Category Archives: writing

Courting Controversy & Marrying Compromise

This week, police officers in the City of Toronto shot a sick coyote.  There was a hue and cry about it from many areas and these vociferous arguments appealed to the basest instincts in the animal versus humanity dichotomy: anthropomorphism, concepts of value relative to human versus animal life, and some abstract concept of kinship with wildlife.

A June photo of the coyote in question. Photo lifted from
A June photo of the coyote in question. Photo lifted from

Most of it was bunk.

You see, per the media narrative, this coyote was a ‘single father’ raising three pups after his companion female coyote met her demise under the wheels of a car. This coyote’s death put the orphaned pups in danger (presumably more danger than they already were in as simply being urban coyotes), and the Toronto Wildlife Centre came to the fore in their objections to this course of action, making arguments that stray domestic animals were more harmful than this solitary coyote, that a coyote had only once been documented to ‘nip’ a person in Toronto, and that they themselves could have undertaken the humane treatment and rehabilitation of this heroic animal (although there was no indication, at least in the media, that they had actually attempted said treatment program, even though they admitted that they had been to the den of this coyote).

The theme is all too common.  The abstract and presumed well-being of wildlife being secondary to some ‘what-if’ scenario involving injury, inconvenience, or danger to a human population.  The coyote just wants to ‘live’ while humanity is the intruder in the animal’s domain.  Who is the real animal in this equation?

Et cetera, et cetera.

To put a finer point on this, let’s just do a thought experiment.  Imagine if you will, a member of the Toronto Wildlife Centre, or any other member of the public for that matter, attending the pup-laden den of said coyote w3ith nothing but good, helpful intentions.  Then the father coyote shows up.  Would there be hand-wringing and debate on the part of the coyote about the appropriate course of action, or debates about the merits of the intentions of the human, or would there be a reaction to defend the den and his offspring?  I can say with at least some degree of certainty (having been in reasonably close quarters with coyotes) that they can be vicious and dangerous when faced with survival situations, and while they are supremely adapted and bafflingly clever, they are still wildlife with instincts prone to defense of territory, defense of offspring, and defense of food.  It is presumable that the intruder in the den might face a sobering situation, and concepts of humane treatment or the abstract details of the human’s life likely would not enter the coyote’s frame of reference.

Who’s being anthropomorphic now?

Of course, that we can have debates about humane practice at all truly crystallizes the fundamental difference between the animal and human experience.  Observations of coyotes has shown me that they can do some basic planning, they can do some basic problem solving, and their will to live and ability to adapt is second to very few other native animals in Ontario.  But they are not rational, they are not erudite, they do not do math, and they are single-minded in one thing: survival.

And on the topic of survival, it is very likely plausible that an animal in such wretched shape could only have survived that long in an urban environment with access to human-generated food sources; severe mange of the kind seen on the coyote in question is a near-certain death sentence to truly wild coyote.  Again, the coyote apologists would use the stock answer of that being at least a ‘natural death’ with seemingly little concern for the suffering endured by the animal.  Also, and I’ve always stated this with conviction, a slow, potentially agonizing death, is still a death.  That it is caused ‘naturally’ by the chill of a vicious January night on a mangy coyote’s body or ‘unnaturally’ by the bullet from an urban police officer really has little bearing on the final outcome.

So here I am, walking that dangerous and controversial line between the rationalist viewpoint that in terms of safety and what could nebulously be termed ‘the greater good’ having a mange-riddled coyote that is attempting to support pups wandering and hunting through urban and suburban Scarborough is probably a bad idea.  At the end of the day I can understand, if not outwardly support the actions of the officers in this scenario.  A more impulsively misanthropic sentiment in me does somewhat lament that the situation has come to this, and I can certainly sympathize with the predicament the coyote (and less outwardly relatable wildlife like skunks, raccoons, squirrels, and possums) found itself in.  As someone raised with a lifelong conservation ethic, I never want to see the waste of wildlife.

But this is also time to consider the behaviour of people, and what the hue and cry (not to mention the legal and social ramifications) that would appear if said coyote had injured a person, or done worse than injure a person.  Would an angry populace be so ‘humane’ had it been a more violent scenario, such as the one from Cape Breton in 2009?

