But age, with his stealing steps,
Hath claw'd me in his clutch

William Shakespeare ( 1564-1616)
Hamlet Act V, Scene 1 (1600-1601)

In the third week of Virginia’s 2020 deer season, after having been out a few times, I killed a nice fat doe. By my count, she was about the sixtieth deer I’ve “harvested” (to use a euphemism I really dislike) but she may well be my last: I had a hell of a time getting her out and to a processor. It took me nearly two hours just to get her up to and into my truck. The place where she fell was pretty tangled with downed tree limbs, and on a slope. Dragging a hundred-pound dead weight uphill even as short a distance of 30 yards isn’t quite beyond me but someday it will be. Twenty years ago, once I'd got her to the truck I’d have lifted her bodily into the bed; today I use a winch and a ramp. I’m not sure how many more times I can do a drag like that last one.

I started hunting at age 13 and bought my first license in 1963, so I’ve been at this game nearly 60 years, longer than the lifetime allotted by Fate to many people. But it gets harder and harder for me every year to get up long before the crack of dawn; to drive 40-60 minutes to a hunting spot; to trudge through dark woodlands to my chosen stand; and to sit motionless for anywhere from 6 to 12 hours in the cold. I’m getting old.

No, hell, I am old: I am 73; even though I like to think I remain in reasonably good shape for my age, there are too many indications that I’m no longer as young as I like to think I am; and too damned many indications that I may be deluding myself about how long I can keep this up.

When I hunt I sit on a small, low stool at the base of a tree. Getting down onto it is not a problem: getting up from it is. I find that now I have to cling to some support such as a tree or a walking stick and use upper body strength to assist my legs. I have recurring sciatica; not uncommon in a man my age and part of the price we upright apes pay for carrying the whole weight of a torso vertically on a spine that evolved to be horizontal. It certainly makes that stool a lot less comfortable than it used to be. Even as this is being written I’m dealing with a flare-up that may well force me to cancel a planned bird shoot for the end of this week because when it’s bad I have trouble walking long distances and some serious hip and leg pains. I have other medical issues, but the purpose of this essay is not to wail about my conditions. It’s to recognize that the time is coming when I won’t be able to hunt any more.

I have mixed feelings about that inevitability. In some ways it will be a relief not to feel compelled to get up so early, stumble through a dark wood, endure discomfort and strain, exert myself to my limit in recovering a downed deer, and to have a valid excuse for avoiding all of it. Still, whether I’m physically able to hunt or not, in my mind I will remain a hunter, as I’ve been all of my life. Hunting is as much an ingrained human instinct as it is anything else. I’ll miss it when I stop.

Sometimes I get asked, “Why do you hunt?” A valid answer is “Because it’s in my genes.” I hunt for the same reason my dog chases squirrels. For well over 90% of Americans obtaining meat is as easy as a trip to a grocery store, but even shoppers at Trader Joe’s are hunters: they just pay someone else to do the dirty work. “I hunt because I’m a hunter,” is no more nor less than the simple truth.

There are emotional and quasi-spiritual aspects to hunting. Age affects those too. There is this famous quotation:

One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted...If one were to present the sportsman with the death of the animal as a gift he would refuse it. What he is after is having to win it, to conquer… through his own effort and skill with all the extras that this carries with it: the immersion in the countryside, the healthfulness of the exercise, the distraction from his job.

Jose Ortega y GassetMeditations on Hunting (1972)

This more or less sums up the mental and emotional justification for taking any animal’s life. But as I age I find that I can justify the killing part of it less and less, at least for myself, though I don’t condemn others for doing it.

From my boyhood it had been my ambition to hunt in Africa and most especially to take an elephant. I’ve managed three African hunts, on the last of which I did in fact get my elephant. It was a fulfilment of a lifelong wish and I make no apologies for doing it to anyone except perhaps the elephant. Naturally from time to time I think about another safari. I can afford one, but an argument I’ve started to have with myself is: why should I do it?

Foreigners in Africa are by definition trophy hunters, not meat hunters. Now, I don’t have a problem with trophy hunting. Anyone who wants to hang a huge whitetail rack or the head of a lion on his wall is welcome to do it so far as I’m concerned. But if I hunt in Africa again I can’t bring the meat home, and I don’t care about more heads on my walls (yes, I do have a few). Even though I have no objections to trophy hunting, personally I’m a meat hunter. I eat what I kill to the maximum extent that I can: when I do that the animal becomes part of me. In this sense a deer, a squirrel, or a pheasant is no different from the steer, the lamb, or the battery chicken I buy at Kroger’s, except that for those the killing was done for me, not by me—just as someone else does the killing for those who buy “humanely raised, organically grown, free range” chicken, pork, or beef at Trader Joe’s. From the chicken’s point of view the result is the same.

A few years ago none of this would have raised objections in my mind to making another safari. But I’m coming to the point where I find some logical and perhaps ethical validity in the counter-argument that if I can’t eat it, I shouldn’t kill it. As my time left on this planet gets shorter, my physical ability declines, and the horizon of my life gets closer, maybe I should consider not shortening the life of some other creature “just because.” I don’t feel that hunting—when done properly and for valid reasons—is inherently any more cruel than a slaughterhouse operation, but gratuitous taking of sentient life may well be, however proficiently it may be done.

This is an old man’s view. At 30, 40, 50, or even 60 it would never have entered my mind to think this way. At 13 I blithely shot birds off a feeder but now I put out birdseed every day and don’t begrudge the squirrels their share: charity begins at home. I’m even a bit bothered when I trap a mouse in my garage who’s just trying to make a living by stealing dog kibble. Not bothered enough to stop setting mousetraps, but enough to wonder whether I can’t spare a few bits of dog food now and then for a hard-working rodent and his family.

My situation is by no means unusual. The total number of hunters in the USA and worldwide is declining as my generation ages and accepts the inevitable ravages of age and time. Hunting will continue far longer than I expect to live but its end is as certain as mine. This will be a bad thing for wildlife. Hunters pay for conservation and restoration, they provide a check on prolific and potentially destructive species such as deer, and they inject vast sums of money into local, state, and national economies. Those of us who “age out” aren’t being replaced. Kids today are increasingly urbanized and hunting is essentially an element of rural culture. Young people are no longer the recipients of the traditions and lore of hunting; quite the reverse: too often they’re taught that hunting a bad thing, a barbaric practice that must be stopped. Raised on TV shows and video games and movies that depict hunting in a very negative way, once they get past a certain age it’s virtually impossible to convince them otherwise. They will never come out to replace my generation, and they will reject the important lessons that hunting teaches: not just how but when and why to end a life, and more importantly when not to. Then hunting, too, will die.

So, inevitably, in time I will stop actively hunting. When? I don’t know yet. As each season comes and goes I “take it a little easier,” no longer going out so early, using mechanical aids to load the game up, using a processor rather than cutting the deer myself, and so forth. But some day all that will no longer be enough. Will it be at 75? At 80? Who knows? Every now and then I read a story about someone who’s still hunting actively in his 80’s or 90’s, and once about a man over 100 who still went out into the field, albeit with assistance from his family. I doubt it will be that long in my case. I am aging and I’m aging out.