The cover story of the Dec. 9 issue of Time magazine really grabbed my attention when I pulled it out of my mailbox. With a photo of a deer on the cover, the title proclaims, “the rules of hunting are about to change” because it’s “Time To Cull The Herd.”
The point of the Time article, by David Von Drehle, is that, now that we’ve brought nearly a dozen species of wildlife back from the near-extinction we caused 50 to 150 years go, it’s up to us to control their populations, by hunting, the most effective method.
The big question, though, is does our society have the heart to solve the problem, to control wildlife, especially top predators, through hunting, before their numbers reach an unsustainable level that forces them to starve to death? As horse owners, we should have a greater understanding of animals and the natural world than most Americans, so we should be a voice of intelligent reason in this debate.
Nature seeks to live in a balance, except that we humans, the earth’s super-predator, have tipped the balance through our own herd’s construction, extractions and consumption. Today we live in the territory of the top predators—the wolf, bear, alligator and cougar, especially the bear and the alligator. And we provide them with all sorts of things to eat—primarily garbage for bears and primarily small pets for alligators. Wolves and cougars are much shier animals and are almost exclusively an occasional problem for ranchers raising cattle or sheep, and even that’s usually only when other prey is scarce. And that’s often a sign that there are too many predators in an area.
These species’ population explosion is a human problem, because we’ve caused it. We almost annihilated the white-tailed deer, the wolf, the cougar, the black and grizzly bears, the alligator, the beaver and others with our reckless hunting in the 19th and 20th centuries, but over the last 50 years we’ve achieved a miracle in bringing them back, likely to greater numbers than ever before.
But at same time our own population has kept doubling, to now 320 million people living in the United States. So now, much of North America looks and lives nothing like the habitat these species’ ancestors once had. Our towns and suburbs are now built on or right next to the places their predecessors called home. To cope, deer, bears, coyotes and alligators have learned to make good use of what we humans have around us—shelter, lawns and gardens, pet food small pets and garbage being their favorites.
Von Drehle summarizes his point in one a few sentences: “What can keep [these species] away from our neighborhoods? Only the pushback from the No. 1 predator of them all: the human being. Well-planned hunting can safely reduce the wildlife populations to levels that won’t invite an invasion of fangs and claws.
”This is nature’s way: an equilibrium of prey and predator, of life and death.”
I agree that the best solution is controlled hunting. I’ve been a foxhunter for more than 40 years, but I have to admit that the number of fox and coyote taken by hunts in North America isn’t really affecting these populations. I’ve never hunted with a gun, but I’ve known many men and women who do hunt responsibly. I believe that the key concept is that it must be “controlled “ hunting, to ensure the safety of those of us how aren’t hunting and of our horses and pets.
My experience with deer hunting in New Jersey, where I grew up, and Virginia, where I lived for 24 years, was not always positive, because hunters were too often suburban yahoos crashing through the woods with guns, recklessly shooting at anything that moves. The key to controlled hunting is for hunting organizations and the government agencies that oversee hunting to offer and require firearms and safety education.
I’m a wildlife fan. I always have been. I still fondly remember the early wildlife encounters I had, especially trips to the Everglades in Florida, where I saw alligators and all kinds of birds. I can also recall seeing bald eagles perched in a tree overhead several times while foxhunting in Virginia. And it’s always a highlight of my day if I see a bobcat or a fox on our farm or a red-tailed hawk soaring overhead.
But when I lived in Virginia, the problem was deer, of which there are about 32 million, more than there when Columbus arrived here more than 500 years ago, according to the National Wildlife Research Center.
And they seemed to live mostly on the road. From November to about February, when I’d drive home in the twilight or dark, I’d be on extra alert for deer jumping in front of me, because twice I had accidents involving deer. The first happened at about 8:30 a.m.—a deer jumped over a hedge onto a gravel road right in front of me as driving to work; I slammed on breaks and frightened the doe, who fell in front of me just before my front bumper struck her, severely wounding her, but not killing her. She struggled off and presumably died later. The second time it was a buck, at about 6:00 p.m. I saw something leap at me as I drove past in my pickup truck, and he slammed into the left-rear fender, right behind the wheel, after leaping into the road. I don’t know what his injuries were, but I had a big dent.
Obviously that deer wasn’t attacking me—he was probably running from something or to somewhere, and I just happened to be in his way—so I laugh at the panic that deer sometimes cause. I’ve seen video of people running away, screaming in terror, when a deer gets in the grocery store parking lot or in an aisle. They’re far more scared of you than you are of them, and all they want to do is get away. But people act as if they’ve encountered a long-legged lion. It’s a sign of how far removed our society has become from animals, including the wildlife we’ve brought back from the brink.
On the other hand, feral pigs, of which there are about 5.5 million, really are dangerous. I’d never encountered them before I moved here to California in 2006, but they now live in 48 states. Like deer, they’re a road hazard, but the damage they can do to your car is even more substantial because it’s like hitting a large rock—they weigh between 200 and 350 pounds, and their bones and hide are so much tougher than a deer’s. I’m glad I only occasionally drive at night these days, as I’ve witnessed two pig-car collisions on the road in front of our farm.
Feral pigs are not indigenous to North America; the Spanish brought them with them when they came to colonize the continent. Pigs will also tear up your fields or gardens, but the biggest danger is to your pets, family and friends or you. If you surprise one, especially a sow with piglets, you could be in serious trouble. They’re very aggressive, with tusks and fangs, and they’re not too afraid of humans.
Two years ago, we lived for about two weeks in a serious state of anxiety because we had a very large boar who’d decided our barnyard was a comfy spot. I chased him down the driveway just after dawn one morning, and we didn’t actually see him again (although we saw signs he’d been there overnight) until about a week later. He was weak and very lame, presumably because he’d been hit by a car, and the next morning we found him dying in our manure pile, after digging himself a warm hole. We worked carefully around his hulk for about an hour, before a friend came and dispatched him with a pistol.