In 1995, after 17 years of living around the country and overseas, my husband and I decided to come home to Missouri. That meant, of course, the time had come for our sons to learn to hunt with their father. Our oldest boys attended the local hunter education course before applying for their permits. When asked about the class he took, all our son said was, "Well, I learned that I don't want to become a statistic."
When the time came for our youngest son to take the hunter education course, I decided I wanted to know more about hunter education. I figured I could use the information when I go hunting with my husband this year.
What I learned in 12 intensive hours of class time can be condensed into one word: Respect. Respect, which is the fourth R in education, is the foundation for every other part of hunter education.
Our hunter education course was taught by Phelps County Conservation Agent Steve Zap, a big man with a boisterous voice. Conservation Agent Larry Evans assisted Steve, and volunteer instructors Johnny Blair and Robert Kelly also contributed valuable help. The class included 20 youths between the ages of 11 and 15 and 20 adults (some young and some not so young).
Most of the adults were men who were planning on turkey hunting. Some of them, too, were planning hunting trips out West. Five parents were attending the class with their children. Rounding out the class was a young married couple who planned on hunting together.
I'd hoped the class was going to be interesting and easy. When Agent Evans told us the test was written for 12-year-olds, I wondered if we oldies were going to have a problem. After all, how many adults think like 12-year-olds?
Our course work featured the three R's-just like in school. Six chapters in a well-illustrated manual made up the reading part of our work. 'Rriting was also required because we had to complete fill-in-the-blank reviews at the end of each chapter. 'Rithmetic factored into the class work equation, too. The kids grasped the rule that the bigger the number, the smaller the size of the bore. They also understood that larger shot numbers indicate smaller shot, unless the number is followed by a B for buckshot.
I was impressed with the quality of the instruction. A former teacher, I know how difficult it can be to keep youngsters' attention. The instructors worked the room well, keeping youngsters who had already spent eight hours at school at the edges of their seats, begging to answer questions with waving arms.
The instructors also allowed students a lot of hands-on time, especially when demonstrating firearms safety. For example, they got class members to demonstrate safe carries and safe ways to cross fences while holding dummy firearms. Children who should really have been wearing down after a long day at school came alive. By the third night of classes, the front row was filled with youngsters who had arrived early and stolen some of the older folks' seats.
I had not expected so much emphasis on the fourth R-respect. From the very first question about which end of the gun is the business end, to the last admonition by the instructors to remember where to point the muzzle, the word "respect" kept popping up. Agent Evans told the class that we must have respect for ourselves, for our firearms, for our hunting companions and for others who may be in harm's way. He also stated we must have respect for the animals we hunt.
"You cannot be a good hunter unless you are a safe hunter," he said. "Safe hunters are knowledgeable and skillful and have the proper attitude about hunting. They practice self-control and respect."
Evette Eickelmann took the class with her 11-year-old son, Ryan. She is a deer hunter. At first, she said she took the class to give Ryan moral support. After the course was over, she told me that she had learned quite a bit-especially about how the Conservation Department is managed and funded and about how hunters' ethics affect the community. Another parent, Mark Puzach, who brought his friend's teenage daughter and his own son to the class, said the class was a good refresher for him.
All of the parents agreed that the course material offered lots of opportunities to talk about ethics and morals with their children. They talked to their children about the material between classes and studied for the test with their children. Agent Zap told me that parents should be involved in this crucial step when their child is ready to accept the responsibility of safely using a firearm. His own children have taken the course, even though his teenage daughter is not yet interested in hunting.
An interesting and important area covered in the class, which may have been more impressive to the adults than to the youngsters, was the psychological development of the typical hunter. According to Agent Evans, the first stage of hunting is the Shoot Something Phase. This is followed by the Limiting Out Phase, which is when people consider themselves to have failed if they come home with less than a limit. Then there's the Trophy Phase, which does not need explanation.
Further along is the Method Phase, in which type of equipment and the techniques of hunting and its mental challenges are of primary importance in the overall hunt. Finally, the mature hunter exhibits signs of the Philosophical Phase. In this phase, the hunter enjoys the total experience of being in nature, and harvesting game is of secondary importance.
I was amazed to learn that only 10 percent of the people in this country are pro-hunting, and only 10 percent could be considered anti-hunting. The other 80 percent of the population is, in Agent Evan's words, watching us. When we act without respect, we tarnish the image of hunters.
My son's increased awareness of ethical behavior became obvious to me on the way home from the first class. He said, "Mom, it's just like Mr. Evans said. If I take more than my limit of an animal, someone will know I did that. I will know. That is something I'd have to live with [being a poacher]."
Agent Evans was right: The test was geared toward 12-year-olds. Maybe that's why they all finished and were out of the class with temporary permits by the time I was rechecking my answers. Then, I heard my son's voice in the hallway as he told his friend, "I got a 100 percent!" The pressure was on and I checked my answers one more time. Finally, my big moment came and I, too, passed with nary a red mark on my answer sheet, proving that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
I highly recommend that parents take a hunter education class with their children. My husband plans on taking it with our teenage daughter next fall. Although she shoots targets with us at the local range, she has no interest in learning to hunt (yet).
She will, though, benefit from the overall experience of hunter education, and I want her to be exposed to the ideals embodied in the course. My husband and I could not teach her the principles of hunter education at home as well as the instructors do in a 12-hour class.
This course is possibly one of the most important courses that my child will ever take. Hunter education, though, is not just for children. I came away from the course with an increased awareness of the necessity for strict self-control whenever using a firearm. I also learned that a good hunter has respect for life-his life, his companion's life, and the animal's life