by Kevin Ducey
There's a Sunday
night traffic jam of hunters and their dead animals on the Wisconsin Interstate
from Tomah to the Milwaukee turnoff. I wasn't expecting it, but I should
have. It's a school night and the deerslayers have to be back in the office,
shop, or schoolroom tomorrow morning. Tonight, however, it feels like some
sort of holocaust procession, with all the dead animals carried like totems
on SUV roofs, or tossed in the trailers and dragged behind in an 80 mile
crawl to the south.
Deer hunting season is only a couple of weeks long and it brings out a frenzy of shooters. These are, evidently, the sort of people who, when they decide to go "off-road," buy a bigger car. My car is bracketed by SUVs. Pathfinders, Navigators, Powerwagons. I haven't seen so many Chevy vans since 1978, when they were touted for their erotic qualities. As for the deer, they looked like the year 2000 electorate: hog-tied and ready to be delivered. The animals were bloodless and very dead.
A light snow has been falling, nothing to get excited about, and while most of us elect to stay on the road, a few Pathfinders find their path down into the median between the highway where they've obligingly flipped over on their sides -- like so many horses rolling in clover. We can see their notorious tires pawing at the air. I'd rather not see them, but our procession of hunters and meat slows to gawk at every wayward Navigator as our column inches its way south. The number of vehicles in the ditch seems far out of proportion to the weather conditions. For all these NRA voters' vaunted self-reliance, I can only attribute this inability to handle a little snow to too much mint schnapps in the hunting blind.
For a few weeks every year, the state encourages shooting deer, and the shooter is required to register the shootee and carry the carcass home in plain sight, with registration tag attached. It's the law, which is why this particular traffic jam is covered in meat.
During off-season, one is not supposed to shoot the animals, but apparently enough people do this that the state police have invested in mechanical deer. One can spot these motorized decoys twitching Rube Goldberg-like at the woods' edge, jerking their electric tails on the ridge lines. The hunters often don't even bother to climb out of their SUVs. They roll down the window and it's lock and load. The cops wait until the huntsman pauses to re-load before they approach, and the fines are uncontested.
Only non-mechanical animals are strapped to the SUVs in our caravan of deer death. Not that all the deer meat here was shot in the wild. Recent years have seen the establishment and growth of hunt-farms, where deer are raised on fodder and salt-licks and the hunter is guaranteed a kill (for a fee). This management of the hunt spares the hunter any psychic pain of possibly not shooting an animal and the animal, half-domesticated, probably suffers less anxiety as it comes down to feed from the humans it has grown to trust.
The radio reports 200,000 deer taken in this weekend's great bloodletting. At the hunting registration offices across the state, officials from the Department of Natural Resources have been sidling up to the lucky hunters to ask if the state can have the dead animal's head. The state says it takes the heads to test the brain stem for tuberculosis and something called "deer-wasting disease." This is a variant of the disease commonly called "mad-cow" in other parts of the planet.
Deer-wasting disease has been discovered in the more or less wild deer populations in the Rocky Mountain regions and recently in North Dakota and Canada. Reportedly 4 to 6 percent of the Colorado deer population has it.
Since state fish and game departments receive most of their operating revenue from the sale of hunting licenses and dead animal registration tags, one might think twice before taking the Department at its word when it announces that deer-wasting disease has never been proven to pass to humans. Maybe what they should say is that it's never been tested.
Our column lurches onward, up ahead the red tail lights begin to flash, and we slow once again to a crawl. Where did they come up with these names, "Navigators," "Pathfinders," "Explorers" -- what's the matter? Are they lost?
You'll hear all kinds of arguments about deer hunting, if you care to. Although our column of meat is surely a refutation of the economy argument -- if you're worried about your hamburger budget, you might also drive a more economical car. Maybe. There are hundreds of Iron Johns in our column, looking for an initiation experience behind a gunsight. In that spirit, let's hope they've offered up their deer heads to the high priests of the state to ward off the evil spirits of the deer-wasters. Wasn't it Dionysian ritual to chase a deer and tear it limb from limb with one's teeth? And then, at least in Euripides, they played football with the head. It might lead to madness, or Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease, but you gotta love that old time religion.
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