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Of Rights and Wrongs

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Published on: Jun. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 21, 2010

Hack Newberry sat on his front porch and looked down the hill. He saw his patch of pumpkins glowing orange in the afternoon light, the last of his summer's garden. He saw how his cornfield had dried with the frost and heard the stalks' harsh rattle.

He saw many things, like the pond he'd put in close to 30 years ago. And the place on the ridge where the spring burbled up from beneath a limestone fault. Hack knew right behind that spring was a place where big whitetail bucks liked to bed. And he knew the limestone made the acorns on that ridge so sweet, squirrels traveled miles each fall to cut them.

Hack knew everything about his farm and that made Hack content. Until he looked down the valley and saw the new houses that had sprung up like morels after a warm spring rain. He frowned, then picked up a ball and tossed it to his dog.

Really, it was none of his concern. As long as they minded their own business ... The thought was left unfinished. As if on cue, a car pulled out of one of the driveways. But instead of heading towards the city, it turned the opposite way.

"Now, what in tarnation?" Hack muttered. Then he remembered the sign he'd posted advertising organically grown pumpkins, "Pick Them Yourself." The little sports car gleamed like a silver bullet as it wound up the gravel road. A trail of dust followed the car into the yard. The driver shut off the engine and got out.

"Good day," she said. "I'm your neighbor, Suellen Ross. I live at the bottom of the hill."

Hack nodded.

"I saw your sign and I was wondering if I might look at your pumpkins." "Sure, follow me," he said. "Had a great crop this year, if I do say so myself. Take your pick. I'll tote them to the shed and weigh them for you."

Suellen saw big pumpkins and small ones. She picked out several and Hack loaded them into a wheelbarrow and trundled back to the house. He pushed hard to get his cargo up the hill and was glad to see the shed loom into view. He wheeled around the back, with Suellen on his heels. He upended the wheelbarrow gently and pumpkins spewed onto the ground.

"Whew," he said, as he mopped his brow. "Ain't quite as young as I used to be." But Suellen, who had come to a sudden stop, said nothing. Instead, she stood looking at Hack's shed. Hack followed her gaze. He saw several whitetail deer skulls, antlers intact, nailed to the gables. He saw a raft of squirrel hides tacked to the weathered oak siding. He saw a couple of leghold traps hanging carefully from their nails. And he saw a coyote skin dangling next to the door. The young woman blurted out, "how could you?"

"How could I what?" Hack asked in return, although his voice was gentle. "Trap? Hunt? Use animals?"

She said hurriedly, "I believe animals are just like us. They have rights, too. We have no business using them or exploiting them in any way. They have as much right to be on this earth as we do. I go out of my way to make sure no living thing is harmed by my presence in this world." "Vegetarian?" Hack asked.

"Vegan," she replied. "No meat, eggs, honey, milk, nothing animal in origin or even anything that ever came from an animal."

"I must say, that's a durn tough way to live," Hack admitted. "Plastic shoes?" "Yes," she said. "They get a little hot in the summer but it's worth it to save the lives of all those poor animals."

Hack thought about this as he scratched his head. From behind the shed his cattle lowed. Far up on the hill, a deer snorted.

"You have pets, don't you?"

"You mean companion animals?"

He sighed. "Yes, I suppose I do."

"Of course," she said. "I have several dogs I've saved from the pound, no purebreds, of course. And a couple of cats, too."

"Spayed and neutered?" he asked.

"Sure," she said.

"And what about when your pets, er, I mean, companion animals get old, what do you do then?"

"Why, I have them put to sleep."

He nodded as he bent over to pick a long stalk of orchard grass. "So your animals are just like us, but you deprive them of their right to breed. Then, when they get old, you put them down."

"You can't just let them breed indiscriminately. Otherwise the world would have even more unwanted animals than it does now. As to choosing when to end a companion animal's life, it's the humane thing to do," Suellen said.

"Now let me get this right. If it's your own companion animal, you determine what's right and what's humane?"

"Someone has to," she stammered.

"But when it comes to other animals, people like me can't be trusted to do the same?"

"Well, you exploit animals," she said. "You make money off their flesh, kill them when they're in their prime, leave them trapped and wounded, out in the cold, terrified, for hours and then probably stomp them to death." Hack nodded absentmindedly. He decided to address the first statement. "If you had your way there would be no domestic animals, right?" "Right," she nodded.

"I believe we should look out for the welfare of animals, both domestic and wild," Hack explained as he waved his hand towards his cattle, "and that's what I try to do. Humans have tended herds for 10,000 years. They've hunted for close to a million.

"When you have animals or use animals, a contract exists between you and them. I feed, water and shelter my cattle. I pay for the vet. I make sure they're not bothered by insects. In return, when they reach a certain age I send them to market. They pay me for taking care of them."

"That is cold and unfeeling," she said.

"Have you ever put up 1,000 bales of hay so your animals could eat during the winter? It's hot, dusty, dirty work. Have you ever stumbled out of bed in the dark to bust holes in the ice so your animals could drink?"

"You wouldn't have to if you didn't deal in flesh," she argued.

"Are you saying my cows would have been better off if they had never even been born? If they had never frolicked in a pasture or enjoyed fresh green grass?"

Suellen looked confused. "I don't know."

"Remember, it's their manure that fertilized your pumpkins. And farmers aren't going to put up hay just to get manure."

She was silent, but not for long. "What about those deer, killed in their prime?"

"Would you prefer their teeth wear down to nubbins so they can't chew their food? Then feral dogs - someone's pets, maybe - or coyotes run them 'til they're so weak they can no longer flee.

