18 November 2007

The hunted animal

A cold wind at the cleared lookout point at the top of the No. 1 Line track [1]. We sit, bundled in parkas, eating bier sticks, looking out over the headwaters of Matanganui Stream; we sit, studying the far mountainside, the slips and clearings, wondering whether we might see a deer [2] feeding in a sheltered place in the sun.

Whenever I've seen a deer among these mountains, something changes; the life already here seems to intensify. I remember how, years ago, I watched someone shoot a chamois [3] on a wild mountainside near the Whitcombe Pass, in the Southern Alps. As the echoes of the gunshot faded, something essential seemed to vanish from the mountain. A life taken, another kind of life diminished.

Yet many would have applauded the act—those who argue for the destruction of introduced ungulates as well as those who hunt and would have respected the clean shot. Chamois were introduced to New Zealand's South Island 100 years ago; my ancestors arrived here only a few decades earlier, roughly the same time red deer were released. How long must you inhabit a place before you're accepted? How do you earn the right to call a place home? Is it a matter of time, or of engagement? What you cannot escape is that while you might call this your home, others might refuse you that right.

I cinch the parka hood tighter against the wind. High up, near the crest of the range, among the snowgrass on a small spur, a clearing in the leatherwood — a form, a colour, the possibility of a deer, bedded down for the afternoon. A deer or wishful thinking? An animal or its imagined form? I don't know. I'll never know. I'm 75% sure it is a deer, but later I'll think back and say I'm 75% sure it's not.

It doesn't matter. Deer do live there, in the basin, among the low, scrubby bush, coming out at night, at unpredictable times to feed on the open slips, the erosion scars, the edges of the feeder streams. You see their trails; if you make your way over there — a mission — you'll find their shit, the trampled and eaten-out understorey here and there. You'll sense their lives, the life of the constantly hunted animal, fear on the edge of need, unrelenting vigilance. To see them you need great skill, long experience, an eye for the out-of-place, a sense of imminent encounter. And luck.

And, always, they'll see you first.

This is the life of the hunted animal.

1. I took Rob up the track for a bit of exercise and to show him what I could of where I live. The weather didn't allow much more than that. We did climb Knights Track to the top of the Ngamoko Range the next day, but ended up trudging through snow, in a howling gale, inside the cloud, visibility down to about 100 metres. The tarn on top had frozen solid; icicles hung from the small bank by the edge. Wild and wonderful—and the antithesis of the forecast.
2. Red deer, Cervus elaphus scoticus, are the most abundant of the seven species of deer in New Zealand (excluding moose, which no one has seen for decades and which might or might not still survive in Fiordland). All deer in New Zealand were introduced here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and are now considered destructive pests by some, magnificent game animals by others, and a resource by farmers and commercial hunters. Some people recognise they're all those things and more.
3. Chamois (usually pronounced "shammy" by NZ hunters), Rupicapra rupicapra, were introduced here in 1907 and spread rapidly throughout the Southern Alps.
Forsyth and Clarke (2001) point out that environmental damage caused by chamois is unknown although presumed to occur in some plant communities [Forsyth DM, Clarke CMH 2001. Advances in New Zealand mammalogy 1990–2000: Chamois. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 31(1): 243–249. Online pdf (840 Kb) ].

1. Near the top of the No. 1 Line track, a week or so ago.
2. I photographed this chamois in Arthurs Pass National Park in early 2004. The photo's heavily cropped, as I didn't have the big lens, and — of course — the chamois had bedded down in a spot almost impossible to stalk. That's his summer coat.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor


vegetablej said...

"How long must you inhabit a place before you're accepted? How do you earn the right to call a place home? Is it a matter of time, or of engagement? What you cannot escape is that while you might call this your home, others might refuse you that right."

Very moving and apt, whether for ancestors, deer, or people trying to make their way in a new country. Would that here were more appreciators and fewer hunters.

zhoen said...


peregrina said...

