Most Canadians are at least passive fans of hockey. They may not watch or play – or maybe they tried it but gave it up for any number of reasons. Still, you'd be hard-pressed to find many who don't at least appreciate its many beauties and its role in our society.
Imagine that your only exposure to hockey was the latest career-ending blind side hit, stick swinging incident or slugfest – the ugly side of the game that turns most reasonable people off. As it should. But that isn't how most of us think about hockey.
Over the past week there have been two news stories about hunters that have angered many – including hunters.
In the first (and worst) a video shows American hunter Josh Bowmar throwing a spear at a black bear lured to a bait barrel here in Alberta. As the fatally injured bear tears off through the bush, Bowmar performs a gleeful dance – whooping and chest thumping, a childish clown clearly proud of the bear’s grisly death. Many are shocked to learn there is nothing illegal about this. Disgusting and disrespectful, but not illegal.
In the second story, a 12-year-old girl from Utah receives death threats (You read that right. 12 year old girl. Death threats.) after posting pictures of herself with a dead zebra, impala, blue wildebeest and a giraffe. Like Bowmar, she's labeled a wanton killer filled by bloodlust, destroying African wildlife with impunity.
I'm not about to defend Bowmar, who’s corporate sponsor Under Armour dropped him on Friday, a few days after the story aired.
The girl is different. It does look bad, but the reality is more complicated.
Two generations ago, most African wildlife was largely gone from much of the southern part of the continent - shot by foreigners, poached by locals for the bushmeat trade and displaced by agriculture and ranching.
In countries such as South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia, hunting in large part brought those animals back. Today they are bought and bred, placed on vast preserves living a mostly wild existence while being managed like free roaming livestock. It's a very different conception of wildlife than we have in Canada. Now, instead of meeting with a four-legged predator, some will die at the hands of foreign hunters who pay tens-of-thousands of dollars for the experience. The meat is eaten locally (I've eaten wildebeest, kudu and gemsbok many times in South African restaurants), jobs are created for locals and the animals are valued on the land. There is nothing to replace those dollars. In many areas there's every reason to believe that should hunting disappear, wildlife will be replaced by cattle.
That story doesn't drive clicks or flood our social media feeds. It's hard to capture in 140 characters or less.
More provocative and easier to interpret are videos and pictures of hunters posing with guns over dead animals' bodies, apparent conquerors lording over fresh kills.
But those are more the exception. Most of us don’t post or even take those kind of pictures. We don’t wear camo to the grocery store. We don’t take glee in the end of a life.
In my home, we buy very little meat. Most of it comes from the fields, mountains, forests and lakes of Alberta: places we know intimately and love deeply.
Last year more than 128,000 hunting licenses were sold to Alberta residents, generating millions of dollars that pay for wildlife biologists and habitat improvement. Millions more are donated to habitat restoration charities such as Wild Sheep Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and various fish and game associations. That doesn’t include the many thousands of hours spent by volunteers to restore wetlands, plant native prairie grasses and windbreaks for birds, or change fencing to allow Pronghorn antelope to move freely about the prairie. Roughly 3 per cent of Albertans pay to protect not this one duck, but all ducks. Not one elk, but all elk.
While the details differ from place to place, in all North American jurisdictions it is illegal to allow game meat to go to waste (the unfortunate exceptions are bear and cougar who’s fur must legally be saved and used – although many eat both species). You must, by law, eat what you kill.
I’ve often heard people ask how someone could take pleasure in killing a beautiful wild animal. The answer is the vast majority don't. At least not in those terms.
Hunting is getting up in the middle of the night, walking quietly to your spot, then shivering as you watch the sun rise. It's walking the trails used by the animals and understanding the difference between where they sleep and where they eat. It's seeing how passing years affect their health, how populations grow and sometimes crash, how humans and environmental disturbance changes behaviour. It is a constant measuring of what is healthy and what is sick.
It's climbing a mountain ridge every morning in the dark to watch a valley through binoculars. Sometimes you do this all day, every day for a week or more – seeing what lives there and what does not, and then crawling into your tent, curling up and trying to figure out why.
If you get something, it's quickly cleaned and loaded in a vehicle, or cooled and put into your backpack. Sometimes the weight of that pack makes your knees feel like they'll explode and you'll sleep and eat all you can for days afterwards. It will take at least a day and sometimes three to get all of that animal safely wrapped and frozen for the months ahead when you’ll remember the cost as you eat with family and friends.
Our deer are cut into the roasts and steaks we eat a few nights a week. Tougher cuts are made into sausage or burger. At least one front shoulder will become jerky to fuel ski and hiking trips. Bones make stock that gives heft to soups and stews. Organs are used for pate, sausage and some dog treats. What is leftover stays in the forest where the birds, mice and pine martens take their turn.
But that story isn't news. It simply isn't as exceptional as lion-killing dentists, gloating tourists dancing around a dead bear or the rantings of Ted Nugent. In other words, the loud, the disturbing, the near-impossible to understand.
The better example is people like Kevin Van Tighem, the former superintendent of Banff National Park and a lifelong hunter who spent a career protecting ecosystems. Or Kevin Kossowan, an Edmonton area chef, gardener and film maker. Award winning cookbook author Hank Shaw; the quirky and erudite Steve Rinella, Canadian scholar Shane Mahoney; Ted Kerasote and Richard K Nelson who write beautifully about humans' historic relationship with wildlife.
We don't expect every hockey player to answer for the worst of the game – instead we hold up the best as the example to strive for. There will be more news stories about the worst of hockey and hunting – and there will be elements worthy of our condemnation. But that shouldn’t mean we think any less of the rest.