Ethics in our Western World has hitherto been largely limited to the relations of man to man. But that is a limited ethics. We need a boundless ethics, which will include the animals also . . . The time is coming when people will be amazed that the human race existed so long before it recognized that thoughtless injury to life is incompatible with real ethics. Ethics in its unqualified form extends responsibility to everything that has life.
~ Albert Schweitzer, as quoted in The Emotional Lives of Animals by Marc Bekoff
I’d lived in Colorado, but had never seen a herd of elk walk into a paved cul-de-sac and pose in front of a Mercedes. It was an Estes Park vision — a moment of connection among earthlings in an unlikely suburban context. There were snow flurries. And a stillness that beckoned to quiet communion. Young bulls playfully unhinged three hanging bird feeders in succession and toppled them on the front steps. Puffs of elk breath coalesced with each bugle, with each squeal from the young clinging to their mothers’ sides. We were watching an entire herd pass through a neighborhood cul-de-sac, a herd we’d been observing and enjoying for days.
Anyone who’s been to Estes Park during elk rut knows the magic that is this ancient, elkish ritual. Where the bulls, some of them old and magnificent, round up their harems and, in the process, bathe the valley in an operatic flourish of bugling. The elk bugle is like nothing else I’ve heard. It is a literal call of the wild, as iconic and as Hollywood as the cry of a Red-tailed Hawk over a canyon.
–> Listen to a short NPR piece on elk bugling with elk audio.
If you Google elk rut you’ll pull in a preponderance of hunting sites . . . because in as much as elk rut signifies for us wildlife workers and observers a most sacred and precious autumn event, it also coincides with the onset of hunting season. And for many a large-game hunter, elk rut fuels the shooting juices. It inspires net monikers like “elk slammer.” It’s a mental framework I’ve never understood — in spite of my attempts to comprehend what is to me, the incomprehensible draw of bloodsport.
But we were in Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park. In the former, the elk and all other wildlife (until recently) have been protected. And in the latter, the herds of elk are habituated to humans by virtue of camping out on the golf course and grazing at the Stanley Hotel. They’re a draw for tourists and a grand juxtaposition against this residential landscape.
Elk as Urban Dwellers
Because of this, it’s not unusual to see the elk, as we did, traipsing through a garden — or stopping traffic as their massive frames amble across the road. It came as no surprise to us that many people we met had a sincere if admittedly mixed affection for the resident elk — in spite of the inconvenience of their size and their sometimes dramatic property-fouling ways. Mischief becomes nuisance for us humans when it comes in the form of a 700-pound bull. It’s, admittedly, a complex relationship.
As we watched this herd, there was a garden fence over which the more experienced leaped without a hitch. The young elk tried, only to be foiled by the height. Another elk would then lead the young one around the side where passage didn’t require a leap of adult proportions.
Breaking the Silence
As the last of the elk made their way beyond the back garden, we heard it. A gunshot blast that shattered the silence like a cannon. The ear-splitting loudness suggested a proximity mere meters from where we stood. The peaceful herd — the animals who minutes before nuzzled each other, played and chased on the lawn, looked after their young — galloped in mayhem back to the garden fence. Mothers with young, bulls and cows all, trampled each other in the panic. The distress cries — the young trying to find their mothers in the confusion — it was all difficult to bear after witnessing the poignant exchange in the hour just prior. After watching them bond in what can only be described as elegant symbiosis, it was heart-stopping to realize that one of the elk we’d just observed eating from a bird feeder had probably met his bad fate on the other side.
Through the trees, we saw the silhouette of a man. It was hunting season, but we were on a residential street with 1/4 acre (at most) between homes. We were certain we were standing within Estes Park city limits. Scores of “no hunting” signs were posted throughout the area, making us question the legality of the shot.
The elk mob huddled against the garden fence. It’s the scene many a hunter won’t see — the remnants of what the gunshot wreaks, the stressed tableau of the survivors. If a hunter wounds and loses an animal, she doesn’t see the aftermath of how that animal suffers with an arrow through it’s breast or bird shot festering. Some animals, wounded or even just grazed by bullets or arrows, will live for a day or a week or two, even, dying from septic infection or peritonitis. Hunters probably don’t see how the animal’s mate for life may stay with the injured animal as it languishes from the affliction. Those concerns are, I imagine, immaterial to the pursuit.
Tracking the Shot
I didn’t want to witness the outcome of that shot. I didn’t want to see yet another brutal death. But I also knew that if there was any illegality involved, we’d have to find the source. To access the property where we’d seen the silhouette — without trespassing across gardens — required navigating a maze of dead ends.
We saw the hunter first, at a distance, behind a fence marked private. And then we saw the elk — on the ground with an arrow protruding near his haunch, a poor shot that even an adept bow hunter will acknowledge as questionable. The elk was one of the bulls we had just watched bugling, who then leaped unknowingly to the draw of a human bow and, ostensibly, the shot we heard.
Edited to add: a commenter below took issue with the fact that there was an arrow in the elk during rifle season. I made the note below, but when we called the game department to make sure this location for the hunt was legal, we were told that crossbows were permitted during rifle season. Hunters can better speak to this issue but my initial impression from what we were told was that the shot was probably fired to follow up on the poor crossbow shot.
We were seeing our own distressing “after the hunt” scene. It was even more insidious to us because the elk was a cheat of a target: an animal who had literally walked from a golf course, through a cul-de-sac, past a Mercedes, and into a garden. He was shot from a driveway — with a pickup truck in waiting for the body.