"And dogs and coyotes just don't pick on the old and weak, no matter what city folks might think. Dogs and coyotes are opportunists. They'll kill anything they can reach, ripping at the guts until the animal bleeds to death. I've seen coyotes eating deer before they were even dead."

"Better than a human killing them."

"Seems to me death by a bullet is more humane than being chased - terrified - through the forest and then having your entrails spill onto the ground while you're still alive."

"Quit it," she said.

"It's not pretty," he agreed. "Neither were the deer I found a few months ago, dead, on the banks of my pond. They'd bled from every opening in their bodies. They'd bled internally, too. They bleed so much, they must drink water to replace the blood. You find them - dead - near ponds and rivers. Happens when you've got too many deer."

"That's natural," she argued. "Nothing natural can be evil."

"Humans are part of nature, too," he reminded her. "If you don't kill deer, you have more deer/car accidents. That puts both humans and deer at risk. And the fewer deer taken by hunters, the more that wind up dead or dying in a ditch somewhere, put there by cars.

"Besides, I just don't see what's so wrong with me killing and eating an animal that's been here on my farm for years," he continued. "What's so bad about enjoying the meat of a critter that's been into my corn?"

She thought about this for a moment. "I just think it's wrong to kill any animal."

"Okay, let's look at this another way," he said. "You say you try to make sure no living thing is harmed by your presence, right?"

"Right."

"But what about the critters displaced by the folks drilling for your oil?" Hack asked. "How about the tankers that leak into our oceans and rivers, killing sea lions and waterfowl?"

"You use oil, too."

"But I don't drive a gas-guzzling sports car and wear plastic shoes," he said. "That plastic will be around a thousand years from now, not like my leather shoes, which will rot."

"And you wear cotton, too, I see," Hack continued. "But to grow that cotton meant draining and planting land that was once wetlands. It meant channelizing streams. Deep, fertile rivers became warm stagnant pools where no life can survive."

Suellen was quiet.

"You buy broccoli, don't you?" "Sure."

"Even in the dead of winter?"

"Of course."

"And carrots and pecans and oranges, right?" Hack squinted towards the sun as he thought about what he was going to say next. "Where do they grow these fruits and nuts and vegetables?"

"Mostly California and Florida, I suppose," she said. "Places where it's warm." "Yep, that's right," Hack said. "Where do they get the water?" "Why, from lakes and rivers, I guess," she said.

"California's Imperial Valley was once a desert," Hack said as he climbed the shed's steps to get a handful of feed to toss to his chickens. "They've drained wetlands, and killed lots of wildlife in the process, to be sure you could get your broccoli in winter. In Florida, they're stealing water from the Everglades for your oranges. Again, wildlife is the loser."

Suellen didn't know what to say. "I still don't believe I was ever directly responsible for causing the death of any animal. Not like someone who eats meat."

"Just buying that house killed animals, Suellen," Hack said softly. "Before you moved in a whole covey of quail used the overgrown meadow that's now your front yard. And when you burned those brushpiles, you sentenced to death all the cottontails that had hidden there. Your husband sawed down that old snag, and the flicker family will live there no more.

"And your cats, oh how they prowl. I see 'em sneakin' all over, chasing squirrels and rabbits and songbirds. I know, I know, it's only natural. But each time a human being moves farther into the country, it's usually bad for wildlife and habitat. Doesn't matter if that human is a vegan or carnivore. It's simply the way of the world."

"Well, maybe...just maybe, it's okay for you to live the way you do," Suellen grudgingly admitted. "But I'll never get used to all those weekend warriors trudging into the woods the first day of deer season. That is obscene," she sputtered.

Hack thought about her statement. He thought about all the hunters in their blaze orange hats, loaded in their 4-wheel-drives heading out to the country. "Suellen," he said. "Humans were hunters for a much longer time than they were farmers or factory workers or computer whizzes. Some of us - like yourself - don't have the inclination to hunt any more, that's true. But some of us do. The need just burns in our veins.

"It isn't about hurting animals, or dominating them so we can feel good. It's hard to explain, I know, but when you hunt you realize you're just a tiny part of a great big whole.

"Sure, I have a good life here. I can get down on my hands and knees and feel the earth, touch it and taste it, if I want. I know everything comes from it, and everything will return to it.

"A person who works 40 or 50 hours each week on an auto assembly line can only imagine the way life is here on my farm. They are so busy providing for their family, the only time they can strengthen that bond with the unknown, with nature, is when they get away to fish or hunt on weekends.

"It would be great if every hunter could go out every day of the year, just like our ancestors did for millions of years. It would be great if we could have our totems and our rituals and our purifications that would bind us closer to the earth. But it's just not practical.

"Modern humans have to work in cities, live in subdivisions, shop in stores where all living things, vegetable and animal, have been reduced to just a glob encased in plastic, tin or plastic foam. To me, that's not natural. That's what's sick, not the poor Joe or Joanne who is trying his or her best to understand their places in the overall scheme of things."

Suellen finally said, "I'm still not sure I can ever truly approve of some of the things you've tried to explain, but I do see we have many of the same concerns."

Hack said with a grin, "The longest journey begins with a single step. Heck, you and I, we aren't all that different. We both care - a great deal - about living things. We just show that love and respect in different ways.

"I guess when it comes right down to it, what I've been trying to say is whether we're vegans or hunters, farmers or city folks, we all have the right to live our lives the way we see fit. That's what this country is all about."

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