There is a point at which an animal stops being wildlife and starts being food.
For most of the animals we eat, that point occurred many thousands of years ago, when their ancestors were first domesticated, slowly altered from the wildlife they once were into the livestock they are today. But for those animals that have so far escaped becoming permanent fixtures of our modern agricultural machine, that point lies somewhere between the time you shoot it and the time you place it into a cooler with ice to keep from spoiling.
For me, it was about the time when the duck I killed was splayed in front of me, ready to have its feathers plucked.
On a chilly January morning, a pair of mallards sailed from left to right just a few dozen yards above me and my hunting mentor, Holly Heyser, as we sat inside a duck blind at the Howard Slough Unit of the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area, about 70 miles north of Sacramento.
I quickly raised a shotgun to my shoulder and disengaged the safety. I pointed the barrel of the gun toward the rightmost one of the pair. As the bird flapped across the sky, I traced its path with the muzzle of the gun for only a few milliseconds before slapping the trigger — twice — and launching a few hundred beads of steel hurtling through the air toward what I hoped would become dinner.
“You got it!” Holly shouted. I re-engaged the safety on my shotgun, placed it down and heaved myself out of the blind to retrieve my quarry, massive amounts of adrenaline still coursing through my veins.
Every hunter’s goal is to kill an animal as quickly as possible to limit the chances of suffering and as cleanly as possible to maximize the amount of usable meat. Turning the bloodied bird over in my hands, it appeared as if I’d achieved a clean headshot. Her eye was unresponsive; all signs pointed to dead. And the meat, at least as far as I could tell, was reasonably intact.
The closest I had ever come to harvesting my own food was picking from my grandparents’ fruit trees in an L.A. suburb. But now I was standing in a wetland in California’s Central Valley having acquired food directly from the wilderness for the first time in my life, just as most humans in every culture have for millions of years. She was the first wild animal I’d ever killed.
NEW TO THE GAME
Just three months earlier, I’d never even held a shotgun, and just a few months before that, I never considered the possibility of me — a 33-year-old, urban, liberal, Obama-voting science journalist in favor of stricter gun control — as a hunter. After all, I chose to become a wildlife reporter because I loved animals and loved telling their stories, not because I loved killing them. But recently I had begun to wonder whether hunting my own meat, rather than purchasing commercially raised meat at the supermarket, could actually result in a net reduction in animal suffering.
There is also something powerful about finding your way through nature and coming home with food. There is a challenge to it, a series of tasks that must be accomplished in order to revel in the deliciousness of the reward. Some brew their own beer, preserve their own jam, ferment their own kombucha or brine their own pickles. Some kill their own meat — or want to try to.
In order to hunt legally in the United States, you must first complete a course in hunter safety. In California, that means either a daylong classroom session or an online course followed by a shorter in-class follow-up, and an exam. If you pass the test, and also demonstrate an ability to safely load and unload a series of firearms, you are allowed to purchase a hunting license. Up to that point, it’s all quite straightforward.
And then what?
“Yeah, that’s the big question,” says Heyser, communications director for the California Waterfowl Association (CWA). Some 30,000 people each year complete a hunter education course in California, she says, but only two-thirds of them on average buy a hunting license within a year. Nobody really knows how many actually head into nature with a plan to shoot something.
Becoming a proficient hunter requires many hours of practice and a tremendous amount of know-how. But unlike other endeavors, the ethical stakes simply feel different. Weightier. Trial and error just doesn’t cut it when animal suffering is on the line. They say that success is born from failure, but when failure could mean wounding rather than killing an animal, the barrier to entry can seem insurmountable.
“For most people, your dad and your uncle pick you up on Friday afternoon and they drive you to the woods,” says Clark Blanchard, assistant deputy director for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Office of Communications, Education and Outreach. “But absent that, it can be pretty daunting. ‘Where do I go? Am I in the right area? What am I looking for?’ And [if an animal] wanders out in front of you and you shoot it, then what do you do?”
“Once you start hunting, you need help,” Heyser says. And new hunters — especially those coming from more politically liberal communities — may actively avoid discussing it with their friends and families for fear of social rejection. That can make it even more difficult to seek out what Heyser calls a “surrogate hunting family.”
