Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A neat red hole in the heart

When I was a boy growing up in Tennessee I once snitched my uncle's .22 rifle and went hunting with my friends. My first shot brought a gray squirrel tumbling down through the branches of a tree. The squirrel lay on the ground at my feet, its belly pierced by a neat red hole, convulsed with pain. I watched, paralyzed by horror at what I had done, until one of my friends dispatched the squirrel with the butt of his rifle.

That was my last experience with hunting. I tell this grim little tale in response to an article in Sunday's New York Times about efforts to recruit children to the dwindling sport of hunting. Boys and girls as young as six are taken into the woods and encouraged to kill.

I'm no fanatic on this issue. Humans have hunted animals since day one, and those who hunt to eat are perhaps doing less violence to animals than those of us who buy our meat packaged at the supermarket. The writer Richard Nelson, who lives in Sitka, Alaska, has a long section about killing deer in his beautiful book The Island Within; it is hard to take issue with his love for the animals he kills for his table.

But I would certainly not want my children or grandchildren taking pleasure in killing for sport. In Sunday's Musing I mentioned the anthropologist Margaret Mead's definition of civilization as the ever expanding circle of those we do not kill. Why shouldn't that circle include other species? When we must kill for food, let it be as humanely as possible and never for sport.

Compassion, like life itself, is a seamless web. I recall something Thoreau wrote about killing animals: "I have found repeatedly, of late years, that I cannot fish without falling a little in self-respect...I have skill at it, and, like many of my fellows, a certain instinct for it . But always when I have done I feel that it would have been better if I had not fished. I think that I do not mistake. It is a faint intimation, yet so are the first streaks of morning."