It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time
When a deer came into our vision several hours later, we both felt terrified and excited at the same time. We tried to get our cold mostly-numb fingers to work the rifles correctly, and shot at the doe. We both figured we’d never even come near it, since it was so far away. But when the deer took two more leaping steps and then fell down heavily, reality started to barge in.
As we stalked cautiously up to the deer lying on the ground, wondering what we’d done, the queasiness started to kick in. We had killed an animal, and it was now lying dead before us. The next bit was to field dress the deer… an unpleasant job in the best of times. And not one either of us kids wanted any part in.
We each fervently denied being the one who killed the deer. “Nope, my shot was way wide,” I said. “There’s no way I shot that deer,” I proclaimed. My cousin denied with equal vehemence that he hadn’t shot it, either. Neither of us wanted responsibility for the death of the innocent animal that seemed to be staring accusingly at us with its blank eyes.
Fortunately, my dad had heard the shots from where he was hunting and came running, so my cousin and I didn’t have to stare, wide-eyed and clueless, at each other and the dead animal for long. Dad tried to hand us the knife to field dress the big doe, but we both turned green and rapidly backed away, hands up saying “no no no.” This hadn’t been part of the bargain. We weren’t actually supposed to be SUCCESSFUL?!?
Neither my cousin nor I went hunting ever again. In fact, several years after that, I went almost 100% vegetarian, and have been mostly veggie ever since.
You may think this is a strange situation for North America, but deer hunting is a powerful tradition in Wisconsin. Everyone does it. Or at least, everyone is involved in it, or knows about it. So, when I turned 12, when they allow you to go to “deer hunting safety” classes, I went.
Of Wisconsin’s six million inhabitants, over 600,000 don blaze-orange winter wear and participate in deer-gun-hunting season every year. Yep, more than 10% of all the people living within Wisconsin hunt deer every year. Easily half of people in Wisconsin eat family- or friend-hunted venison every year.
The traditions surrounding deer hunting are powerful as well. I had been helping butcher the deer my dad brought home every year since I was old enough to safely hold a knife. It’s what you do. Sure, the deer hanging in the garage is kind of weird, but it doesn’t seem all that weird when half of your neighbors do it, too.
In high school, half to two thirds of the students would be gone on the Friday before gun deer hunting season started. They would skip class so they could drive out to stay near their “hunting grounds.” They would leap out of bed at 4am the following morning to be in place when the season opened at 5am. Okay, maybe they wouldn’t leap, but the vast majority is in the forest by 5am.
Fast forward to this past week, while I am visiting Wisconsin in late November. I walk in to my parents’ house after a lovely lunch with a friend, to see Dad hacking chunks off the bone of the deer he shot the day before. Usually, cutting up the deer is a family-and-friend affair, with wax paper, knives, cutting boards and gobbets of venison flying everywhere. After all, everyone who helps gets to take some home, so even though it’s gruesome work it has its rewards. Plus, it’s social time.
This time, though, it’s just him, and he has hours of work ahead of him. I look at the meat, and then my hands. I think about the fact that I’ve been vegetarian for 15+ years. I look at the knife sitting on the table that my mom was using earlier. I think how weird it would be to help cut up the deer; I haven’t done that in years.
Sure, I eat chicken and fish sometimes, and I do eat a little family-hunted venison when I can get it, but… I’m 95% veggie, for economical, health, sustainability and humanitarian reasons. I can’t help butcher a deer! … or can I? I’ve always considered wild-caught meat, especially venison, in a different category. I look at the meat, and the knife, and I sit down uneasily at a cutting board.
I look my dad in the eyes and I say: “I’m not sure how long I can do this, or whether I can handle it, but I’m going to try.” He starts to say his usual line to deer-cutter-upper-helpers of “cut off whatever you wouldn’t want to eat…” but then falters, and laughs, realizing that that line won’t work with a vegetarian. The main goal, other than getting the meat off the bones and into cookable and edible pieces, is to cut away the gristle and fat. I know what he means, and I laugh, too, and get to work.
In the end, I helped butcher the deer for an hour or two, reliving my short career as a hunter, and longer career as venison butcher. After that I felt overwhelmed by the situation, and started to feel nauseous, and wandered off to think about it. It took me several weeks to process it enough to actually write it down, but here it is, so I hope you enjoyed my starring role as The Vegetarian Butcher!