Of course there are stock responses for that argument as well from apologists.  That was an isolated incident.  That was the fault of people for not giving wildlife respect/a wide berth. That was a rogue animal.  People (whatever that means) deserve aggression or should expect animals to ‘fight back’…as though animals know there is even a fight happening, as opposed to just acting on instinctual behaviours.

Et cetera, et cetera.

Of course the fundamental issue with these arguments is that, like it or not, at the most base and primal level, human life is more valuable than animal life.  It is a fairly recent, and probably impermanent paradigm, and most certainly not to be taken on a case by case basis (because there are several thousand people that I find less enjoyable than I find a wild turkey or a white-tailed deer) but on the overall balance.  We often hear that when it comes to drug use, car accidents, preventable diseases, and the like that ‘one person’s death is one too many’, and without a hint of apology I stand by this ethic when it comes to wildlife encounters at large.  Essentially I adhere to the following principal: If an animal can kill you back, and you are not being reckless or unnecessarily provoking to the animal, then I’m okay with people taking reasonable steps to end the animal before it has the opportunity to end you.  This is not radical thinking.  It is pragmatic and realistic. I personally am not some callous, gun-toting hillbilly that shoots every animal he sees on sight, but even if I were, that would not be germane to the greater argument surrounding this specific scenario in Scarborough, because the argument is about whether the coyote should live at the potential future risk to the people in that area at large.

I have seen many coyotes from afar that were simply doing ‘coyote things’ like hunting, travelling between territories, and generally doing a good job surviving.  I had no desire to shoot those specimens.  If I saw one in my backyard, acting erratically, sniffing around my door, or looking either sick and/or aggressive, then that’s a different set of circumstances and I would want to be granted (as I would grant any individual or agent of the state, like say, police officers) the liberty to handle the situation in a proactive manner.

Because it is not just hunters, conservationists, and animal rights activists that get a say here.  It is people at large and how they view interaction with all levels of wildlife that are required to make their own ethical decisions; decisions which often compromise some level of their personal ethical integrity.

Because even though the situation in Scarborough ended with the black and white choices of life or death for that coyote, the grey areas in urban wildlife management policy, the inevitable reliance on the almighty dollar, humanity’s occasionally misrepresented beliefs about animal behaviour, and our modern view of human-wildlife interactions informed the preamble to that final, some might say inevitable, outcome.

Stop Telling Me Why You Hunt, or, What’s Your Real Motivation?

As is often the case, social media has been a wellspring of inspiration for content on this site, and in this case I was moved to start thinking about motivation. More specifically, I started thinking about what really motivates hunters.  You see, for the last few days I have been seeing all sorts of pictures, and memes, and slogans, and catchphrases from dozens of people about “Why I Hunt”, and two things are baffling about this to me.

First, all of them seem to, at least in part, ascribe the sole motivation of going hunting to items that in my mind are simply component parts of the whole.

Second, since when was an explanation necessary?

To the second point first.  You see it isn’t that I don’t care why you hunt, it’s more that I don’t consider it to be any of my business.  So long as you are doing it within the confines of the law and your outward representation of the hunting tradition isn’t negatively influencing non-hunters and/or baiting anti-hunters, then my stance is that you have no call to justify yourself to me. In fact, unless you are trying to simply get attention for the generally commonplace fact that you went hunting or you are trying to soft-serve the anti-hunting community with more palatable explanations for why hunting is important, I can see no real reason why you need to crow about it.

I appreciate now if anyone wants to point out the irony of my blog/social media presence as being hypocritical to what I just wrote, but read on and you’ll see what I’m driving at.

I, of course, have my own thoughts and standards about what some might call ‘acceptable practices’ or ‘ethical hunting’ and I may not even personally like how, where, or what you use to do it.  But what I think about you doesn’t matter, and I frankly don’t really have to justify my actions or impress anyone else.  Because despite the mass-social-media, let-me-take-a-selfie, bigger-is-better, and gosh-I-hope-the guys-at-Realtree/Mossy Oak/Remington/Under Armor-see-my-feed-and-offer-me-a-sponsorship mentality that seems to be at the corporate root of all things in the modern hunting world, how I choose to commune with nature and find my happy place does not concern you at all, and so long as you’re okay and your actions don’t jeopardize my ability to independently pursue game in the outdoors, then I have no real right or desire to lecture you about what you are doing. I truly could not care less, in the best, most benignly friendly sense of that statement.