Pete, this is an apt post on a day when the morning paper has news of a helicopter hunting company's application* to the Department of Conservation for a concession to fly hunting missions over large tracts of Crown land in the South Island. The plan is to buzz at low levels (30m - 160m) looking for tahr, chamois, deer and goats, drop clients off to shoot them, then come back later to pick up the people and dead animals.

This comes soon after news of the controversy about the so-called safari hunt where an Arab sheikh was shown photographed with his "trophy" - a former breeding stag called Brusnik that had been sold for about $80 000 to a game estate where wealthy overseas clients go to bag animal heads to decorate their walls. Brusnik was described as having an "eat out of your hand" personality. We'd probably never have known about this guaranteed-prize-for-everyone type of safari in NZ if there hadn't been what the newspaper's headline described as a "balls-up" over the stag's testicles, which are now the subject of litigation. They weren't sold with the rest of the animal, and when the stag was shot were supposed to have been certified at harvesting and returned to the former owner so that the semen could be extracted and frozen for future use - reportedly it would have been worth $100 000 or more.

I feel as you do. "A life taken, another kind of life diminished." Recently I stayed somewhere in the
back country where the mounted head of a tahr hung on the wall. It was such a beautiful creature and I found the display of its deliberate death so disturbing that I tried to keep my eyes turned from it. I know these introduced animals can damage our native vegetation, but I'd still so much rather it had been left alive on the mountains where its long hair could stream in the wind alongside the wind-tossed tussocks.


*Prepared by - how ironical is this?- another company called Natural Solutions for Nature, Ltd.

burning silo said...

The deer that wander across our farm are very elusive. I expect it's because they are hunted on a couple of the neighbouring farms. I don't see them that often -- usually a snap of a twig, then the sound of a leaping creature plunging through the brush as it flees into one of the less accessible areas of our land. It must be a strange existence to always feel that one is hunted.
Re: Peregrina's comment about these "hunting" outfitters. Hard to call such a thing "hunting". More like shooting fish in a barrel. No "sport" to that.

Theriomorph said...

Wow. Beautiful post, Pete - I especially love the language you've given about deer and vigilance.

"Natural Solutions for Nature, Ltd." ?! Sick madness. Mad sickness.

pohanginapete said...

VJ: I thought that would strike a chord with you, after hearing the comments by butuki and you a couple of posts ago. However, I will point out that “more appreciators and fewer hunters” can be a contradictory statement. Some of the most appreciative and thoughtful people I know are also hunters (I know that's a difficult concept for many people, but believe me, it's true), and it's also easy to find people whose appreciation is highly selective — only what's indigenous is to be appreciated (and that opens up a can of worms (we have introduced as well as native worms here, too, BTW)). But I understand what you mean — the stereotypes on both sides didn't arise from nothing.

Hi Zhoen. Is Moby a hunter? I know he's an appreciator.

Peregrina: Ha! I cracked up when I read about the “balls-up” over the testicles ;^D
Try as I might (not that I am), I'm simply unable to put myself in the position of someone who gets a buzz out of killing an animal that would have come trotting over so you could feed it. To use Theriomorph's phrase, that's “sick madness”, and it's primarily about the ethics of the killer. I suppose it could be argued that it's a good use of “a resource”, but that requires the sort of subject-object mindset that's responsible for much of the world's degradation. I'm pretty sure it's the same mindset that allows someone to kill an animal in this manner (you'd have to think of it as an object and nothing more).

I see I'm perilously close to a rant. Interesting you should mention tahr, as they're an even better example of how attitudes towards introduced animals have polarised.

Bev, I know exactly what you describe — that sudden sound, perhaps a glimpse, the crashing away into silence. Standing there, listening intently, peering in the direction of the last-heard sound; intensely alive.
Shooting fish in a barrel would be a lot harder, I think. It gets worse, though. Apparently, someone in the US set up a website where you pay for access to remote controlled rifles so you can shoot at deer with the click of a mouse button. Even Theriomorph's phrase falls short of characterising that.

Theriomorph: Thanks — glad you appreciated it. I'm off into the Ruahine now for a couple of nights. Maybe I'll even arrive back with a photo of a deer.

butuki said...

