BY WAY OF PREFACE TO A PERSONAL STORY | [print_link]
Man is a creature of astonishing contradictions and enormous moral range. The same species that produces fools, knaves, cowards, a massive number of mediocrities, and assorted monsters of depravity, also gives us geniuses, saints, and heroes of exemplary virtue. The spread of behavior is so vast as to be almost incomprehensible. But maybe the most interesting thing about humans is their capacity to travel from one point of the moral spectrum to another, from evil to good, and from good to indifference and often tacit acceptance of evil.
Modern-day hunters and people who callously use animals for vanity and or “recreation” (remember Michael Vick) fall into an especially troublesome category. In the vast majority of cases the person in question is simply a victim of unexamined assumptions and cultural traditions, and a pitiful lack of empathetic imagination, a total failure of compassion. Such individuals commit disgusting acts, but the baffling thing about the horrors of this world, what some call the sheer “banality of evil”, is that committing an evil act does not per se signify the person is utterly evil. People are often not only contradictory in their behavior, they also change their ways and undergo redemption. I’m not a conventionally religious person, at all, but the idea of redemption —in a secular, not Catholic form—I find powerful and touching in the extreme. For by showing that humans are indeed capable of understanding their wrongful deeds, that, despite all the muck that surrounds us, decency manages to survive somehow, and that in consequence they indeed aspire to live in peace with their conscience, because, if nothing else bad actions do in fact bother them, deny them rest, redemption underscores the possibility of a better world grounded in real peace and justice for everyone, none the least for the most exploited and brutalized creatures on this earth, the animals.
The personal document I reproduce below has special significance for me because it is about redemption, a hunter’s redemption. Although I have always been familiar with weapons of various types, I never took to the “pleasures” of shooting animals, “live targets.” I never could see the “sport” in it at all. And never will. Thus the hunter’s mind, a person who sees absolutely nothing wrong in killing a beautiful, innocent, living breathing creature for his own personal pleasure, or some other frivolous reason or pretext (and I should tell you that after more than three decades in the animal defense movement I’ve heard just about all the pro-hunting arguments ever crafted by this fraternity) remains a baffling mystery. I was therefore immensely excited when, back in 1986, when I served as editor at large for The Animals’ Agenda, the first independent US animal rights publication, I got this unsolicited testimony from Dallas Gragg, a former hunter.
Dallas’s words are effortlessly eloquent and they remain true to this day. The strong personal conscience and integrity that illuminated his journey of moral self-discovery was there all along, only momentarily suppressed by the pressures of conventionality and cultural norms. I am therefore confident you’ll find his testimony as moving as when I first read it more than 20 years ago. The truths he speaks about can never be extinguished. For they define what the transformation potential of human beings is all about. I am happy to be able to share Dallas’s story with our Cyrano audience. We all owe him a debt of gratitude for coming forward.
—Patrice Greanville, The Greanville Journal
WHY I QUIT HUNTING
BY ROY DALLAS GRAGG | [Original dateline: Animals’ Agenda, November 1986]*
I WAS BORN in the mountains of North Carolina near Grandfather Mountain and Mt. Mitchell. Hunting, killing and butchering animals was a way of life for the mountain people. I killed my first hog at age eight. I had expected the animal to fall as if by magic when I squeezed the trigger of my grandfather’s old .22 caliber rifle. I was both surprised and alarmed when the animal screamed with pain and agony. “More carefully,” my uncle said, “You have to hit him in the head.” When the rifle cracked the second time, the animal fell dead.
I couldn’t sleep that night—I could still hear the animal’s screams. The adults laughed the next day when I told them it just didn’t seem right to shoot an animal when he was locked helplessly in a pen.
I dreaded October each year-that was the month when the hogs and steers were killed and butchered. Early in the morning barrels of water were heated over roaring fires to scald the animals so that their hair could be scraped off. I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when a butcher knife slashed the hog’s throat and the blood ran across the ground as the pitiful animal convulsed and kicked. The air smelled of death, especially when the hogs were gutted. I noticed that the horse, a huge Clydesdale mare named Bell, would sniff the air, and with big eyes run away. She too smelled the death. I always stayed outside whenever possible because the stench of lard being boiled on the woodstove was unbearable.
