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.
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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.
B: And did it?
LRM: To hunt, I have to immerse myself in the landscape. There’s no room for talking or daydreaming. I scan the ground for animal scat or tracks. I listen for snapping twigs or f lapping wings. I feel which direction the wind is blowing. I identify the plants around me and notice if their stalks have been nibbled or their roots burrowed under. Hunting requires fluency in an ecosystem— something that is increasingly rare in our modern lives. It connects us to our ancestors because it gives us a window into what humans used to have to do to stay alive. And because hunting roots us to the land and to the wildlife, it gives us a great reason for conservation.
B: In April, the New York Times ran your op-ed piece, “I Hunt, but the NRA Isn’t for Me.” What kind of reaction did you get?
LRM: Hundreds of people emailed or posted comments on my blog. It wasn’t a total surprise—guns seem to be the most divisive issue related to hunting. Most of the people who emailed me were actually hunters who thanked me for speaking up. There are a lot of hunters like me, people who own guns but don’t feel that the National Rif le Association, with its extreme lobbying positions, represents our point of view. Of course, I got some really nasty letters, too. I try to have a thick skin, but nobody enjoys hate mail.
B: What do you come away with from being outdoors—does the experience vary, depending on what you’re doing?
LRM: If I go for a hike or a jog, my mind usually wanders. I think about things I need to do around the house, stuff that’s happening at work. When I’m hunting or fishing—or, to a lesser degree, foraging— I have to be fully present and in the moment. I’m focused on using my senses, on reading and reacting to my surroundings.
One challenge of hunting is to achieve this perfect state, a place between calm and alertness. If you’re too alert, you get jumpy. It’s exhausting and you can’t keep it up all day. If you’re too laid back, you miss the signs and can’t find an animal or get a shot off in time. There’s a sweet spot in there, but it takes a lot of practice.
B: I believe the number of hunters is on the decline, at least in California. Do you think the locavore movement is changing attitudes, something like the back-to-the-land movement of the ’60s and ’70s?
LRM: Nationwide, the number of hunters has been going down for decades. There is a group of adults who, like me, are bucking that trend by learning to hunt. So far, I don’t think we are numerous enough to stop the overall decline.
Some of my own reasons for learning to hunt do align with the locavore movement and its predecessor, the back-to-the-land movement. Hunting isn’t necessarily that different from, say, keeping backyard chickens, planting a garden or taking a butchery class. All are paths toward selfsufficiency, better understanding where our food comes from and procuring meat from animals that weren’t tortured in a factory farm or flown halfway across the world.
B: Did you try to teach Sylvia to hunt with you?
LRM: By the time I got serious about hunting, Sylvia was four years old; she was extremely gun shy and had never touched a bird. Experts say you need to start training a hunting dog in puppyhood, correct gun-shyness immediately and get a dog into birds his or her first autumn. So Sylvia had a lot of strikes against her in that regard.
I did save the wings from some birds that I shot and used them to try to teach Sylvia to track a bird’s scent. I would drag a wing around the backyard and hide it behind a shrub. Then I’d let her into the yard and tell her to find the bird. This sounds odd, but she was very reluctant to use her sense of smell. Excited by the tone of my voice, she would just look all over the place. I gave up pretty quickly.
B: At some point, would you like to hunt with a dog?
LRM: I’ve hunted with well-trained bird dogs, and it is a true pleasure. A dog gets so much joy out of hunting and, as with anything dog-related, that joy is contagious. Plus, it’s easier to hunt birds with a dog; there are practical reasons why it’s a time-honored partnership. A dog can smell a bird a quarter-mile away. A Pointer can find that bird and hold it in place until you give it a command. A Retriever can find a downed bird and bring it to you. Dogs are helpful hunting partners.
My next dog will be a hunting dog. I have so much fun with Sylvia, just hanging out and playing. Fishing with her is pure, endless entertainment. But unlike a hunting dog, she isn’t making the activity any easier for me. I suspect that if we worked together as partners, as in hunting, our relationship would be even deeper. I look forward to experiencing that with my next dog. For now, though, I couldn’t be happier with my fishing dog. Not many people can say they have a dog who shares their hobby.
B: What made you decide to write The Call of the Mild?
LRM: The more I delved into the world of hunting, the more complicated it became. There are so many interesting facets: the ethics of when it’s OK to shoot an animal, for example, or how hunters reconcile their love for a species with their willingness to kill a member of it. Hunting has forced me to reconsider my relationships with all animals— my pet dog, the mice I occasionally trap in my kitchen, the geese that live in a nearby park, the coyotes I never used to think about. Hunting is too big a subject for an article or an essay. It’s life and death.