Back in July there a report from Spain of a group of hunters who had gleefully set out and shot the last remaining wild European brown bear...

A few days ago the Japanese whaling fleet set out to hunt 950 humpback whales, with just about no one protesting here. I came home that evening to a commercial on TV for canned whale meat...

And on my way walking to work the other morning I came across a jungle crow strung up by its neck on a bamboo pole in the midst of some tiny bean field, so as to shoo other crows away. I was so shocked that I couldn't keep walking, just staring at it as if it were some kind of bait for a trap...

I don't know... why is it that everyone doesn't feel some deep stirring when anything is killed or persecuted? Why isn't life valued above all other treasures? It is strange to see a documentary about all the "invasive species" here in Japan, the almost spitting disdain for introduced species lives, but then never even a single word about how people themselves are not native to most of the places they inhabit. If we count ourselves among the populations of earth's creatures and think of ourselves as natural then all this redistribution is completely natural; it is only our fixed notions of how a place "should" be that gets a vigorous shake.

pohanginapete said...

Miguel, it's a huge topic that leads to things like ethics, pluralism, relativism, and many other ~isms. I suspect (sadly) there are many people who would struggle just as hard to understand why anyone should feel so strongly about a dead crow — after all, they're common and they eat my crops so what's the big deal about killing one? There's the challenge: to understand someone else well enough to know how they can truly believe something that, to you, is inconceivable. I'm tempted to quote Nietzsche, who pointed out what he claimed was the error of having the courage of one's convictions: rather, he said, it's having the courage to challenge one's convictions. But I struggle to understand how he could hold many of his other beliefs, so maybe I won't quote him ;^)

vegetablej said...

Hi Pete:

Thanks for your comment and your nice words over on my blog. They are really appreciated.

You know my grandfather was a hunter, but in his generation killing a deer was a element of survival. He never killed for pleasure but to get food for his family, and he only killed at most one deer a year. Actually I think the government of Nova Scotia protects them; you have to have a license and then you can only get one. They probably control the number of licenses given out. I wonder do they do that in New Zealand?

I was never happy with killing, but if it's a matter of survival and done in a sustainable way, and the animals aren't endangered I can understand it. And I can also understand that hunters with knowlegde of woodcraft are careful and appreciative of nature.

Unfortunately there are also the idiots that drink and go into the woods for adventure but don't need the meat or have any respect for the animal it came from. In Nova Scotia many of them ended by killing each other. In my family I had an uncle who accidentally shot his brother and then later committed suicide. A really sad story all around. But he wasn't a bad person, just not that aware, I I don't think. It's a cautionary tale for putting guns in the hands of just anyone.

My empathy for deer, and other creatures, is pretty deep as we fostered a fawn (whose mother had died or been shot) when I was about 5 years old and I hand fed him, and loved him as a member of my family for the year we had him.

And I now have a feral cat, who is not so feral anymore. She doesn't live indoors but loves to sit on my lap at the computer when she visits inside.:)

I've wandered off the point, I think, but wanted to say that I think I understand what you meant in your comment.

pohanginapete said...

VJ, it certainly sounds as if you do understand the point. Yes, some hunters are as appreciative as anyone you'll meet, and there are also the other sorts — the sort I mentioned in the latest post (Over the Ngamoko).

In New Zealand the hunting of most deer requires little other than permission to shoot in an area. If it's administered by the Department of Conservation, it's generally a simple matter of getting a permit to hunt the area, an area being something like the entire Ruahine Range. It's free, too. Many hunters don't bother, particularly because it's not policed. I suspect the underlying reason for DOC's lackadaisical approach is that deer are mostly considered pests so the more people hunting them the better. That might change, because there's a review underway right now.

Some deer, and Himalayan tahr (which survive nowhere else in the world in the wild outside their native range), are "managed" more actively, but this is still rudimentary by game management standards elsewhere.

Thanks for your thoughts, and congratulations on joining the "Blogs of Note"!