Rural life, often steeped in poverty and cruel traditions, does not make it easy to cultivate compassion toward our fellow creatures.
However, it was always my job to turn the handle of the hand-operated sausage machine. Spring brought another dreaded time, when the man came to castrate the pigs and dehorn the cattle. I would hold my ears to shut out the sound of their agonized screams. “Don’t be a sissy-you’ll get used to it,” I was told, but I never did.
Sundays usually brought another unpleasant task: catching a chicken and “wringing” its neck. The sight of the unfortunate creatures’ bodies jumping high in the air with a broken neck is still fresh in my mind, even though it was over thirty years ago.
To make matters worse, the butchered birds and animals had often been pets. I had a pet chicken named Red. I trained Red, a big red hen, to sit patiently on a fence post or other object for hours until I set her down. I also had a pet turkey named Fred. As is the fate of most turkeys, Fred ended up on the Thanksgiving table. The crowd roared with laughter when I said, ”I’m not thankful. Fred was my friend and I’m not going to eat him.” My cousins taunted me until I finally ate a small piece of breast, but I felt like a cannibal.
I rather enjoyed hunting because I didn’t have to butcher the birds and animals. By the time I was fourteen I was a “crack shot”. I never missed. Squirrel hunting was my favorite because the elusive gray squirrels were hard to hit. One day I grazed a big gray squirrel and he fell right in front of my dog Rex. The squirrel was putting up a furious battle against the dog who was many times its size. I sat down and thought for awhile. I couldn’t help but admire the little animal. He had wanted to live!
The mountain people often shot the red squirrels or “boomers” for shooting practice. The red squirrels were not good to eat so they were thrown away. But that didn’t sit right with me either. I doubted that God made his boomers just to shoot at.
One morning, as I sat on top of a steep hill waiting for the sun to come up and the game to start moving about, I noticed many small oak trees on the hill. Acorns are heavy, especially this variety. They were as big as chestnuts and probably weighed several ounces. I hadn’t seen this particular variety before.
I strolled down the hill and crossed a small valley to another hill and found the parent tree, a huge oak about four feet in diameter. I was puzzled. How did the acorns travel across a valley to another hill? The wind didn’t blow them, that was for sure, and floodwaters don’t run uphill. I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. It was a gray squirrel leaping from a huge oak heading across the valley. I dropped the squirrel with a single shot. Imagine my surprise when I picked up the squirrel and he had one of those huge acorns lodged in his mouth! I had been shooting the planters of the forests! On the way home I said to myself, “So that’s why God made squirrels.”
“The sight of the unfortunate creatures’ bodies jumping high in the air with broken necks is still fresh in my mind, even though it was over thirty years ago.”
A few years later, I joined the army and became qualified as an expert rifleman. “I have never seen anyone shoot like that,” I overheard the sergeant tell the lieutenant.
“He dropped 16 men (targets) in less than 20 seconds!” Later the lieutenant said to me “You could do that in Vietnam, too. The slant-eyes are just bigger game.” But I didn’t make it to Vietnam. An ulcer got me a medical discharge and I returned home to the mountains.
I still hunted some but I thought about the squirrels. If they were nature’s planters, what were the other animals’ jobs? Later I noticed holly bushes in sheltered mountain valleys, over 20 miles from their natural growing range. It was quite obvious that birds had carried the seeds this great distance.
By the time I was thirty I had quit hunting entirely and began studying the birds and animals. I read books on ecology and the environment. And I returned to the forests—this time with a camera instead of a gun. I watched the squirrels carefully. They would always follow the same path through the trees, swinging like trapeze artists. Occasionally I would see a flying squirrel gliding silently through the trees or a ruffled grouse blasting away like a rocket.
