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)?
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?
B: You not only fish, but hunt as well. Was that something your family did? Does your husband hunt or fish with you?
B: What made you want to become a hunter?
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?
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?
B: What do you come away with from being outdoors—does the experience vary, depending on what you’re doing?
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?
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?
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?
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?