As a disclaimer, I would like to say that this post may offend some animal rights’ activists, so please read at your discretion. Also, the name of the hunting ranch has been changed, for confidentiality purposes. The following is a first-time hunter’s experience, through the eyes of a Nutrition student:
Having grown up in the typical suburb of Arlington, Texas, I never got to hunt when I was a child. In some ways, I wish I would have been a minimalist country boy. Life would have consisted of sitting around, eating hearty food, and shooting animals. Heck, I would love to be able to pee off of my back porch.
I recently went with two friends on a private hunting trip on Marietta Selleck Ranch (MSR) in Cotulla, Texas. The hunting trip was not exactly what you might imagine. The package we paid for included a whitetail buck, a doe, and unlimited hogs and whatever else they thought we could shoot. Along with that, we had all meals cooked for us, excellent lodging, and pretty much full range to do whatever we wanted on the 3000-acre property. Aside from the abundance of open, dry, South-Texas fields, the owner of MSR had built a large slaughtering barn, an apartment complex for paying hunters, a 4-person luxury lodge, and a personal farm-style house with an outrageous “trophy room” (more on this to come). The ranch has 500+ white tail deer, your typical Texas game (hogs, javelinas, etc.), and plenty of exotic animals for really big spenders. Aside from the delicious meat that I took home, I left the hunting trip with a lot of perspective on food systems, specifically in the meat sector.
Upon arrival, we walked into the “trophy room” and were absolutely blown away. The professional hunters travel to Africa quite often to hunt the types of animals you see in The Lion King. The mounted animals include antelope, lions, leopards, hippos, crocodiles, and pretty much every African animal you can dream up, mounted 3 stories high. They want to bring back a giraffe eventually. Even crazier, we got to watch the guys work with the fresh zebra skin. They purchased the zebra with the intent to have them around the house as pets. The zebras turned out to be wild and not too friendly. In effect, the wife said that she would prefer them to be turned into rugs! The week before my friends and I arrived, a group of nine hunters from Michigan shot about $300,000 worth of animals. MSR threw in two zebra kills as a bonus, but the ranch kept everything, of course.
After some initial rifle practice, a hunting guide and I went into the deer blind, which is a closed-in stand on top of a tower from which you scout the area. I was thinking there would just be an abundance of deer surrounding the corn feeder after it went off, but that was not the case. A few does and bucks may walk by, but they do not flock to the deer feeder. You may sit for hours and only see a couple of deer, but there is something very calming about waiting for the perfect animal. I sat in the deer blind a few times over the weekend and just cleared my mind as I waited for my championship buck to make his appearance. Just sit quietly as the wind bites at your face, and a sense of stalking your prey will overtake you. A few deer trickled in, here and there, but I think I only saw about 5 bucks total. As a first time hunter, I was obviously anxious to shoot the first potential buck.
As the sun began dropping, a three and a half-year old buck moseyed over to the corn feeder. As the guide and I discussed shooting it (quietly, mind you), the 10-point—points being the number of antler points—buck walked away. I was told that as soon as you talk about shooting a deer, it always walks away. Fortunately, it came back right before sunset. I had been told by many hunters that I would get “buck fever”, which is a psychological excitement that makes you shake when you get your rifle scope on the deer. I did not get that one bit. I lined up and got him in the heart. He ran off about 15 yards and dropped dead; it was a perfect placement, piercing the lungs and heart. My first kill: a 190 lb., 130-inch, 10-pointer.
Having killed and cleaned farm-raised chickens and ducks in the past, I guess buck fever was not an issue during this first experience. We grabbed a flashlight and spotted my deer about 15 yards away in the bushes; I was ecstatic. We dragged all 190 pounds of the buck back to the truck and made our way back to the outhouse. Did I feel bad about shooting it? Let us consider what our ancestors did for meat. They chased various roamers, lined up a shot, and took it for their sustenance. Is that not what I did, albeit in a more domesticated setting? I loved it, but I did give respect to my deer. It sacrificed its life so that I might be able to partake in a community meal with it.
When the hunters started processing my prize, I was surprised by how much the hunting culture wastes. The hunters essentially only save 3 parts of the deer: the backstraps, the tenderloins, and the legs. Yes, these three cuts are the best tasting, but they even threw away the flank meat, which is turned into fajita meat in Texas! My Chinese culture puts a heavy emphasis on not wasting any part of an animal. Everything gets put to use. Besides the aforementioned three cuts, I saved the head for a beautiful mount. Having worked for a sausage maker, Kocurek Family Artisanal Charcuterie, I felt disappointed that they would waste so much bone meat, so many organs, and just all around cuts of meat that would otherwise by sought after in other societies.
Even more surprising was the food that we ate during our stay. The all-purpose country-boy that they hired was an awesome cook, but everything was very “industrial”, if you will. For example, one dinner included corporation chicken breasts braised with canned tomatoes and chopped veggies. Why not serve some ranch-raised boar or deer? For breakfast, we had packaged biscuits and mass-produced eggs. Why not serve some of your own chicken eggs and scratch-made biscuits? They even had a chicken pen, for crying out loud! I will say that his black pepper gravy, made with bacon grease, rivaled even my own.
I will play my own devil’s advocate and bring up few contraindications for not using your own meat and/or supporting food production monopolies. Maybe the family and hunting guides are just plain tired of their own meats. Maybe they want some simple food every once in a while; who doesn’t love Waffle House after a night downtown, or in this case after hunting at 6AM? Secondly, I learned about an interesting hunger-support organization that this ranch partners with: Hunters for the Hungry (HFTH). This group essentially donates hunters’ unwanted meat to feed hungry individuals. Hunters may get tired of eating deer all the time, so why not give back? Is HFTH keeping our food system local? I sure think it is doing a great job. Are there other groups that may be able to take a hobby and push it into a local food cycle?
Having experienced the nuances of hunting, I can now morally order that “Venison Backstrap with Cabernet-fig sauce” or “Venison heart tartare with crispy boar ears” at my favorite cowboy steakhouse. Although I had a tame first time on a hunting ranch, MSR really opened my eyes on how multifaceted the deer industry is in Texas. It is very tightly regulated sector of wildlife. In fact, Texas Monthly just released an article, “The Bucks Stop Here”, which is the story about how Billy Powell, a deer breeder in Texas who was caught importing out-of-state deer. That is a big no-no. According to Texas Monthly, his punishment was: “three years’ probation, including six months under house arrest, and $1.5 million in fines and restitution.” So, deer is a profitable, entertaining, and very interesting pastime ingrained into Texas heritage. But just think about being able to kill your own whitetail buck next time you want to eat some deer jerky or order it at a restaurant. Could you bring yourself to shoot it?