I marked the spots where the nuts carried by squirrels fell and returned in the spring to find small trees growing in those areas. I also observed the “worthless” red squirrels burying nuts. It occurred to me that nut-bearing trees, oaks, hickories, walnuts, chestnuts and many, many others all depended on the little animals to transport their seed throughout the forests.
It should be obvious to any thinking person that nature is a powerful but delicate force. Each living thing on the planet is striving for survival in one way or another, and striving to keep its kind from becoming extinct. Various species of plants, birds and animals have survived earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, floods and many other kinds of natural catastrophes only to fall victim to uncaring humans.
Hunters are directly responsible—to name a few—for the extinction of the passenger pigeon as well as many kinds of island-dwelling birds. The buffalo very nearly became extinct after hunters [retained by commercial interests] went after them largely to wipe out the Indians’ [main] food supply. Starve’em to submission.
This strategy left more than 50 million of the great creatures on the plains to decay in the sun. Hunters have brought the mountain lion, the grizzly bear, the whooping crane, and even the symbol of our nation, the bald eagle, to the brink of extinction.
I began studying hunters from “the other side of the fence:’ When working with hunters I would ask their opinions of hunting. One hunter’s reply was, “God made animals for me to eat – what else are they good for?” Another said, “It makes me forget my troubles to hunt and fish.” I thought long and hard about his statement. Humans vent their stress and their frustrations from daily life on innocent wildlife. Hunting is a one-sided game with only one winner—human beings. This is why hunters refer to birds and animals as “game”. When the hunter has hunted down and killed an animal, he has “won” the game. More often than not, the creature is killed for pleasure instead of for food. A certain sadistic pleasure is derived by killing another creature. When a human kills an animal the act fuels his ego: he has mastered the creature by taking its life.
Why else would a trophy hunter spend thousands of dollars, hike through steaming snake- and insect-infested swamps or climb steep cliffs to kill a magnificent member of another species? Why else would he cut off the head of his victim and leave the body to rot? Why else would he take the head to a taxidermist and mount it over his fireplace? He has dominated and killed the “beast”, and therefore hangs its head up for all the world to see that he is the mighty and fearless hunter. It is nothing but fuel for the insecure ego of small men.
The hunter, with the scent of death in his nostrils, has little respect for his neighbor who enjoys seeing the creatures on his property alive. “No hunting” and “No trespassing” signs are torn down or shot full of holes. A hunting license is a permit to kill indiscriminately. Our government sells out our wildlife for the price of a hunting license. Soon after becoming an anti-hunting advocate, I found my tame mallard ducks shot and floating on their pond. They too had enjoyed living and I enjoyed them. But some pervert found pleasure in their death. Once I observed hunters exterminating a covey of Bob White quail. Their cheerful calls can no longer be heard around the small mountain community where I grew up as a child.
TRADITION is perhaps the worst enemy of the animals: even our holidays call for the killing of birds and animals. These barbaric traditions, including hunting, rodeos and other cruel sports, are taught to children and thus passed down from generation to generation. Only a little more than a century ago blacks were considered to be animals and were treated as such. Similarly. during the second World War, Jews were considered to be subhuman by the Nazis, or perhaps even subanimal, and were killed by the millions.
Even today we abuse our fellow humans through boxing, wrestling and other cruel sports. How can the perpetrators of cruelty among us be expected to respect animals when they do not even respect humans? Before we can understand animal abuse we must understand ourselves. Humanity lives not by reality but by habits— often anchored in selfishness and staggering ignorance. It is this aspect of human nature we must work against.
If my story can, in some small way, influence the traditional way of thinking and the ignorant beliefs about our fellow creatures, 1 would be greatly pleased. This story is to aid our fellow creatures who have long suffered at the hands of mankind. May they someday live in peace, without suffering and fear.
Roy Dallas Gragg worked as a housepainter. He used to live in Montezuma, N.C.
NOTE: The image of the boy and his dog and of a family living in poverty are from James Agee and Walker Evans’ classic Let us Now Praise Famous Men. They do not represent the author or his immediate kin or environment.