That’s why organizations like CWA offer a variety of weekend-long workshops for novices. The one I attended in December was held in the Suisun Marsh at a private hunting club owned by the CWA called Grizzly Ranch. Home to 118 private waterfowl hunting clubs and located about halfway between Sacramento and Oakland, the Suisun Marsh is one of the largest brackish wetland complexes in the country. It’s also critical habitat for a variety of birds, including ducks.
LEARNING TO HUNT
The workshop participants — nine men and one woman — all had at least some experience hunting; I was the only total beginner. Their main motivation for attending was not the waterfowl hunting instruction per se, but rather to spend time with the wild game chef and cookbook author Hank Shaw, who led the workshop.
(While Heyser and I both went the whole weekend without killing a single duck, she invited me back to try again in January, when I finally succeeded.)
Over a meal of duck liver mousse, jackrabbit sausages, confit duck legs and elk carne salada — all made from critters Shaw had killed — Heyser explained to me the real benefit of the educational programs offered by CWA and other similar organizations. Besides allowing novice and experienced hunters alike to improve their skills, they provide the social networking critical to the learning process.
In 2017, the CWA shepherded 755 individuals through education programs like the one I attended. “It’s not like we’re making a radical difference at this point in the number of hunters,” Heyser admits. But offering intensive, hands-on efforts such as these is the best way to produce new, proficient hunters. By bringing small groups together, such workshops afford beginning and intermediate hunters the chance to forge friendships and build connections that they might not find back at home.
Of course, there’s more to it than making new friends. Becoming a skilled hunter also means spending time learning the cycles and rhythms of the natural world, so that you can enter into them rather than observe them as an outsider. Indeed, donning chest-high waders, covering myself with camouflage and falling face-first into the Suisun Marsh reminded me that there are still places that humans have failed to dominate — at least not without serious help from modern technology.
Years of experience studying animal cognition as a scientist, followed by years reporting on wildlife and ecology as a journalist, could not have prepared me for my task as a duck hunter. Armed with a floating armada of decoys and a half-dozen musical instruments meant to simulate duck calls, a skilled hunter like Heyser can trick a duck into coming closer, into taking a second look at you — even when the duck is hundreds of feet above you; even when its attention is also being pulled by a dozen other hunters trying the same tricks; even when it knows which parts of its habitat are safe from the blast of a shotgun.
Duck hunting requires such intimate knowledge of the moment-by-moment rhythms of duck life that you can hijack their natural instincts and persuade them to come closer. Just a little bit closer, just close enough.
PAYING INTO THE SYSTEM
The state of California has a vested interest in the creation of proficient hunters. State and federal wildlife agencies are heavily dependent on revenue generated by hunting activities. It’s not just the hunting and fishing licenses and permits that deliver funds for wildlife management, law enforcement and conservation, but also excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, fishing gear and archery equipment.
The notion that hunters and anglers must pay into the system in order to sustainably use wildlife resources lies at the center of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Once driven to near extinction by commercial, profit-driven hunting activities, many North American wildlife populations — including bison, deer, elk, turkeys, ducks and more — began to rebound once the hunting community was restricted to a system of regulations, limits and fees that ensured the long-term viability of wildlife populations.
But the number of hunters has declined dramatically. In 1970, CDFW sold more than 760,000 hunting licenses. By 1990, that number was halved, and by 2010 the number declined by a quarter before leveling off. In 2017, a total of 268,528 hunting licenses were purchased.
Despite the decline in hunters, CDFW is bringing in more hunter-derived revenue now than in the 1970s, even after accounting for inflation. That’s because the cost of hunting licenses and game tags has risen sharply. In 1970, a hunting license ran $4 and a deer tag could be bought for $2. For the 2018-2019 hunting season, those items cost $48.34 and $31.89 respectively.
