Hunting and Hope

When I first heard of the Massachusetts Paraplegic Deer Hunt, I envisioned paraplegic deer dragging themselves through the woods, with very unsportsmanlike hunters in pursuit. I later learned it was a special three-day season for hunters who are paraplegic that began in 1972. On opening day, Oct. 31, I drove to Great Barrington to cover the story for a National Public Radio segment.

As I drove along the Mass Pike, many questions filled my mind. What was I to think about men who had suffered life-threatening accidents that had left their bodies paralyzed, now waiting to catch deer in the crosshairs and blast them out of life altogether? Was it a way for the hunters to find meaning and assert their power, by going out into the woods to harvest meat for their families? Or was it just men being barbaric and wanting to kill things? Was the violence and the physicality of the shot—the roar, the recoil of the stock against the shoulder, the impact with the deer, and the deer’s falling to the ground—a way for the paraplegic hunters to reconnect, to tap into some sustaining life force? I was not sure how I felt about this trade-off.

If the deer were not shot by the hunters in the fall, most of them would starve to death during the winter. Deer in Massachusetts are vastly overpopulated, as dense as 40 deer per square mile in some areas. The hunting season is overseen by the Department of Fish and Game to ensure that the population is culled to match the habitat’s capacity to sustain it. On the other hand, death by slug or buckshot is neither pretty nor peaceful. And sometimes the deer is only wounded, not killed. The volunteers assisting the paraplegic hunters must then chase after it, following the blood trail, until they find it or until the trail disappears.

As I neared the hunters’ camp in the Berkshire Hills, the explosion of autumn reds and yellows quite took my breath away. I found the camp, parked, and walked over to the grill where venison sausage was cooking.

The hunters had gone out into the woods at 4:30 a.m. and were just then coming in for lunch. One hunter, who had harvested a number of deer in past years, was a partial quadriplegic. The volunteers wheeled him into the field on a gurney, and thanks to a contraption designed by his sons, who were engineers, he was able to pull the trigger with his teeth. Another hunter, Jim, got around in a camouflaged wheelchair with all-terrain wheels. He had broken his back 26 years ago in the Coast Guard at the age of 21. “I enjoy the serenity,” he nodded, “the opportunity to escape it all and clear the cobwebs.”

When one blue pickup rumbled into camp, it bore the body of a doe. A twelve-gauge slug had blasted through the tenderloin just behind the ribcage. Two fawns had been at her side. Paul, the hunter, had a wife and two daughters. He had been in a snowmobile accident four years ago. “The thing I enjoy most is getting out in the woods,” he said. “Obviously I can’t do it myself.”

After lunch the hunters returned to their stands. I joined three volunteers accompanying Vito, who had become partially paralyzed when he fell from his roof. We drove to his stand: a square of plywood on the ground at the edge of the woods, overlooking a meadow. The volunteers helped Vito out of the truck, trundled his wheelchair over the leaves to the stand, gave him his shotgun, and said, “See you half an hour after sunset.” Then we drove half a mile away to wait and listen.

We sat for hours in the cold. The sun sank down toward the tree line. A few thin films of moisture in the sky caught the sideways light and shimmered briefly with rainbows. We waited until it was completely dark. Then we returned to Vito’s stand.

“I’m disappointed that I didn’t see a deer,” he said. “I hope tomorrow I see one.”

“Did you see the sunset?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” he replied, “that was the best part. That’s the greatest thing about coming out here: seeing the sun rise in the morning and seeing it set at night.”

The night sky was overcast as I drove home along the turnpike, the trees along the highway a gauntlet of blackness. I enjoyed participating in the hunt. I felt that day a new understanding of the timeless exchange: death for life, sadness for joy, loss for satisfaction.

Melissa W. Inouye ’01-’03 is an East Asian Studies concentrator in Mather House.