I’ve been filmed before, so I was already resigned to the jarring experience of seeing what I really look and sound like when I’m not primping and posing in front of the bathroom mirror. (Total dork, unfortunately.) My jitters this morning had other causes.
My normal cottontail spot was a bust this year. My hunt there on the July 1 opener was quick and fruitless. I may have heard one rabbit in some wild roses along the river, but I saw far more signs that this rabbit colony had collapsed: no tracks, no poop, and way too much plant growth within a foot of the rose, poison oak and grape thickets. If rabbits lived there, that strip would be picked clean.
A couple weeks later I’d gone scouting for new spots in the area, looking for tracks and scat at high noon on a 104-degree Sacramento Valley day, and I’d found what appeared to have mother lode potential: lots of rabbit sign, and few human footprints.
The question, though, was would I be right? Would the filmmaker have any action to shoot? And if there were rabbits, would she be able to capture that split-second action?
I’d warned her it would be difficult, because you usually get just one chance at a shot before you see that fluffy white tail disappearing into the bushes. Rabbits are challenging to hunt, and rabbit hunting is challenging to film, particularly given that she needed to walk behind me to remain safe.
But within my first four steps heading down on the river side of the levee, I spotted not cottontails, but jack rabbits. I was jubilant – I’d correctly assessed the land’s potential! And I love jack rabbits. They’re very different table fare than cottontails, but still generally delicious.
Unfortunately, the jacks were about 100 yards ahead of me, and the reason I saw them was that they had seen me and started hopping up the levee. They’d be able to drop into the orchard on the other side – some sort of stone fruit that hadn’t come ripe yet – before I could even think about shooting.
“One, two,” I whispered into my lapel mic, knowing the woman behind me could hear what I was saying through her headphones. I continued walking slowly toward them, just in case.
“Three, four, damn!” There were a lot of jacks ahead of us. They stood out sharply against the levee, which was blackened from a recent fire. “Five, six, seven.”
So far away! This was actually perfect for a documentary, because people think it’s so easy to kill animals when you have a shotgun. But the reality was that these clever hares were way too far away to shoot.
I was about to whisper that very thought – a little narration for the film – when something very odd happened: One of the jackrabbits on the road at the base of the levee ahead of me started hopping straight toward me.
Oh no, I thought as I froze. This looks bad.
The scenario that was unfolding was exactly what so many anti-hunting people imagine hunting to be – poor hapless animal walks right into an ambush, apparently unaware that mean old human beings consider him food.
I remained frozen and he continued hopping toward me. Apparently the reason this spot looked so good when I’d been scouting was that NO ONE had been hunting these rabbits. They just weren’t displaying the proper level of alarm.
Closer, closer, closer he hopped, his big ears wagging comfortably, not stiff with alarm. I wanted to scream at him – “Run, you idiot!” – simultaneously acting the parts of the bad guy and the sympathetic audience.
I knew I was going to shoot him if he got in range; after all, I came here to hunt and kill rabbits. But I was feeling mighty uncomfortable about how it was going to look on film.
When the jack got within about 30 yards, I raised my gun quickly and pulled the trigger. Dust rose in a cloud where he’d been standing, and I caught a glimpse of him as he bolted up the levee. I shot again, leaving another poof of dust, and he crossed up and over the levee.
Dammit! Had I missed? I didn’t think so.
I scurried up the levee, pushing two more shells into the magazine as I went, and saw him on the other side. This time when he tried to bolt again, my shot dropped him instantly. (Later that morning during the autopsy, I would see that I’d hit him with a pellet to the lungs on the first or second shot, and he would have bled out and died even if I’d not taken that third shot.)
Now the filmmaker was following me to him to capture that intimate moment where I come face to face with an animal whose life I just ended, the perforations in his big ears testament to my dastardly deed. I was shaking as I stroked the fur on his back and apologized.
It took literally five tries to get him into my vest – so large and ungainly, limbs flopping, blood splattering my shirt sleeves.
As we walked back across the levee to continue the hunt, I finally started talking to the filmmaker about it.
“That was crazy! That had to look bad, him coming right at me,” I said apologetically.
“I didn’t see that at all,” she said, genuinely surprised.
That’s right! She’d been right behind me, where I told her she’d be safest on the hunt. I’d been between her and the jack. I felt a rush of relief. But it was fleeting. I wasn’t going to hide what I’d done.
I mean, I did feel bad for the jack because he’d made a really bad mistake. But I’m just not one of those people who will pass on easy shots in favor of greater challenge. In my first years of hunting I had, at the urging of fellow hunters, kicked a few planted pheasants to make them fly so my shot could be more difficult and “sporting.” Far from making me feel better about the kill, it made me feel shame. I’d resolved never to do that again.
The fact is this: I kill animals. Usually it’s really challenging. Occasionally it’s easy. That does not change what it means to take a life.
Besides, if this really was a pack of virgin hares, never before hunted, I’d done them a favor by alerting them to the possibility of two-legged predators. This pack would never again be that easy to hunt.
I would take one more shot that morning, this time at a cottontail who was also part of a group on the road ahead of us, hopping about nervously, not sure how much of a threat we posed. He let me get too close, and I shot, this time in full view of the filmmaker. Wiser this time, she’d been standing a little off to the side.
Again, a poof of dust, and this time I couldn’t see the rabbit. Could I have missed? Did he make it into the bushes before the dust cleared?
I need not have worried; his diminutive body was merely obscured by a little grass in the middle of the road, where I found him stone dead.
Crazy. I’d spent so much time worrying whether this hunt would be a bust that it never occurred to me to worry that it might be too much of a bonanza.
It is what it is, I told myself.
When you agree to bring an observer on a hunt, you have to be comfortable enough with your own standards of behavior that you’re willing to let outsiders see what you do.
In the end, I knew I would have no control over how either the filmmaker or viewers might interpret what they saw of my rabbit hunt. Being honest about how I hunt would have to do.
Holly A. Heyser is a hunter, forager, writer, photographer and college journalism lecturer who lives in Sacramento, California. You can see more of her work at http://hollyheyser.blogspot.com/