Let’s discuss it over a beer some time.

But to the first, and to my mind more troubling point, is my confusion with the willingly or ignorantly delusional stuff I see used to justify or purify the hunting experience.  I see things like (and I’m paraphrasing) “Frosty fall sunrises are why I hunt” or “Seeing game in its natural environment is why I hunt” or “Spring sunsets are why I hunt”, or “Supporting conservation is why I hunt” or my personal favourite “Being outside in nature is why I hunt” and, frankly, you can do all of those things without actually hunting.  In fact, if they are the prime motivator to what you deem to be the hunting tradition, then you can be a hiker, or a birdwatcher, or a nature photographer and (provided that the memes that you have been posting are true) I can assure you that you will get precisely the same level of fulfillment from any of the above activities, and you won’t get any blood on your hands at all, I swear.

Now, all of those experiential and conservation-themed items above are vastly important and I love all of them probably a little too much myself, but they are not the primary reason that I’m out there.  They are a happy benefit to being out there and they are to be cherished and shared in my mind, but if you are hunting…truly hunting… then you are out there to find and to kill game.

Let that sink in.  Not because I’ve just turned you on to a fact you did not already know and have been perhaps in denial about, but rather let it sink in because if you are saying that sunsets, and sunrises, and pretty birds, and peaceful reflection, or money in the conservationists coffers are the things that get you out to hunt, then you can either leave the rifle at home next time and have a less burdensome walk, or you can start to speak in actual truthful terms and not clichés.  When someone says “I hunt for the meat” or “I hunt to challenge myself against wildlife” then they have my undivided attention.  Even people who say “I hunt for a trophy” or “I hunt to make myself feel important” get a bit of my time because although I can’t say I share their motivation, I can be relatively certain that they are telling the truth and to do those things in the above paragraph you actually have to, you know, hunt.

If you’re proud of being a hunter and want to tell the world about it, knock yourself out; I do it all the time and very much to the displeasure of my friends, coworkers, and loved ones.  But paint the whole picture.

Tell that story about the time you sat for eleven hours in a treestand during a snow storm and saw screw-all.  Tell that story about the time you got lost and tasted those first sickening pangs of fear and confusion.  Tell the story about the time you made a snap shot and then had to track a gut-shot deer for hours before giving up and losing sleep fretting that it probably died in agony because you made a mistake. Explain the inner workings of what it takes to gut a moose or skin a squirrel.  Be not profane, but tell the tales about the shitty side of things and make it real, because it is never always a steady stream of magenta sunsets, meditation to a birdsong soundtrack, and one-shot kills.

And if you think it is or that it will be, I’m sorry, but I’ve got news for you.

Breaking Clays and Busting Chops

There’s not much better than clay-busting therapy time spent with a shotgun. Case in point, our annual “family and friends” skeet shoot this past Labour Day long weekend.

Yes, I know I’m using the Canadian spelling for Labour Day. No I’m not changing it, despite the pleadings of Microsoft’s spellchecking software.  You’ll also need to be aware that it isn’t a “skeet-shoot” in the Olympic sense of the term…but more on that later.


This event has had ebbs and flows over the years, sometimes drawing dozens of shooters and other times just a meager crowd of relations and close friends.  Past champions, myself included, gloat over former glories and lament their inability to repeat those triumphs.  Egos are boosted on the back of a streak of good shooting form, and hopes for victory can shatter like the targets thrown against the sky.

Enough flowery metaphors though.  It is ideally a chance to make the scatterguns go boom, tenderize shoulders in advance of a fast-approaching waterfowl season, laugh and reminisce with pals, and air out petty personal grievances in the form of not-so-subtle trash-talk.

