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Evolution of a Hunter: The Lessons I’ve Learned and the Legacy I Want to Share with My Daughter
A woman wearing full camo carries a quartered antelope leg, while a baby rests in a baby carrier on her back. (Josh Peterson/)
My first impression of hunting was watching maggots crawl out of a small buck’s eyes as he lay in a friend’s backyard in central Wyoming. I couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 years old. That night, as we ate venison tacos, I tucked most of the meat away in a napkin to throw out later. My family didn’t hunt, and it wasn’t something I understood.
Even after college, when my boyfriend told me over instant chat that he’d shot a deer, I called him a Bambi killer and slammed my laptop closed. He wasn’t bragging; he just wanted me to know. And I wasn’t a vegetarian. I understood, on some level, the hypocrisy. But I couldn’t understand why he wanted to kill something, or how someone I loved could find joy in taking a life. Butchering an animal for meat—slaughtering cows, pigs, lambs—was an act of necessity, not pleasure. I certainly didn’t see how it could be a “sport,” as hunting is so often called. We didn’t talk for days.
Fourteen years later, that memory flashed through my mind as I stood near a pronghorn I’d shot minutes before, my .243 resting nearby in the southeast Wyoming sagebrush. The thought was one of a thousand firing in my brain: relief at the clean shot, pure disbelief that I’d actually done it, and sudden worry about what our 3-year-old daughter would think as she walked toward me, holding the hand of the man I’d once called a Bambi killer.
I have a tendency to overthink, well, everything. And deciding to hunt was in the upper echelon of topics I’d analyzed, reanalyzed, then dissected all over again. Few mothers choose to become serious hunters in the early stages of raising a family, but here I was. Our shared hunting pack, which I’d used as a shooting rest, was still 100 yards away. It was my turn to carry it that day as my husband, Josh, watched our daughter. Snowcapped mountains rimmed the horizon. A few clouds drifted in the wind.
I retrieved the pack, and my Buck knife inside it. As I knelt to begin slicing hide and removing organs—the same process every hunter before me has done for millennia—I considered my inevitable evolution from anti-hunter to antelope hunter.
The how I got here is less interesting, perhaps, than the why.
A Change of Heart
I grew up outdoors, spending most summers camping with my parents and brother in the mountains of Wyoming, the four of us sleeping curled up in our Volkswagen van. As a teenager, I mountain biked, backpacked, and skied. Then I fell in love with a man who hunted.
A year after our instant-chat fight, I agreed to join him on a hunt. I conceded that hunting provided lean meat through sustainable harvest. It was also another reason to spend more time outside. I tracked a wounded bull through the sagebrush for his brother when he and Josh realized that their color blindness—normally just a mild annoyance—meant they couldn’t see blood on grass. They could always just watch where an animal dropped on the open prairie, but this was a difficult tracking job. We finally found the elk dead in a clearing, and I still feel satisfaction that I played a crucial role. Over the years, I carried elk quarters out of the woods, used sticks to prop open antelope chest cavities, and spent maternity leave butchering an elk in the garage, our sleeping infant strapped to my chest.
Eventually, I decided it was time for me to try hunting. This decision wasn’t made in a particular moment, but rather, slowly, over a decade. It was made in those nights we spent lying in a tent, me trying to understand the ethics of hunting and Josh carefully choosing his words before answering. It was from countless conversations with hunters. Often, I asked what they feel when they pull the trigger. I wanted to know: Is it sadness, relief, joy, or some mixture of them all? It was usually a combination, but it depended, I realized, on the person.
I started with pheasants, pen-raised ones, released by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. My biggest concern was—and is, and likely always will be—losing a wounded animal because I didn’t prepare enough. So we spent hours shooting clay pigeons. Even then, I said I would carry a shotgun in the field, and maybe even raise it to my shoulder, but maybe not take the shot.
And I didn’t shoot at first. I just carried my new 12-gauge Winchester and felt its weight in my hands. Then, one weekend, our young Labrador flushed a rooster a dozen feet in front of me. I had time to raise my gun, to think for a second, and to hear Josh yell, “Shoot!” So I did.
The pheasant dropped, and our Lab retrieved it. A picture shows pride on my face and on our dog’s. We learned together that day. Since then, his flushing work and my shooting skills have improved.
A handful of years later I killed a turkey at such close range that I felt a hot rush of adrenaline every time he gobbled. Our daughter, Miriam, came along on most turkey hunts, earmuffs on her head and camouflage draped over her backpack carrier. She wasn’t with me the day I finally shot one, but she was fascinated by the iridescent feathers and its prehistoric head when I brought it home.
