On several occasions, I have been asked by non-hunters how I feel when I squeeze the trigger. Obviously, this question is meant to ascertain how I feel about taking an animal’s life. When I get these questions I often refer back to the very first animal I harvested. A female feral goat that I shot on a rugged and hilly piece of land. I go back to this moment for two reasons. First, like for everyone else, my very first successful hunt has a special place in my memory. Second, on that same evening, I analyzed my own feelings about the kill.
It was a late November day. Typically for this time of year, the sky was grey and cloudy, and every now and again a light rain showered the hills. From my previous visits to this farm, I knew where I could expect to find a trip of goats. (A trip is a collective noun for a group of goats.) The farm was surrounded by hills that were very difficult to access, making them a perfect hiding place for goats. Their natural dexterity meant that they had no problems running up and down those steep hills, which made them feel safe and comfortable. Unfortunately for them, they had to leave the safety of the hills to reach the succulent, green pastures below.
The farmer was running sheep on this particular chunk of land and didn’t appreciate a lot of feral goats competing for the grass. But he didn’t want to get rid of all of them either. Previously when I had asked him about the possibility of shooting feral goats he said, “Sure, no problem. Just don’t shoot them all”.
So here I was, with my daypack on my back, my binos on my chest and my rifle on my shoulder. I started to walk down the farm road, from the gate to the place I had in mind. The road alternated between going up hills and down into little valleys. After a while, it turned into a singletrack and finally blended and disappeared into the open grassland. After walking for a few more minutes I reached the top of a hill and looked down onto the valley. There I spotted white, black and red patches on the otherwise green surroundings. It took me a second to realize that these patches were feral goats. I instinctively crouched down and reached for the binos.
I started slowly and methodically looking at each animal. I was thinking about some off the cuff advice that my colleague gave me at the shooting range. “An old goat stinks like hell! You will have to burn your clothes if you touch one! Only take a young animal!” These words were ringing in my head while I moved my sight from one goat to another. My attention was drawn to the two closest to me.
At that point in time I didn’t have much experience judging goats but I was trying my best. The two animals were smaller than the others in the trip but still looked like adults compared to the rest, which were obviously very young. “Not much meat on those”, I thought to myself. Once I was happy with my initial inspection I decided to move closer. I grabbed my rifle and started to crawl through the open terrain, trying to hide behind sparsely scattered rocks.
I felt slightly ridiculous. “Surely there has to be an easier way,” I thought to myself. I was sure that my experienced colleagues wouldn’t resort to crawling to get to a shooting position on a feral goat! Nevertheless, I was doing my best to stay in the moment, stay calm and execute my plan. The plan was as simple as getting to a larger rock that would give me a decent hide and a good place to support my rifle for a shot. Taking one slow move after another, I finally reached my destination.
I was lying behind a rock that was just tall enough to give me some cover. Barely. I put my backpack in front of me for some additional cover, and also to make a comfortable rest for my rifle. I began to look at the two animals I had selected, first through my binos and then through my rifle scope. As a novice hunter, I wasn’t at all comfortable estimating how far away they were. Especially in the hilly terrain where I needed to make adjustments for the ballistics of shooting downhill. I decided to reach for the rangefinder that was tucked snuggly in my side pocket.
One of the goats must have heard or seen me because the whole trip started to run away. Disaster! Maybe I had moved too fast or had made too much noise pulling out the rangefinder. Luckily, before long, the goats stopped, and although reluctantly at first, the whole trip resumed browsing. The time required for them to settle down was roughly equal to the time I needed to calm down myself. “Okay, it’s not over yet,” I thought. I began to look for another position. Once again, I began to crawl, once again I reached my desired location, and once again I rested the rifle on my backpack. I re-acquired the animals in my binos and got my rangefinder which, this time, was conveniently stored in the side pocket of my backpack.
I checked the range finder. 140 yards. That was the shooting range I was comfortable with. Since I was shooting downhill I knew that the bullet would impact slightly higher than if I was shooting flat. I chambered a round and began examining, once again, the animals I had previously selected. The choice fell on a young-looking, hornless goat that was standing perfectly broadside. I pushed the safety, took a deep breath, began to exhale and applied steady pressure on the trigger until it broke.
Bang! The shot echoed around the surrounding hills. I didn’t expect it to be so loud. It made me a little uncomfortable. I had wanted to remain stealthy and not attract unnecessary attention. As a beginner shooter, I didn’t stay on the target and didn’t even attempt to re-acquire it through the rifle scope. Instead, I grabbed my binoculars and as quickly as possible pressed them against my eyes. First, I saw the goats running for the hills, and then my quarry lying in the grass just a few dozen yards from the place where it was shot.
You would be mistaken to think that at this point I had a feeling of relief or accomplishment. Nothing like that. Instead, I knew that the more difficult and laborious part of the hunt was about to begin. You see, up to this point, I could have easily packed up, gone back to the car and been done with it. But now, I had a responsibility. A responsibility to take good care of the meat on the animal I had just shot. I was very serious about this, and since it was going to be my first time to gralloch an animal, I was understandably anxious.
Up to this point, I had never butchered an animal, yet alone gutted and field dressed one. I had also never witnessed an experienced hunter do it since all the hunts I had participated in were unsuccessful. Instead, I was armed with hundreds of hours of YouTube video watchtime. But honestly, right then and there none of this entered my mind. I was solely focused on the task at hand. I was still in the flow state that began with the stalk.
I sat behind my rock trying to calm myself down. I had unloaded and cleared the rifle, and strapped it to my backpack to keep it out of the way. “I won’t need it again today,” I thought to myself. I grabbed my binoculars and once again checked to see if my goat was still where it was before. Its white hide stood out clearly from the green background of the grass it was lying on.
I walked down to my kill, took off my backpack and quickly fished out the knife from the main compartment. I put the animal on its back to expose its belly and moved it carefully so it was lying securely on the slightly sloping ground. I positioned it in such a way that gravity would help me gut it by pulling the entrails downhill as I opened it up. Now, when I reflect on it, the process was almost automatic with very little thinking going on. Clearly, I had prepared myself well for this task.
Suddenly, something threw me off rhythm. I looked at the animal, and even though I knew it was a female, the sight of an udder surprised me. In all the field dressing videos that I had studied so carefully, the presenters were gutting stags and bucks. And as ridiculous as it might sound, for a short moment, I felt at a loss as to what to do next. Finally, though, I decided that animal anatomy doesn’t differ that much between sexes, at least not for my purpose. I proceeded…
I will spare you the graphic details of the whole gralloching process. It is enough to say that less than half an hour later I was ready to drag the carcass from the side of the hill back to the tail-end of the farm road. After an hour or so of dragging, I left the animal under a bush and walked up the road to bring down my car. Only when my quarry was packed into the boot of my car did I finally feel a slight sense of relief and a sense of accomplishment. This was my first successful DIY hunt.
Now that I’ve told you the story of my first successful solo hunt, let me get back to the original question: How did I feel about squeezing the trigger and taking an animal’s life? Like I said at the top of this chapter, I had asked myself that same question the evening of my first kill. And the answer was a little disappointing. I didn’t feel anything. I was so absorbed by the task at hand that there was absolutely no room for philosophical or ethical considerations. In fact, all those issues had already been settled many months earlier when I decided that I wanted to hunt. Thanks to that, when push came to shove, I didn’t have any emotional distractions.
The one thing I distinctly remember though, was how surprisingly natural the whole experience felt. Especially the process of field dressing the animal. Before the hunt, I had a slight apprehension about how I would fare during the gralloching process. Honestly, it not only felt like a normal thing to do but also like something I should have learned in my teenage years.