In her thoughtful and provocative new book, Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner, Lily Raff McCaulou— raised as a gun-fearing environmentalist and animal lover—meditates on the ways her perspectives on hunting and her place in the natural world have changed. We talk with her about her experiences, and her non-hunting fishing dog, Sylvia.
Bark: You contributed the endpiece for this issue, and in it, you talk about your dog, Sylvia. What can you tell us about her (besides the fact that she’s a great fishing companion)?
Lily Raff McCaulou: I was looking for a friendly jogging and camping companion. Most of all, I needed a dog who would get along with our older dog, a Great Pyrenees named Bob, who was easily bullied. [Bob has since passed on.] My husband had adopted Bob after spotting an ad in the newspaper with a tiny photo and simple caption—“Bob Likes cats.”
I spent months browsing Petfinder. com, where I eventually came across a photo-less profile of a female Flat- Coated Retriever mix named “Missy.” She was young but not a puppy. She’d been picked up as a stray; a couple of weeks had passed and nobody claimed her, so she was scheduled to be euthanized. Just in time, a group called Oregon Friends of Shelter Animals pulled her, took her to a foster home and listed her online.
Her profile was short but mentioned that she liked cats. It reminded me of Bob’s ad, and made me wonder if they were kindred spirits. (The funny thing is, we don’t even have cats.) The following weekend, we went—with Bob, of course—to an adoption event at a pet store a few hours from our house to meet her. We drove her home that afternoon.
B: What does Sylvia do while you fish?
LRM: Fishing transforms her from a laid-back family pet to an intensely focused dog on a mission. She tries to be as involved as possible. She has jumped out of our drift boat when I hooked a fish. Sometimes when I’m reeling in a fish, she swims into the current to greet it and just circles around, manic.
B: You not only fish, but hunt as well. Was that something your family did? Does your husband hunt or fish with you?
LRM: I came across a lot of hunters through my job as a newspaper reporter, but didn’t know any of them well. This was actually one of the biggest obstacles to my learning to hunt. You can’t learn by watching YouTube or reading a book. Most hunters I know learned from their fathers, but my dad doesn’t hunt. My husband did, however, teach me how to fly-fish, which I joke was my gateway drug to hunting. He doesn’t hunt but often accompanies me while I hunt.
B: What made you want to become a hunter?
LRM: In my early 20s, I left New York City for rural Oregon. That’s where I learned to fly-fish. In fly-fishing, you use bits of feather and fur tied onto a hook to mimic an insect. You have to become familiar with what fish eat, the life cycle of insects, where fish feed and where they hide. Fishing taught me how to “read” rivers, and I wondered if hunting would teach me how to read landscapes.
Meanwhile, I was spending time with ranchers and loggers, many of whom hunted. I had always considered myself an environmentalist, but these hunters made me question what that really meant. They respected the animals they hunted, a paradox that intrigued me. Although I was more sentimental about my toll on the planet, they seemed to intimately understand that we all need natural resources—water, wood, oil and wildlife—to survive.
Farming—even of vegetables—is rife with death. Fields are tilled with blades that also slice voles. Combines harvest grains, shredding groundhogs along the way. To make our magazines and toilet paper, trees are logged, slaying owls. To charge our iPhones, coal is mined, destroying coyote dens. The roads we drive on, the lawns we play on—all of it used to be wildlife habitat. Hunting offered me a rare chance to come face-to-face with the animal life that sustains my own. I thought it could make me a better, truer environmentalist.