’s the birds. Do you want to get into the birds?” One of his first kills was a sparrow shot by a bb gun and then roasted by my grandmother. The tiny breasts were about a bite each. For the sake of Jonathan Franzen, I’m not going to get into the birds.
By contrast, unless you count bugs or classify a recklessly driven Honda Accord as a murder weapon, I have killed a grand total of zero animals.
The 8-year-old me would be disappointed to hear this. For much of my childhood, I longed to hunt. I counted down the years until hunter safety classes. I sucked the marrow from bones that came from animals my family had raised or caught.
But as I grew older, our culture’s squeamishness with killing animals for food seeped in, and my own hypocrisy grew. When I was 9, a babysitter put on Bambi for all of the neighbor kids while our parents were out hunting. Moms and dads loaded with fresh venison returned to a room full of tiny anti-hunting advocates. I turned my nose up at gamey family dinners and begged my dad to not shoot does. By age 10, I disavowed my plans to hunt over a greasy slice of pepperoni pizza.
In my early 20s, I spent a year as a vegetarian. My vegetarianism worried my parents, and they brought coolers of beef on visits to Seattle in hopes of tempting me. But I couldn’t justify meat eating on just family trade and tradition. The human race has a rich history of doing bad things and using tradition as an excuse to continue doing them. See: slavery, female subjugation, religious persecution. Cultures can be cruel. Parents are often wrong.
Still, even though the usual vegetarian literature had a large effect on my thinking, I never felt a true aversion to so-called happy meat. The fact that the planet as a whole needs to eat far less (and far better) meat was what put me off the stuff. So when my boyfriend saw the contents of my freezer for the first time and said, “I don’t think we’re vegetarians anymore,” I quietly slipped back into meat eating. I had beef from some of the happiest cows in Montana right there, so what was stopping me? Now that I’m back on the meat wagon, I’ve considered learning how to hunt. But I’m still not sure if I could pull the trigger when the time came.
Here’s the thing, though: If you’re going to eat meat, it’s hard to find a source as ethically and environmentally sound as venison. Deer depend on open spaces for sustenance. We’ve wiped out most of their natural predators to the point that an overabundance of deer threatens the balance of Eastern forest ecosystems. And when it comes to dying, a quick shot is kinder than slow starvation, or the messy violence of the aforementioned Honda Accord.
And death comes no matter what. As hunter Ryan Graves opines in the (excellent) podcast Here Be Monsters, “The fact that most people haven’t seen somebody die — and everybody dies — doesn’t that sound weird? There’s people who haven’t seen an animal die. … It’s frustrating that there’s such a stigma around death. It’s as important as birth.” With venison, the life of the animal is evident in every bite: the toughness of an old buck who spent his life dodging hunters, the tenderness of a fawn who never caught on to the dangers of the world, or the stringiness of a doe who fell during a hard winter.
By contrast, the flavor of farm animals has been bred out. We raise millions of acres of corn to fatten them up. Once our cattle leave the ranch for the Midwest, grassy notes of alfalfa fade out; anyone who has tasted grass-fed beef vs. the supermarket variety can tell the difference. And then there is the cruelty: Male chicks are ground up alive, and some hogs never see natural light. Industrial agriculture denies the animal side of the animal, whether in bland nuggets or in debeaking crowded egg hens. Death is made terrible through a system that erases the individual in favor of factory logic and precision.
Bad deaths in hunting look much different. A few days before my dad’s successful hunt, he shot a buck from a hundred yards in the icy slough on the edge of our property. The animal went down hard, and my father was sure that it was dead or dying. But then the buck tried pulling himself to his feet. His back looked broken. Hooves struck out and slipped. Blood spread on the white ground. In earlier years, my father would have immediately taken another shot to end the awful scene. But now my dad was worried he might just wound the deer again, so he moved quickly on the buck to deliver the killing blow.
Suddenly, the deer was on his feet and gone. This was not the alternate tale of Bambi’s father; the buck didn’t slip off to nuzzle fawns and warn of orange vests. This was a wounded animal in the Montana cold. My father searched the brush for hours. He wanted to finish the death he started. He didn’t find the deer.
If the other Smiths are right and meat is indeed murder, then my father qualifies as a serial killer. But that didn’t keep him from beating himself up. Most hunters pass down a sense of responsibility that’s just as critical as gun safety or jerky recipes. There are exemptions, of course, including poachers who slaughter elk herds and leave them to rot in the meadows. But not my dad: He obsessively described the scene, softened, and tore into himself again. While the deer might have survived, it was still enough to make my father question whether he was too old to hunt.
But last fall’s heart in the sink meant he returned to that field, and he will return this fall. He found a resolution, but I don’t know that I ever found mine. In my memory of that morning, I’m still not sure if my stomach turned from confronting the bloody reality of eating animals, or from knowing I should have been in the field beside my father, quietly learning the importance and trade of a quick death.
I do know this: I’d rather have more in common with the creatures in the woods that maim and kill than with a person who eats factory farmed meat while ignoring the industrial cruelty that enables it. So I’ll seek out those good deaths where I can find them, and turn to vegetables where I can’t.
Speaking of good deaths: My dad dropped the owner of that heart with one shot. Later in the day, we stood in the yard and looked down at his kill. It had been breathing and wild and running hours before. Now it lay gutted and still. My dad said how thankful he was to the animal as blood seeped into the snow in the yard and the dogs looked on longingly.
That evening in the living room, I overheard my father on the phone carrying on about the hunt, how his own heart raced when the deer stepped into the field.
“What a beautiful buck,” he said. “I’m sorry I had to shoot the handsome son of a bitch.”