When I was young my father would take me hunting. He would rattle me out of bed early on a Saturday morning. I would put on my red flannel shirt, blue jeans, and silicone soaked boots, wash my face and off we'd go. Dad had a hundred scattered hunting parcels in his itinerary. His favorites were abandoned farm land out by Saratoga Lake where he had previously asked permission to hunt.
Many times we would bring our beagle, Snoop. I hated when we took Snoop. It wasn't because I didn't like him, it was the opposite. He was not the most disciplined hunting dog. One of the reasons was he didn't get beyond the confines of his 20 x 20 pen much. When he did he was like a kid at the fair with a pocket full of tickets. He didn't know which direction to go first so he would charge off snorting and sniffing his way deep into the woods. His biggest shortfall was not coming when called. He was either very smart or hard of hearing. He would take off like a rocket. As a kid my biggest fear was him not coming back. I couldn't show that fear though--it wasn't an option. Thinking back it was probably plastered all over my face, my father wishing I had been born with a little more badass in my veins, sorry dad. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy being in the woods with my father, I did. I would much rather it had been a rifle-less hike along the shores of a north country lake. I loved walking in the woods. I simply didn't want to kill animals for sport. I loved hunting for the excursion.
When I was sixteen I killed a beautiful six point buck on the first drive of my first season with a big game license. It was one of the most adrenaline pumping experiences ever. It was also the most revealing of my personality. I have no regrets about what I did. Sometimes I think it was the proudest moment of our father-son relationship. My father would refer to it for years as 'Johnny's Buck'. He had it mounted and it headlined his knotty pine den for forty years. I never hunted again. I still have the guns, I just don't have the desire.
There was one rabbit hunting experience that probably sealed the deal for me. I have never written about it or talked about it much. It was a very traumatic and shakes me when I think of it now. My childhood home included acres of woods right outside the backdoor. There was a trail that circled the perimeter. I would take my 16 gauge Ithaca shotgun and walk it with my dog Snoop. On this particular day, I headed out to exercise the dog, never intending to shoot anything.
Toward the end of our hunt I suddenly heard the most blood curdling yelp from Snoop. It was one of those animal sounds you never want to hear. It became louder and more excruciating. My first thought was my dog was caught in a trap. I thrashed my way through the brush trying to come to his aid. I don't think I have ever been as scared as I was that day. He was entrenched in a patch of alders so thick I couldn't see him. I heard other animals growling. It was horrible. I then realized he was being attacked but I could not tell by what. I didn't dare shoot because I couldn't see. I was hesitant to charge forward. It sounded like a pack of wolves growling and snapping. Animal pain and distress permeated the air. I finally was able to get a slight visual. All I could see were two black and white masses circling and attacking Snoop. I finally shot a round into the air. A pair of blood covered Dalmatians turned and glared at me. It was a chilling sight. I pulled up the shotgun and took aim. That's when they took off through the thick swamp leaving Snoop writhing in a pool of blood. They had castrated him. He was alive but crying in pain. I couldn't touch him. I ran home to get help. My father was away at work. My mother was home, but she didn't drive so dad had our only vehicle. Mom called her sister. Minutes later my cousins boyfriend arrived in his Volkswagen Beetle. I led him to Snoop. We wrapped him in a blanket and carried him to the car. I climbed in the back seat with the dog on my lap. He was in shock. Off to the vet we sped. The nearest vet was ten miles away. It was the longest ten miles I ever traveled.
I don't remember much after arriving at the veterinarians. I know they promised to do everything they could to save Snoop. They called the house the next day and said they were sorry, there wasn't anything they could do. Snoop had chased his last rabbit.
I was a country boy. I had buried pets before. I've buried several since. That event shook me pretty good. I had a hard time watching a Budweiser commercial after that. I never did pop the top of a Bud, now that I think of it. Yes, it's a graphic story, but its a country story. It was a couple of years later when I shot my six pointer.
It wasn't a conscious decision but I think those two events combined to turn me away from the sport but not the woods. I found peace in nature. It came easier with a camera in my pocket than it did with a gun by my side. Hunting is a part of our heritage and I support it. Currently I don't participate. I will leave that door open. I never did shoot a rabbit in the years Snoop and I spent in the woods together. I don't think they were ever afraid I would.