Hunting has never been a part of my life. I have never desired to take down a bull elk with a gun or even whack a trout on the head. Yet, somehow, I found myself in a hunter education class, enjoying the lessons and learning more than I ever expected. If I’m clearly not a hunter, why on earth did I sign up for hunter-ed?
Utterly disconnected from where food comes from, I stopped to think about it for the first time when a coworker offered me slices of sausage harvested from an elk hunt. I’m a regular person who eats regular supermarket meat, with no room in the budget for local butcher shops or organic, free-range, grass-fed beef. Taking the first bite of elk, it dawned on me that I could finally ask someone exactly where the meat came from. Within 10 seconds I had my answer and more. The elk came from game management unit 32, near Meeker. It died quickly with two shots to the lungs, and the hunter shared the meat amongst family and friends. Sure, you could ask your local grocer the same question, but unless you work somewhere along the supply chain, you can never be 100 percent certain where supermarket meat comes from or how humanely it was harvested.
Being directly connected to this elk meat started a chain reaction of questions I had no answers for. I have always enjoyed blissful ignorance in regard to where my meat comes from. So why did I care about this meat, and not the burger I ate last night? Could this animal have had a better life—and death—than the animals I usually consume? Could these factors make hunting… better? To answer these questions I needed to know more about hunting.
The hunters I know have a great respect for animals, eat all the meat they harvest and enjoy the overall hunting experience—not the kill. To a letter, every person I interviewed said taking the life of an animal is never something they find joy in, and all reported feeling grateful toward the animal, as its meat will feed themselves and their family. Gratitude. What a powerful (and frankly surprising) emotion to find hunters identifying with. On the other hand, I know my small sample pool does not necessarily define the way all hunters think and feel. I still needed to know more, so I signed up for a hunter education course.
Two weeks later I found myself walking into Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Hunter Education building. I took a seat near the back and waited for class to begin. Looking around I realized the room had quickly filled up, not with crazy gun-toting hunter stereotypes, but with children. A tow-headed youngster eagerly showed off his knowledge of animal identification to friends. He gestured wildly at two taxidermied bucks on the wall, barely containing his excitement as he exclaimed, “Do you know how to tell the difference between a mule deer and a whitetail? You gotta look at the antlers and the ears and the butt.” His friends, eager to show off their matched knowledge of animal ID, began animatedly talking over each other about antlers, fur color and body size. These kids knew a lot about wildlife.
Running a quick head-count as class began, I determined that nearly half of the 70 students were teens or younger. As the instructors began posing questions to the class, little hands popped up, eagerly waving fingertips indicating their desire to be called upon. A 12-year-old girl correctly answered a question about pump-action shotguns. An 8-year-old boy knew the “Four Rules of Firearm Safety.” When an instructor asked, “what’s the safest way to carry a rifle in the field?” a 10-year-old girl almost caused shock waves from waving her hand so hard in the air. Proud and confident the girl proclaimed, “Two-hand carry!” I quickly turned to page 33 in the hunter-ed manual… she was right.
Firearm safety and handling were just the tip of the iceberg. I had no idea we would also learn about laws and regulations, wilderness survival skills, wildlife identification, habitat conservation and ethics. Wait, did I just say ethics? Until now, I had thought of ethics as a term people use when talking about why they don’t hunt. The instructors spent a great deal of time discussing what ethical hunting means. “One shot, one kill.” I heard this mantra over and over during class. “One shot, one kill”, means that you only take a shot at an animal when you know you can kill it quickly and cleanly. You may have a legal shot, but if there is a chance of merely wounding the animal it would not be ethical to try. Going even further, the instructors told us hunters are in the circle of life, and encouraged everyone to “ask yourself each time if you want to take that life. If there’s any reason you don’t want to shoot, don’t shoot.” Eagerly agreeing, an older gentleman near the front shared that few of his best hunting stories end with actually bagging an animal, and his favorite part of hunting is spending time with his kids in the backcountry.
Over the course of the two-day class, I began developing a different picture of what defines a hunter. Gaining new insight on how an ethical and respectful hunter behaves both on and off the hunt, confirmed my belief that ethical and legal hunters comprise the vast majority of folks in the field. It is the law that you only hunt what you have a license to kill. It is the law that you hunt sober. It is the law that you harvest every part of an animal fit for human consumption. People who do not follow the laws or ethically harvest their kills are not hunters, they are poachers, and poachers are the ones who give legitimate hunters a bad reputation. So how many hunters really put harvesting every usable part of the animal above all else and how many hunters hunt legally and ethically? All of them.
If you are unsure of how you feel about hunting, are all for it but have never experienced a hunt, or perhaps are dead set against hunting and want to know who on earth would kill an animal for any reason, I encourage you to take hunter education. Taking the class doesn’t automatically turn you into a hunter. In fact, recent survey results reveal 52 percent of class participants have yet to purchase a hunting license after taking the course and 64 percent have not hunted since taking the class.
Seated next to me in class was a gentleman who, like me, was just there to self-educate and see what this hunting thing was all about. Neither of us own a gun and neither of us plan to ever go hunting, but we both gained greater understanding by daring to expand our worldview just a little bit. I now have a little orange card which would allow me to purchase a license and hunt for my own local, free-range, organic, grass-fed meat. For now, however, the card is tucked away in a drawer at home, next to coupons for the grocery store.
Story and photos by Crystal Lynn Egli. Egli is a seasonal temp in CPW’s video production section.