The 2015 iteration of this event took place just this past Saturday, or September 5th for those of you without a calendar.  While there was some buzz about it, we found a slightly smaller group lined up in the back hollow.  Some regular attendees were indisposed at a camping trip, while I’m sure others were discouraged by the sweltering temperatures and blazing UV index.  It was well over 30 degrees Celsius when we started the event but the eight of us in attendance were all game to compete, and as we uncased shotguns and peeled open shell boxes the sense of anticipation was obvious.

For a time we milled around, no one really wanting to be the first to lead things off, but eventually one of us crossed onto the shooting line and began thumbing shells into the breech.  As the first clays broke, earplugs were inserted and everyone’s confidence grew and before long everyone was lining up for their turn, shooting long flyers and low crossers while we crudely critiqued each other’s shooting prowess with colourful language and witty rejoinders.  We set up a line of two or three guns and tested each other’s speed and accuracy, even managing to dust the broken flyers of split clays a couple of times.

There were also tragic misses and hilarious reminiscences told.

In time, and in a way that was mostly informal, we came to the competition round.  I had won this single-elimination competition in 2012 by heating up at just the right time and going on a 9-for-9 streak, after a preliminary warmup that exposed just miserable shooting on my part.  To say many ‘superior’ wingshots were rightly embarrassed that day is an understatement.

The elimination round allows a shooter three shots in a round with the intent being to break single clays thrown more or less similarly.  This year, our designated thrower decided that one of the clays would be randomly selected to be a fast, low, left to right crossing shot, which is arguably one of the harder shots to make in my opinion.  After my cousin Luke had run a perfect 3-for-3 in his opening round, and my brother followed up with a 3-for-3 of his own, I stepped up and broke the first two clays (and I looked damn stylish doing it too, but that’s for a future post) before our thrower whipped the third clay, which was the low crosser.  I snapped the 870 to my shoulder and fired in one smooth motion, powdering the target and drawing cheers of surprise from the small gallery of other shooters.  I snapped the pump action on the 870 one last time and confidently headed back behind the firing line, content in my glory.  My friend Jason, who was firing a side by side shotgun of reasonable vintage, also managed a 3-for-3 so a quartet of shooters headed to round two.

I powdered two more clays in the next round, including another low crosser before tasting defeat on a clean miss at the third target.  My brother also bowed out in the second round, while Luke and Jason had perfect second rounds to advance to the final.  In the final round, Luke missed one clay, which was enough of a window for Jason to run another perfect round, finishing 9-for9 and taking this year’s honours as the champion.

We celebrated by shooting more clays, telling dirty jokes, and critiquing my wardrobe.  We put the guns away and attempted to catch thrown clays in our bare hands.  My brother and I each managed to make some catches, showing that soft hands are for more than smoothly swinging a shotgun.  Eventually the hour came to clean the field and with the guns stowed we had some cold beers, piled up the empty shells, and retrieved any unbroken clays before sitting on truck tailgates and laughing some more.

As I sat there in the sun, shoulder tingling from the pounding of countless rounds, laughing with good friends and enjoying the last weekend of the summer, the sense of fellowship and freedom hung heavy in the humid late-afternoon air.  A family and friends barbecue was going to start in a couple of hours and it required me to shower and change my clothes…not for my own pride but out of a sense of politeness to the other guests.  We posed for the annual photo shoot and made plans for the upcoming weekends of goose and duck hunting, and then we headed back from the hollow down to the farm house.

The turnout had been on the small side, the shooting had at times been atrocious, and the sun had been a bit hard on us all.  Still, traditions are made to be maintained, and blazing away at our annual farm skeet shoot is one tradition I’m happy to honour.

