Slayer of game that I am, I know full well what judgments that driver would make on my character. I risk confirming them here, as I admit how tempted I was simply to drop into four-wheel drive and plow that fancy rig against the nearest pole. I began to talk out loud: "Anyone who believes animals are people knows nothing about either." The usual drift. "Hell, Hitler hated blood sports. Where does that leave us?"
Did the driver ahead of me have pets? If so, I pitied them. But it was fury, not pity, that ruined the composed, the formal feeling. By God, my Annie had never been little people! I felt affected by this slogan as by someone's smirk at a passing funeral cortege. It was the lack of respect that so enraged me.
Respect has forever been more important than affection in my attachment to my pointers and retrievers. It's not that I don't love a nonworking pet. One of our dogs always stays in the house, to be indulged with scraps, invited onto sofas, dragooned into kids' games. I suppose it's not so bad a life, but the pet doesn't earn the respect that the working dog does.
As I drove south toward home, passing old duck haunts and bird covers, ghostly in the mizzling late-winter rain, something occurred to me: My respectful feeling for the gun dogs is fundamentally the same as the regard I have for the game we pursue together. One admires in a grouse or black duck the fact that it has lost no instinct. Likewise the furbearers. In the face of pressure from civilization, wild game has been genetically self-selected by its qualities of alertness and evasion.
As to the dogs: To keep pace with this grand natural quarry, developers of working dogs have bred in order to distill—and not to transform or repress—ancient traits. Look at a hunting dog move. Then watch your neighbor's pet. Both have been manipulated to be what they are. Although the hunting dog is sociable, even doting, there's a drive in that animal that will not allow it to be utterly and pathetically housebound. To speak of training such a dog is almost a contradiction in terms. One's motive should be less to manage its instincts than to provide them the fullest opportunity to prevail.
I respect and love these instinctual animals. The animal rights activists profess to love them, too, indeed all their animal brethren, up to the wildest and down to the pets. The very name of one of these troops, Friends of Animals, bewilders me. The implication is that this group is friend to all animals. That's remarkable. How do the Friends love a silvertip grizzly? Have they considered a silvertip grizzly?
In my experience, friendship requires a particularized regard. And what is true of friendship is even truer of love, which demands not only recognition but also affirmation of what the beloved, in all honesty, is. It demands, in a word, respect.
When I say I love the wild animals in a given ecosystem, I begin by acknowledging the plain fact that each of these animals must stand in relation to the others as either predator or prey. The latter is not automatically less glorious than the former. I am surely as thrilled by the springbok as by the African wild dog that brings it to earth. Nearer home, I am as impressed by the wary Canada goose as by the gunner, however canny a scout and caller he may be, who tumbles it.
Nor is the prey automatically pitiable. None is necessarily defenseless. That descriptive might apply to what I'm calling degenerate animals—those pets, those furry-coated people—but I've yet to hear anyone use it who hunts truly wild game. Even the vole evades the great raptor more often than not.
Still, how do I rightly speak of love for the creatures I so frequently kill? Here I must again emphasize that feeling of respect. I have respect precisely for the animal's nonhumanity. To deny the animal its nonhumanity is to patronize. Animals are not people, little or big. (The bumper sticker's very stress on the diminutive shows the patronizing touch; is a bull elk a little anything, for God's sake?)