The author, her daughter, and a pronghorn buck on the Wyoming prairie. (Josh Peterson/)
Past, Present, and Future
Why would I start hunting after having a child, which is when, more often, women stop hunting? Why would I decide not only to continue hunting birds, but to chase turkeys and big game, too?
The easiest answers come first. The meat is healthy and hormone-free. I know, generally speaking, where my antelope spent most of its life (the windswept plains and gentle foothills outside Laramie) and what it ate (sagebrush, saltbush, and winter fat). This is the same diet I watched pronghorns eat as I grew up, and it’s the same diet they ate when Lewis and Clark described them in their journals. It’s the same diet they ate when the earliest peoples arrived in Wyoming, and largely the same diet they ate as they evolved into our continent’s fastest land mammal more than a million years ago. My buck lived, mostly, the same life as his ancestors until he died, almost instantly. My bullet passed through both lungs. I assume I was nothing more than a curiosity to him until those last few moments.
In a practical sense, I picked up a rifle and applied for a license because those fees from tags pay for wildlife management, and those herds I admire are only as robust as the money that goes into them. I like the idea that my participation protects and improves their habitat, manages their numbers, and helps monitor their range. Hunter numbers are dropping across the country. But in Wyoming, where the number of men who hunt has crept ever-so-slowly down, participation by women has increased 30 percent in the past 10 years, helping to hold the line. In some ways, I felt it was my responsibility to contribute to a strong hunter population. It’s why I didn’t regret those four turkey seasons when I paid for four tags while never once pulling the trigger.
But those are all the simple reasons, the easy talking points. They are the things I said to myself when I started hunting, and what I say these days to nonhunters who question me about hunting. Now I hunt with my own young daughter in tow. And the reason I want to share hunting with her—when my own introduction to killing my food was so limited—runs deeper.
Hunting requires me to step outside of myself and outside of the lives we humans have built indoors. It’s one of the most basic and primal ways I connect with the land I live on. The first time I heard a bull bugle back to our cow call, I was in awe. We were communicating with the wild. Hunting is how humans have interacted with the natural world since the beginning of time, and it’s not a dead language yet.
In that hour I spent belly-crawling and crab-walking through cactus and over crusty elk droppings, watching my antelope on a hillside, I thought of little else than each passing moment. I didn’t think about emails, phone calls, or deadlines. I didn’t think about dinner that night or my to-do list the next day. I focused only on calming my breath, slowing my heartbeat. I muttered to the antelope I was pursuing, and to myself.
Miriam should know how that feels. She should spend enough time watching pronghorns that she hears the strange barks they use to communicate. It’s her birthright to feel that connection to her homeland, to her food, and to every hunter who has come before her. Right now, she flits around hunting camp in a purple dress from the movie Frozen and pretends to shoot birds and antelope with sticks. She deserves the freedom to keep that dichotomy, and for hunting to be a part of her life however she chooses. I hope she will understand the gravity of ending a life, but also that we are, like anything else on this planet, another species with a role in the food web.
Some parents might say the wild isn’t the place for a young child. I say there isn’t a better place. A ponderosa-covered mountainside is the perfect spot for her to learn just how small she is, and a sagebrush flat is just right for her to discover how well each plant, insect, prairie dog, coyote, pronghorn, and human fits together in the endless cycle of life and death.
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I worried how she might react when she realized the buck wasn’t moving. We limited her exposure to the bloodiest portions of the field-dressing process by sending her on expeditions for sticks, rocks, and snow. But we answered her questions. We told her it was dead, and that, by dying, it would provide us meat for months. We talked about respecting this animal and the life it lived. She touched its coarse fur and its smooth horns, and she listened.
I don’t know if she’ll hunt or not. I experience a flurry of emotions before, during, and after my hunts. Miriam seems to find hunting natural now, but that doesn’t mean she’ll think the same way when she’s a teenager or an adult. Too many parents put unrealistic expectations on their kids—they want them to become doctors or lawyers, football players or expert hunters. We don’t want to choose her life for her. But when she’s old enough to hold a rifle and a license, we do want her to understand the richness that comes with hunting. I want her to know that hunting is more than a maggot-eaten buck. I want her to ask more questions. I want to answer them honestly.
As we carried the antelope to our truck—Josh holding the legs, me holding a horn with one hand and Miriam with the other—she asked another question.
“Can I shoot an antelope?”
“Not right now, honey,” I told her. “But when you’re older, if you want.”
She nodded, and kept walking.