In my teens/early 20s I went through various dysfunctional eating habits. One of these was a rather poorly thought out attempt at being a vegetarian and then vegan for a brief period. This burst of insanity was primarily spurred by a desire to be “healthy,” not a feeling of sorrow for the furred, feathered and scaled creatures I had previously consumed.
At the time, I was running 6-10 miles/day 6 days a week and my body started to devour itself because all I fed it was lettuce and bread. Super healthy, I know…
Well, after a blood test came back with an absurdly low hemoglobin, I reluctantly started eating meat again. I couldn’t believe how much better I felt!!! So ended my 4 year experiment.
When I was 19, I met a great guy named Brandon. He was a hunter. Ugh. While that was attractive from a “man who has skills” standpoint, it bothered me on an ideological level. I had been shooting for several years but was not at all in favor of fuzzy animals being shot and killed. The whole thing seemed barbaric and unnecessary to my uninformed mind.
That winter I headed out west to attend a winter Yellowstone wildlife/nature photo seminar. Surrounded by photographers and beautiful animals/scenery, my head was filled with thoughts of the future. “Did I really want to be dating a guy who hunted?” “Was this a good basis for the future?” “Animals are so sweet and cuddly; how could I be in love with a guy who shoots them?” My fellow photographers for the week plied me with these sentiments as we explored Yellowstone.
It was the second to last night of the week-long photo adventure. I was pretty sure that my relationship was going to have to end when I got home. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the hunting thing and didn’t want to continue forward when we were so diametrically opposed on such a heavy issue. That weighed heavily on my mind as we set out for the evening’s photo session.
I can feel, see, hear and taste the scene from that night. It was 16 years ago, but I can still recall it like yesterday.
It was Yellowstone National Park in mid-February. It was a night so clear and cold, each inhale paralyzed my lungs and lingered in my nostrils. The full moon illuminated the snow-covered valley like a sinister sun. Staring up in to the vastness of the black, star-studded sky made me feel both invincible and irrelevant.
I settled into a snowbank a few feet from Brandi, a woman in my workshop. She was a forklift operator from Texas. Her nickname for me was “Half-Pint.” Brandi busily set up her tripod and adjusted her settings to capture the magnificent scene.
I settled into the snowbank a little deeper and got my tripod and camera set up for our evening project. I felt restless and agitated for some reason. It was 20 below zero, no wind, clear and beautiful – a perfect night to capture night exposures. I finally abandoned my half-hearted attempts at following directions just sat back to absorb the scene. I felt a nagging unease that there was something about this I was missing.
The cold began to seep into my muscles and I suddenly sat straight up and looked to the North. There was a small hill about 600 yards north of where we were sitting. It was illuminated like a snow-covered pedestal in the middle of the valley. My breathing became shallow as I watched the hill. On some level I was aware of the clicking sound around me of the other photographers, but it faded into the background.
As I stared, transfixed, a wolf trotted up the hill and stopped at the top. He surveyed the valley and it seemed he stared straight at me for the briefest of moments. Then, he began to howl. Measured and controlled, he howled once, then turned a quarter turn and did it again. Again and again the howls rang through the stillness.
By now, the 7 other people with me were watching as well. Cameras forgotten, we just stared. Then, just as suddenly as the howling had started, it stopped. Like a tide, 5 other wolves flowed across the snow and up the hill to greet the first one. They turned resolutely toward a grove of trees a few hundred yards further away from them and glided toward it.
We hadn’t realized it at the time, but there was a herd of cow elk yarded up in the grove of trees. They were now agitated and beginning to leave the cover of the trees. The elk burst from the trees and started running across the snow-covered wasteland. The wolves followed relentlessly and selected their mark, a smaller cow at the back.
With a sickening scream the elk writhed to a halt, a wolf latched on each hind-quarter. A third snap of jaws spurted blood across the snow as a third wolf ripped at her neck. In moments, the innocent peace of a snow covered valley was transformed into a scene of bloody violence. The elk, now lifeless, lay mutilated upon the alter of Mother Nature. Steam rose from the wounds as a visual analogy of life disappearing from what was a living, breathing being just moments before.
We all sat absorbing the stillness. Each of us took away our own lessons that night. The lesson I came away with was this: Mother Nature is a cruel and vicious force, unstoppable and without remorse. An ethical hunter has got to be more humane than Mother Nature could ever be. I wanted to find out.
Did I want to hunt at that point? No. What I wanted to do was feed the hunger that had unfurled within to find out more. What was hunting? What was conservation? What does it mean to me? Do I have what it takes to take on the sacred responsibility of managing wildlife? I didn’t know, but I was determined to find out.