The Lessons of Childhood Boredom

So it’s official…I’m a rock star.  How can I tell?  Because I receive fan mail, that’s how.  Global fan mail.  Apparently my blog has taken off in parts of the world where the hunting tradition is far removed from my own comfortable little pocket of Ontario, and people have written me to tell me about it.  Two emails from Japan, one from Singapore, three from the U.S.A., and one from India.  None from Canada yet, but it is obvious that I’m becoming a global sensation that is unappreciated in his homeland.  And I say it is about time.
Of course, my tongue is planted firmly in cheek and my ego is far from that large.  It is flattering to know that, thanks to the international reach of blogging and the Internet at large, that people around the world are reading my diseased ramblings (over 70% of my readership is still in North America, but you just can’t help but go global in today’s day and age).  It is even more flattering that these globally diverse readers subscribe and follow my writing, let alone that they take a moment to ask me questions or drop a line and say they like what they see.  I’ve also gotten hate mail (more on that in a future post) but I guess that is the risk one runs when you put your thoughts and opinions out in the global blogosphere.  So where am I going with all this?  I’m getting there.
One letter I received from a reader in Japan (written in impeccable English I might add…I have friends and coworkers that I wish could write that well) inquired about why I write, where I got my ideas, and when I became interested in writing about hunting and the outdoors.  I actually have not responded to that email yet (I meant to I swear) but I thought I’d put my answer out there with a post instead and kill two birds with one stone.
I’ve always had an interest in reading and writing (not so much with arithmetic, but that’s another story) and at an early age was found to be an obsessively anal retentive speller of words.  So I guess I come by my wordsmithing naturally.  So that covers off the first question: I’ve been interested in the written word for as long as I can remember.
To the second and third points, I can frame these with a flashback.
When I was a much younger person I spent a lot of time visiting the family farm.  We would go there at Christmas for a few days, some years we would spend March Break there, for three or four years before I was a teenager I’d spend a week or two there in the summer, and in the fall we would go there every year for Thanksgiving weekend in October.  These regular visits were also punctuated with occasional weekend trips throughout the year.
With the exception of the week at March Break, most of these trips involved hunting in some way.  In the Christmas season I could be found following my Dad around while he was hunting varying hares with a beagle and .22 rifle.  Thanksgivings were book-ended with waterfowl hunts on the Saturday and Monday mornings (this was before Sunday gun hunting was legal in this part of Ontario), and in the summer we would travel scanning the fields of local farmers looking for woodchucks (a.k.a. groundhogs).  Helping out with chores was also on the menu, from loading wood to occasionally helping pitch hay bales into the barn, there was always lots to do.  Of course, as kids do we also fooled around and got into mischief; some of which was very unsafe.  While playing tag in the orchard in the fading light of a summer evening or tossing a Frisbee around in the front yard were pretty benign, excavating extensive, ramshackle tunnels in the hay loft or tobogganing down huge hills at break neck speeds with nothing but a page wire fence and some hay bales to stop you at the bottom were slightly more reckless pursuits.  I learned to drive a tractor (slowly, jerkily, and overall terribly) in one of those summer trips and I learned gun safety and how to shoot a rifle.  Mostly I learned to understand and cherish the rural and wilderness places of the worlds, and I gained a deep respect and love for the people and animals that call those places home.
So how do these pastoral remembrances factor into an interest in writing about hunting and outdoor pursuits?  I told you, I’m getting there.
Of course with so much to do, it was amazing that a young boy could find boredom, but I did.  Rainy days, blizzards, or days when the air was so hot, heavy and still that you could almost swim through it did not really lend themselves to robust physical activity.  And this is where writing and reading came into play.
The farmhouse was (and to a degree still is) a veritable library of anything that an interested and open-minded person would want to read.  From classic children’s books such as The Wind in the Willows and the Tale of Peter Rabbit to field guides of birds, to huge collections of hunting and fishing magazines, there was a lot to read on the farm.  It helped that television was basically non-existent, with the TV picking up just three channels up until the late-1990’s.  I read Slaughterhouse Five on the farm one rainy summer weekend when I was ten years old, and Brave New World over a series of three very cold days the following Christmas.  But most of all, and most pertinent to the question of my acquired interest in outdoor writing (finally!) I remember the collections of magazines: piles upon piles of back issues of Outdoor Life, Field & Stream, and North American Whitetail to name but a few.  I read these voraciously; and most, if not all, of the issues were from the golden age of outdoor writing.  Jack O’Connor, Ed Zern, Nash Buckingham, Robert Ruark, and dozens of other seminal names in outdoor writing became my would-be mentors.  These were authors who just wrote hunting stories. 
