I recently joined a group of hunters pursuing Sambar deer in central Victoria – the mountainous area not far from Walhalla. As one who teaches classes on animal rights I do have strong views on the subject but wanted to see myself what goes on. To be clear I did not hunt myself – I was an observer.
The day started early – around 5am – when we took off in a truck adapted to contain hunting dogs and provisions. We arrived around daybreak at the scene in a group of about 12 shooters in high mountains. There was snow on the ground and, although the sun came out intermittently, it was freezing cold. The deer are initially sighted by their “marks” (hoof prints) on the earth roadside. The search is for such marks particularly those that are clear (or “fresh’) with very fresh recent marks being labelled “red hot”. One can easily see from the shape of red hot marks which way the deer is moving as it crosses a road. When enough marks are seen leading into an area (normally a gully) the decision concerning the direction of the hunt is made is made by a hunt manager who directs operations on 2-way radios to each hunter and who can identify on a GPS where the dogs are running. A large number (certainly more than a dozen) dogs are then taken from their cages and a GPS marker attached to each dog’s collar. The dogs are known good hunters although a few inexperienced “pups” are allowed to go along with the pack at a site where the scent of the deer is associated with a large number of recent marks. At the same time armed hunters set up in likely exit areas surrounding the gully. These people are moved around under instruction from the hunt manager. The signal that the deer may be approaching a hunter is the loud barking of the dogs pursuing. The deer are then shot as they either escape the area or, if they are “bailed-up” and stationary in an area the hunters move in to kill them. This is an idealised scenario – occasionally the dogs will get confused and deer will escape in regions not covered by the hunters.
Once all obtainable deer in an area are killed (or escape) the task is to collect the dogs whose presence can be identified on a GPS unit monitored by the hunt manager. Then the hunt is reconfigured perhaps in a different area.
On the day in question 4 deer were shot and a fifth was “turned back” from the hunter I was accompanying by a group of trail-bikers who roared past at just the wrong moment. The deer – a large sought-after stag – was shot anyway by another group of hunters as it made its retreat.
Once killed the deer are gutted and cleaned on the spot – partly for hygiene reasons and partly to reduce the weight of taking the deer to the accompanying vehicles. The deer are big, weighty animals and it would be an effort to throw a carcass onto a truck. Indeed two deer shot on our hunt were not retrieved for meat because of the inaccessibility of the carcasses. My obvious thought: Why kill them in such areas?
As an economist I was interested in the fact that these hunts are much more than a casual pastime in several senses. The economic outlays involved (purchasing specialised vehicles, maintaining packs of hunting dogs, owning rifles, buying electronic communication equipment) I could see is very high. It also uses a lot of time on the part of the hunters – on the day I went we were out either driving to the site or monitoring escaping animals for at least 11 hours. Generally too, the hunting seemed an important lifestyle choice. There was enthusiasm for the hunt and is it is clearly an important part of the hunter’s lives.
At a wind-up barbecue one of the hunters said to me “How did you find it professor? Spending a day with a bunch of rednecks?” This guy saw himself belonging in such a group and understood that others in the community didn’t like what they were doing. I absolutely didn’t see these guys as rednecks. I saw them as hunters who enjoyed the sport of killing game and eating their kill. As an omnivore I cannot complain about that although, yes, while I do eat meat, I share the standard hypocrisy of not wanted to recognise that a killing must occur for me to enjoy my meal. When I heard on several occasions the sound of repeated rifle fire and the subsequent claims on radio that a kill had been made did not make me feel joyous. Nor did I feel happy about killed animals that were left behind unbutchered even though I understood the reasons.
Apart from that the only thing I specifically disliked all day was that one of the youngsters who tagged along threw a discarded Coke bottle into the bush alongside the road. He did it in full view of a group of adult hunters (including his father) who said nothing. I don’t like the implied attitude towards our natural environment that was apparently shared among the group. I suppose the best ethic I could place on the hunt would be: Enjoy a productive hunt if killing animals turns you on and your actions only substitute for the actions that would otherwise occur in an abattoir. But respect the environment including the animals you seek to kill.