The elk was not dead, even after 30+ minutes. He was raising his massive head and forelegs, struggling to get up. The weapon bearer laughed and chatted with a companion, his back to the struggling elk. My mind raced with any viable options. I scanned the scene for anyone to ask about property lines and hunting ordinances. The agony was interminable. Nearing an hour, the elk executed his last life attempt and passed into merciful death.
It was a slow death — compounded by the cavalier juxtaposition of a hunter’s demeanor against the backdrop of a suffering animal. Slow death is a common and even expected occurrence in bow hunting — and not the white-washed version often used to persuade the rest of us of archery’s humaneness. Some studies estimate that for every deer shot by bowhunters, one escapes, wounded by arrow or broadhead — even if these numbers are difficult to substantiate. If you read bowhunting literature, 30 minutes or more is not an uncommon time to wait for an animal to die. Actual time can be much longer, even hours. So for anyone with the illusion that this type of hunt is quick and humane as often reported, do some research on “wounding rates” and you may be surprised and probably dismayed by what you find.
We finally saw and flagged a passing neighbor, asking her about this incident, in a neighborhood papered with “no hunting” signs. She told us that although nearly everyone in the neighborhood prohibited hunting, one resident permitted shooting on his multi-acre property. The property was mere yards from the town boundary so it was technically legal.
“That’s Not Hunting”
An old-school Colorado hunter we know, upon hearing this story, frowned and said, “that’s not hunting. That’s not sport. That’s just plain, cold killing.” He suggested we contact local authorities to make sure the elk was legally slain, but we’d already explored that possibility. He was as dismayed by the story we relayed as we were crushed by the experience.
The elk was shot within meters of artificial fountains and nymph statuettes, basketball hoops, and stamped out development homes. The cliche of shooting fish in a barrel — or rather, in a virtual amusement park — couldn’t be more apt to describe the scene. “I’m sorry you had to see that,” the neighborly woman said. “I was also distressed to hear that shot.”
In an adjacent, paved driveway, members of the herd who’d made it past the gunman before the shot, were plastered, immobilized against an automatic garage door as the hunter hauled his kill into the back of his pickup.
There is such a thing in hunters’ vernacular as fair hunt and chase — if one abides by hunting ethics of the ilk prescribed by Boone and Crockett. None of it, frankly, seems all that fair to me when you consider the scent-blocking camouflage, the sophisticated callers, the high-powered weaponry, the ATV shooting. And that in the end, the animal in the scope doesn’t genuinely have a fair shot.
“Fair” is Subjective
Many hunters will tell you the sport is fair. They’ll tell you of the difficulty of tracking a deer equipped with heightened auditory and olfactory perception — senses designed to deal on one level with natural predation, but not with a rifle sight or any number of technologies designed to foil those very senses. As a photographer, I acknowledge the difficulty of going unnoticed by animals who are understandably frightened of humans. But even as a person who abides by strict wildlife photography ethics, I’ve been out there enough to know that if my telephoto lens were a rifle, the animals wouldn’t stand a chance once I’ve sighted them. Some states, as you probably know, even allow baiting — where wild animals are lured to a spot with feed and then shot over the food pile.
Hunters describe the hours of near hypothermia in the cold wetlands, waiting for ducks to fly into their field of robo-duck decoys and barrage of shotgun fire. But rarely will they tell you how many birds they cripple and lose — and yet continue to shoot their limit without counting the downed birds. If you haven’t yet, travel sometime on public lands during hunting season to hear and see just how that barage manifests as a flock of ducks or geese passes overhead.
My Changing Perspective on Hunting
I’d always given hunters credit for walking their talk and admitting to the brutal reality that underlies a desire to eat meat — in a culture largely dissociated from the truth of those culinary choices. Even as a young, committed vegetarian, I had less animosity for the sport that would be expected because, again, I’d been convinced of and respected the hunter’s honesty in ‘acquiring’ meat.
Sadly, my wistful paradigm of the “noble” hunter has eroded over the years, the reality of my experience not matching anywhere near the sanitized version one tends to hear from hunting groups. There’s only so much PR you can throw up around a practice that undeniably causes death and, often (sadly) significant suffering in the hands of those less adept, and those who don’t live by an iron code of humane standards.
The killing of this elk was one more dubious practices that many hunters defend — but which they would probably do well to reject in the interest of maintaining some sense of credibility for their pursuits at large. In as much as anyone tries to flaunt one’s compassion while allowing this type of inhumanity to persist in their ranks, the justifications for the so-called sport break down. And opposition to the sport gains increasing legitimacy.
It’s easy to justify almost any treatment of non-human animals by adopting a anthropocentric and utilitarian view of animals: they are here, purely and simply, to satisfy our own needs and whims. And that’s what many people do, especially those who stand to lose from increased awareness about an animal’s inherent needs and increased understanding about the complex intellectual, emotional and social conventions among different animal species.
As much as we’ve seen, working with animals both domestic and wild — as much as we’ve watched the powerless meet unspeakable fates on this planet — this felt like the final straw in a long life that’s seen too many injured — and listened to too many rationalizations.
It’s an emotional slug that will forever freeze that moment in time — the time we met ourselves in the serene enclave of the elk — the time we felt that silent connection, the mutual pulsing of the life force through them, through us — the time we were invited to be part of this peaceful and temporary existence — the time before the gun shot blasted our world. And theirs.