They told you what happened to them when they were hugging trees in an Arkansas swamp waiting for mallards, they took you on a deer hunt through the swamps, forests, and fields in the Deep South, or they dragged you reluctantly into the taiga on a grizzly bear hunt.  One tale that sticks out particularly in my mind was a story by Jack O’Connor that related his adventures hunting Bighorn Sheep in the Rocky Mountains.  You felt the ache in his hamstrings as he slogged up and down mountains looking for a ram, and you could smell the cowboy coffee percolating in the cookhouse tent in the crisp mountain mornings.  While it was not a book I read at the farm, as a boy I read my father’s copy of Death in the Long Grass by Peter Capstick Hathaway and it profoundly affected my outlook and ultimately writing style with its true adventure tales of the unpredictability and excitement of being a professional hunter and game ranger in the heart of Africa.  I’ve never looked at hippos the same way since I finished that book.
Ready for the rant part?  Good.
These writers just simply told the stories they had lived through.  They were all brilliant; they spun a yarn that combined great descriptive prose with relatable life experiences, and all without so much as a whiff of the pedagogical ego of the self-appointed ‘expert’ that is seemingly so prevalent in almost every magazine article you can read today.  Somewhere along the line it seems as though market research indicated that people bought magazines not for entertaining tales that they could relate to but rather they wanted a ‘professional’ to tell them how to do things, where they ought to go to do it, and what they should buy to do it with.  The exigencies of profit and sales have ambushed and killed the hunting story, and by extension the type of author that wrote them.  Not to sound reactionary or alienate the outdoor writing community (a club that I am not a part of anyways…I doubt they’d want me after this anyhow) but no one out there at the major magazines, and yes I still read them, can hold a candle to the writers of the my father’s generation in terms of their ability to arrange an engaging hunting story.  Jim Shockey was close, but he doesn’t do much writing anymore.  The rest are too busy telling you what guns to shoot, how to shoot them, and what decoys/calls/clothing/boots you absolutely have to own in order to be ‘successful’, items that not coincidentally are marketed by the primary sponsors of whatever publication you happen to be reading.
Whatever happened to figuring it out for one’s self through old-fashioned trial and error?  Furthermore, whatever happened to a story about going out, spending some time in the wilderness, and maybe shooting dinner or catching a fish?  When told by a more skilled craftsman than I’ll ever be this kind of story was once wildly popular…why not now?
Of course, tips and tricks have always been a part of the hunting publication.  In the old Outdoor Life they had field guides galore, and I clipped and memorized most of them.  I still know how to read a compass or build a lean-to tent (skills I learned from those field guides) but my field-dressing of a deer is still something that requires some supervision (not that I’ve had much practice…I am admittedly a generally atrocious deer hunter) and the This Happened to Me! section of the same magazine gave further insight into some things to do in the field via the shared relations of everyday readers.  The department editors had a couple of paragraphs (far less than most of them currently do) and they usually just gave their opinion on something they were familiar with or related a story that may have happened to them themselves.  This has given way to oodles of what I call ‘niche editors’.  Instead of an overarching Hunting Editor that had a little knowledge about everything you now have a Turkey Hunting editor, a Gun Dogs editor, a Deer Hunting editor, a Bow Hunting editor, etc, etc all portioning out their expertise from their fiefdoms.  I’ve historically found this at best repetitious and sometimes even condescending to the point of insult.
Sorry, things got a bit opinionated there…I could go on and on but why bother?
Let’s circle the wagons back to the question from our loyal Japanese reader and try to wrap up this literary diarrhoea.
To recap, in response to your email, I’ve always loved reading and writing, and I have a long-standing family tradition of hunting and time spent in the outdoors so this blog has sprung out of an unholy marriage of those two loves.  In terms of my ideas, I guess I’m just trying to do some justice (albeit in a small, and awkwardly ham-fisted fashion) to an area of writing that has become watered-down and mediocre in the last twenty-odd years.  I write about things that I enjoy, and I try to enjoy writing about them.  Almost nothing is off-limits and I want what I put out there to be interesting to the reader…so all that goes into where my ideas for what I’m writing come from.
Thanks for the letter, and thanks to all the others who tune in here regularly, write me encouraging words, and generally keep me going in this endeavour.