But prices can’t be raised indefinitely. The alternative to increasing the revenue generated per hunter is to recruit more hunters. Historically, outreach efforts were primarily targeted toward children whose (white, male, middle-aged) parents hunt and were therefore already likely to become hunters themselves. To reach a more diverse audience, a handful of NGOs and businesses, along with a variety of state and federal wildlife agencies, are now working to identify new recruiting strategies.
“One of the biggest things we need to change is the image of what a hunter is,” says Bridget Kennedy, a marketing specialist in CDFW’s Office of Education and Outreach. “We need to get away from the 50-year-old white male.” That means developing materials that portray younger hunters, women and people of color and creating opportunities for those groups to meet and interact with experienced hunters who they can identify with.
It also means using different rhetoric when speaking about hunting itself. Kennedy, who attempted her first pheasant hunt earlier this year at the age of 39, is part of a growing demographic that approaches hunting from a field-to-fork perspective. “I think a lot of people are exposed to the cattle industry, to pesticides and antibiotics, and it’s bothersome for a lot of our generation,” she says. “I knew there had to be another way, other than being a vegetarian, to feel OK about eating meat.”
For this group of millennials and Gen X-ers, hunting is a different method for putting food on the table, not a deep-rooted familial heritage passed from generation to generation. This is the farmers’ market crowd, transplanted into the woods, with guns.
FEASTING ON NATURE
Blanchard and Kennedy both view hunting activities as more than a critical source of revenue. It’s an important method by which people can connect with, and care for, the wilderness. “As a hunter, you realize the beauty and necessity of wild places, and you want to see those places protected,” Blanchard says.
That’s why 33-year-old Sharon (who asked that her name be changed for this story) was first inspired to try hunting. Sharon grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles in a classically liberal household. As a young child, her family enjoyed a variety of outdoor recreational activities, but when Sharon was in high school, her father was diagnosed with cancer and her family stopped spending much time hiking, camping and boating. When she moved north to Santa Rosa as an adult, she finally had time to resume her relationship with the outdoors. “I started hiking and going outside again. It lit me on fire.” She grew hungry for a deeper, more intimate connection to the natural world. “I felt like I was friend-zoned by nature and wanted to take it to the next level.”
Ascending to that next level can be an emotional, sobering experience. If you’ve only ever encountered ducks while feeding them in an urban pond, then you might not truly grasp the magnitude of the challenge involved. I was never as humbled as when outwitted by a duck. “They have brains the size of pecans,” Heyser says. “But they are not dumb.”
In the moments after I killed the mallard hen, I tried to focus on my feelings. First was the overwhelming responsibility to ensure that she was truly, completely dead. My heart broke when her wings gave a weak flap. Heyser reassured me that she really was good and dead; this was simply the result of residual energy in her nervous system.
The dominant feelings I experienced next were pride and accomplishment. And the uncomfortable truth: I had a blast. If it were not for the food, hunting would not be ethically acceptable to most. But if it were not also enjoyable, many would likely not bother spending the hours and days and weeks it takes to fill their freezers with wild meat.
Back home in Los Angeles, I broke the mallard I’d killed down into its parts: breasts, legs and wings. I cleaned the gizzard and saved the heart and liver. Extra scraps of fat went into a small bowl for rendering. Feet, carcasses and neck meat went directly into a stockpot. Only the guts and the head were trashed. I repeated the process for a male mallard offered to me by another of the CWA workshop attendees, plus two geese gifted by Shaw.
Several weeks later, my friends gathered around the kitchen table and dug into a feast of snow goose jerky; grilled hearts and gizzards with chimichurri sauce; confit of duck and goose legs with pasta and lemon; duck breast bigarade (a classier, lighter version of canard l’orange); and potatoes with Brussels sprouts roasted in duck fat.
If you are what you eat, then most of the meat we eat is made of the plants we farm. Cows are bred to turn corn into hamburgers. Chickens are made mostly of grains and growth hormones. But sink your teeth into the flesh of a wild duck and what you’re eating is all the things that ducks like to eat: seeds, fish, fish eggs, snails, worms, frogs, grasses, weeds, algae, bugs and rice.
To eat a duck you’ve hunted and killed yourself is to eat the marsh it lives in. And the marsh sure is tasty.