Biology Reference
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Homeward bound at last, I conjure up the last few days: Strong coffee and hiking by
flashlight; a dawn chorus of winter birds and chattering squirrels. Porcupine latrines at
the Rock Pile, littered with turds that look like wooden cigars. Whitetails gliding across
clearings as afternoon light dimmed, their heads dropping to browse and swooping back
up, ears flared. In the plane's dark privacy I think about those marvelous sensibilities
destroyed by my selfish, violent acts, as if a curtain has ripped open, revealing an empty
stage. I remember raw flesh smells and steaming intestines, cracking ribs as the knife
jerked along, then shattered lungs and hot sticky liquid, the anatomical feel of tracheal
cartilage. Within hours we were raising our glasses to the deer, their grilled tenderloins
perfect with a bottle of Los Vascos Reserve, and I'd begun reflecting on life as a born-
again predator.
Over the next three years I read widely, annually refill our freezer with venison, and
conclude that hunting is philosophically murky. 15 Much of what is said about its ethical
pros and cons presumes we no longer need to hunt, for example, but because I'm an
omnivore and repulsed by industrial meat production, someone has to kill the farm an-
imals or wild game I eat. Sport hunters focus instead on notions of “fair chase,” some of
them disgusted by Texans “baiting” with corn, yet those critics include southerners who
plant “deer crops,” northerners who “drive” deer, and westerners who set up ambush
near scarce water and “rattle” antlers, enticing their quarry with the clatter of sexual
competition. Weaponry and age-affected skills further confound these matters—some of
my arrow-wielding friends disdain rifles but occasionally lose wounded animals, and in
fact, even were I capable of doing so, what could be more “fair” andyetterrifying for a
mammal than to be run to exhaustion and slaughtered with a tomahawk?
Turns out things get even more complicated. As a child I unsuccessfully lobbied for
keeping the runt piglet from a litter of Grandpa's Durocs, and was captivated by a road-
side zoo's Hampshire shoat that performed tasks on cue. As a field biologist I've enjoyed
many encounters with collared and white-lipped peccaries, the New World relatives of
Old World true pigs, and warthogs are among my favorite African animals. In May of
2011, however, despite all that porcine karma, I'm back at the Double Helix to hunt des-
cendants of Eurasian wild boar. On the flight to Austin this loomed as an exciting yet
unsettling prospect, because although my new Ruger .270 shoots where it's pointed,
the awkward truth is, I really like pigs.
As if a plague of hogs tearing up the countryside weren't enough, the preceding
summer ushered in the worst drought in Texas history, and folks are hoping we're not
in store for a string rivaling the brutally dry 1950s. In wetter years the Hill Country
sparkles like a Cézanne painting, resplendent in bluebonnet, paintbrush, and other
flowering forbs, but now it's parched brown and dusty, devoid of bright colors save the
occasional yellow-blossomed prickly pear and an Echinocereus cactus with violet petals.
Only northern cricket frogs are calling, there's not a snake in sight, and last week David
lost his first calf ever, perhaps due to weather, since there were no signs of predation.
Three cows have healthy newborns, though, so along with hunting pigs, I'll revisit my
ethological roots and watch longhorns. Cinco de Mayo has been moved elsewhere, but
I soon recognize two other favorites and wonder how they're fitting in. McTavish is a
classy white heifer with India-ink speckles, named after David's grad student who stud-
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