Warning –this post is about a graphic predator-prey kill. It may not be appropriate for some.
The sounds of yipping, howling coyotes wake me. I glance at the clock, 2:58 a.m., as I get out of bed and shuffle my feet in the darkness to avoid stepping on our sleeping cat. I make it to the living room, put a log in the fireplace, and stand by the picture window staring out at darkness. Flickering yellow light from the fire’s growing flame escapes out of the window revealing a fresh carpet of snow. The yips, yaps, barks and howls have reached a frenzied pitch. They must have a kill, I think.
Four hours later, ten paces from our front door, I find two sets of coyote tracks and a crystallized droplet of blood. I backtrack the two coyotes a short distance and locate two more sets of tracks. Soon, crisscrossed tracks are everywhere along with droplets of blood. I follow the densest concentration. Shortly, individual tracks dissolve into a trampled path lightly brushed with crimson. Occasional deer hair lie scattered about.
The path turns redder and is joined by two more bloodied paths. I see the antlers first, peaking up from a slight depression above my position. I climb up the last few feet, exposing the ghastly scene - fresh powder snow highlighting half a deer encircled by a wide swath of blood.
I know this deer, catching sight of him often over the last few weeks as he jockeyed for breeding rights. He was a large-framed deer, around 250 pounds, way too powerful for coyotes to kill. But what about a pack of coyotes? After all, just how many coyotes does it take to eat more than 100 pounds of flesh, bone and organs in under four hours? I scan the hillside. They’re up there, I think, watching me. Lying under an oak tree, bloody faces, bellies stuffed to the limit.
No, I think, they’re not the only hunters involved in the death of this buck. I have seen this scene replayed way too many times over the years.
I follow the evidence of the grisly encounter a few hundred yards up the hill, reading the last page of the buck’s life written in the snow.
There was no running, no dramatic fight to the death. The buck simply walked down the hill in short steps, likely weakened by a hunter’s bullet from days ago. The coyotes, wise to the ultimate fate of the buck, followed along on the periphery, waiting for the time when reward outweighed risk. One kick from a healthy buck of this size could easily pulverize the skull of a coyote.
The buck’s time had come; the coyotes piled onto his hind quarters, pulling and tearing with their powerful jaws in an attempt to take the buck down. Their job was easy; the buck went down with little resistance. He probably died quickly, either from shock or from a coyote’s fang puncturing his femoral artery.
I’d like to think the buck was mortally wounded by an errant bullet, an otherwise true aim deflected by an unseen twig. Or maybe a hunter suffering from “buck fever,” whose uncontrollable shakes caused by the sight of his quarry, led a normally skilled shooter’s bullet astray. A more likely case, however, is a “hunter,” bored with the discipline of hunting, slinging bullets after fleeting patches of brown.
I walk back down the hill and stand over the buck. The last time I saw him was the day after Thanksgiving, standing alone on a hillside. I remember thinking at the time that he looked hunched over. I wonder if he was mortally wounded then.
I think about how the buck died. It’s not the graphic death scene I witnessed that troubles me. While it is difficult to see, and it’s hard not to have human empathy, it’s only nature following its genetic code. I can also accept the fact the buck was killed, either by a hunter’s hand or otherwise. What troubles me is knowing there are others of my own species, likely fostered by ignorance, who have only apathy for our natural world.
Maybe, if the person who mortally wounded this buck had felt what I experienced this morning, their next time afield would be more honorable.