Thoughts on a Dead Deer

E.O. Schaub

A deer died in our backyard yesterday. Ten years ago I would’ve found this event deeply disturbing, tragic, and probably warranting a medium-length depression on my part. Instead, I thought to myself, “Huh. Interesting.” Later, when the hunter and his friend came in a pick-up truck to claim it and promised us some venison steaks as a sort of middle-man gratuity, I didn’t even recoil with a long-ingrained vegetarian revulsion. Instead, I thought: “Cool!”

Clearly, some things have changed. For one thing, I recently ended a two-decade-long meat abstention of varying degrees. (You know, no-red-meat-but-yes-poultry – ie: “flexitarian”– becomes no-poultry-but-yes-fish -ie: “pescatarian”– which evolves into no-fish-no-poultry-no-red-meat-but-yes-eggs-milk-and-cheese -ie: “ovo-lacto vegetarian”– which ultimately, of course, turns into “I eat nothing but kiwi-fruit, orange Tic-Tacs, and dirt” – ie: “antidisestablishmentarian”.) So no longer avoiding meat of any kind certainly changes my outlook on these sorts of things.

But other things have changed too: my definition of respect for life, and what constitutes responsible eating. Where once I considered it a act of kindness and compassion- not to mention a sign of my highly-evolved sense of ethics- to shun burgers in favor of a meal consisting of fries and water, or to consume a Thanksgiving Day dinner comprised of everything but the turkey- basically a festival of starch- nowadays I realize that respect for life, happiness and well-being has to by necessity, start at home. Which is to say, with me.

So after feeling generally crappy and energy-deprived on a not-particularly-healthy, quasi-meat free diet for so many years, I decided that perhaps I had saved my share of doe-eyed cattle and gave myself a reprieve. I had some meat- real meat, like a steak. And then some bacon (oh bacon, I missed you!) And another day I had some oh-my-God-is-THIS-what-I’ve-been-missing spit-roasted pork. Amazingly, rather than finding myself repulsed or ill, I found that the more meat I put into my body- once a week became twice, three times and four- the better I felt.

But what about the animals? I kept wondering, Sentient life with emotions and the capacity to feel pain? It was this rudimentary ethical dilemma that had stopped my teenage-self dead in its tracks. What made me think I was so much better than a cow, or a pig, or a chicken, that I got to live while it had to die? That I would live, quite literally, because it died? Geez, couldn’t we all just get along? I had thought.

However, getting along, I have since keenly observed by watching nature shows on the Darwin channel, does not seem to be exactly what nature had in mind. My vegetarian side would argue that we, as fabulously big-brained humans, ought to be above all that natural selection stuff. But I couldn’t argue that eating meat was making me feel better, physically, than I had ever felt on my best vegetarian day. That had to mean something, right?

Then the real epiphany for me came: I was reading a magazine interview with some philosophical person in which the idea was expressed that the only way to ensure that our existence creates no harm in the world is… not to exist. Whoa. There was a lot more too it that that, but that was the gist: I kill stuff, (whether actively or passively) therefore I am. Maybe abstaining from meat was more hypocritical than helpful… was I pretending to help the world while denying the fact that my very existence caused by extension the death of animals, plants, insects, and microorganisms all the time? (Not to mention all those poor, defenseless Reese’s Peanut Butter cups…. the horror.)

Okay, this is getting pretty heavy, but quickly, I came to the conclusion that I had no plans to benefit the universe by jumping off the nearest cliff. Instead I would try to work within the system that already exists to the mutual benefit of firstly, myself and, secondarily, the natural environment. I look at this vaguely Ayn Rand-ian “Me-First” mentality as being not so much self-centered or arrogant, but rather more along the lines of the deeply philosophical t-shirt slogan: “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nooooooobody happy.” So true.

But back to the dead deer. After watching wide-eyed from our window as the hunters carted off the still-warm carcass from the back field, later that evening we made our way to the famed annual Pawlet Game Supper (if you can call 4:30 PM supper-time- but if you’re a hunter who got up at 2 to smear yourself in Eau-de Deer and go sit in a tree for ten hours, then I guess I see their point). Increasingly, this day was becoming an episode from “Adventures in Meat Eating!” This was, in fact, the forty-first Pawlet Game supper, meaning that it is just slightly older than me, which makes me already inclined to like it. We feasted on a whole lot of very brown food, loaded onto plates which emitted rich, carnivorous smells and sagged in the middle under the weight of moose meatballs, roast bear, and venison meatloaf, not to mention at least seven or eight other meat dishes, plus chicken and biscuits for anyone in attendance who happened to be really, really lost, or who thought “Game Supper” meant that after dinner we’d be playing backgammon and checkers.

(It’s worth the price of admission, by the way, just to visit the pie table after you’ve finished eating more meat than you ever thought imaginable, because you will doubtless suddenly find room for at least one perfect slice among the hundreds that are laid out on the table which is at least twenty-five feet long and six pie-plates deep.)

But the dinner made me think about animals and what might constitute a good animal life. Perhaps the greatest act of respect we can have for animals is to let them be animals- whether wild or domesticated- for whatever the duration of their life may be. As a newly born-again carnivore, I’m quietly trying to eat only meat that had a pretty happy life, which means no feed lots, no living in a cage in the dark, no animals hopped up on pharmaceutical cocktails. Unfortunately this is not very easy, and usually not terribly cheap either. But I imagine the deer who died in our backyard, compared to so many animals we encounter on our plates, in restaurants or in the supermarket, actually had a pretty awesome life, wandering the hills of Pawlet, drinking from the Mettawee River and sleeping in a tramped down spot on the top of Indian Hill. That same animal will provide many, many cost-effective, organic dinners that will be nourishing and healthy, not to mention ridiculously local in origin. Dinners which might otherwise consist of animals which had spent their lives in crowded, ankle-deep manure puddles.

Interestingly, more than one local hunter has recently explained to me, unprompted, that going to hunting camp is really not about blood-thirsty killing of Bambi. Rather, it is about camaraderie, being in nature, being away from the pressures of everyday life for a while. I believe this. Is it too bad that an animal has to draw it’s last breath to support such a pastime? Well, let’s not think of it that way. Instead, let’s think of it from another perspective: as maybe a more honest, respectful relationship with our food. After all, if you were to be reborn in the form of an animal, either a feed-lot cow, or a deer on the top of Indian Hill, which would you choose?

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