An Awful Mercy

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Fog in Wyoming.
Photo by Hank Shaw

Nothing in this world is certain, except death. The Reaper comes for us all in the end. Sometimes that end is horrible, violent and cruel. Sometimes it is a lingering, painful path to rot and ruin, pockmarked with despair and regret. Most of us cannot bear to contemplate this. But in those secret moments when we do allow ourselves to envision our own departure from this world, we ache for it to come swiftly, cleanly. Such a death is the ultimate mercy, the ultimate kindness.

Three days ago, on a cold and rainy hillside in Wyoming, I delivered that ultimate kindness to a dying fawn. And in the hours since, I have been unable to shake the image of that young animal from my mind — nor have I been able to fathom the seeming courage with which it faced me, a handservant of the Reaper.

I’d come to Wyoming in search of antelope, one of my favorite game meats and one I’d not had the privilege of eating since I shot my last ‘lopes in 2006. My friend Sheamus and his friends Allen and Tad invited me along on their antelope hunt, and I eagerly accepted. Allen and Tad were old hands at hunting pronghorn, and were good enough to do it consistently on public land.

But when we went to buy our tags at the sporting goods store in Caspar, we found that the area where Allen had planned to hunt was sold out. So Sheamus and I had to buy tags for a neighboring region, one none of us had ever seen. Sheamus is a chef more interested in meat than horns, and since I already have the skull of a big buck antelope on my wall, we each bought tags that allowed us to kill an antelope doe or fawn instead of a buck.

Into the truck we went, full of hope. Antelope hunting in Northern Wyoming is not the toughest endeavor in the world. There’s probably a higher concentration of pronghorn there than in any other place in North America. They are everywhere. The trick, however, is finding them on land you have permission to hunt.

Red hills in Wyoming.
Photo by Hank Shaw

The country we were driving through was sweeping and stark. For starters, these are the high plains. They begin at 5000 feet and go up from there. The wind is constant. Red rock cliffs fade into scrubby shortgrass prairie. Deep coulees hold mule deer, creek bottoms whitetail deer and turkeys. Look around and you are overwhelmed with a sense of beige. Everything is beige: The grasses, the hillsides, the antelope.

And sure enough, we found antelope. Lots of them.

A herd of antelope walking across a dry grass field
Photo by Hank Shaw

Tad checked a nifty GPS device he had that showed us which was public land and which was private. Again and again and again, the answer was the same: Private. Hours passed.

Finally, Sheamus spotted a lone pronghorn bedded down on the side of a grassy hillside. Tad checked his GPS. “Green light! We can shoot him!” I was up first, so I slipped out of the truck, rifle in hand.

I needed to cross a road and get over a fence before I was legal to shoot — all in plain view of the sitting antelope. My heart hammered against my chest, and only a little of it was because of the altitude. I knew this was probably my only chance to get an antelope and I did not want to mess it up.

But surely the pronghorn would run off if I got close to it? I decided to try something that’s always worked with other animals: I walked along the road away from it, not looking. For whatever reason, not looking directly at animals seems not to spook them when I do it. I crossed the fence a few yards down the road and jammed a few shells into my rifle. I glanced to my left, up the hillside. The antelope was still there. So far so good.

I looked at the antelope through my scope. My heart sank a bit: It was a little boy fawn, not a fat doe as I’d hoped. But some meat is better than none, I reckoned. I also realized that from where I was sitting, this would be a long shot. I don’t much like long shots, so I decided to walk away from the pronghorn again to get myself around a little knob, where he could not see me. I could get much closer to him by coming up from behind the knob and shooting down from the top.

I worked my way around while Sheamus and crew watched from the truck. As I got closer, I dropped to my knees. When I reached the lip, I crawled. The fawn should be just below me, I thought. But he wasn’t. Had he walked away while I was behind the knob? I could just imagine everyone laughing at me in the truck. Letting me belly crawl over cactus for nothing.

Where the hell had this antelope gone? I looked to the right, and there he was, this time much closer. He was still bedded down, looking at me, calmly chewing grass. I was stunned. No animal should be that calm with a predator so close. Why didn’t he get up? Then it dawned on me.

Something was wrong with this fawn. Something serious.

Was he sick? Injured? I looked through the scope again. There he was, looking for all the world like he was just chewing his lunch on any other Monday afternoon. And he was still looking at me.

For a moment I thought I ought to just walk up on this antelope to see what he would do. Maybe he was just young and foolish, maybe I could teach him to fear humans. But I didn’t. I didn’t do that because, quite frankly, I wanted the meat. If I don’t kill a deer or some other sort of venison each year, I don’t eat red meat. I’ve lived this way since 2004, and I am not about to stop.

So I did what I set out to do. I set the crosshairs of my rifle on the best target I had available: The spine at the base of his neck. My pounding heart bounced the crosshairs mercilessly until I took a long, deep breath to calm myself. The last image I had before the world exploded was that fawn looking directly at me.

I did not see the antelope die, but I heard the thud of the bullet hitting him. When I looked up, he was stone dead. I chambered another round just in case he got up, and walked towards him, about 100 yards away. As I drew closer, I saw an odd dark patch near his foreleg. What?! Had I just shot him in the leg? Then why is he dead? 

Standing over the dead pronghorn, I was at first struck by how small he was. Probably born in June, he could not have weighed more than 50 pounds. Then I saw what the dark patch was. Something, probably a coyote, had almost completely torn off this poor fawn’s foreleg. It was hanging only by a small bit of muscle and skin. A horrible wound, a fatal wound.

The yearling had not run away because he couldn’t. But three-legged animals can certainly stand, and many can walk. So why had he not stood up and even tried to escape? Was he addled by his injury, which looked to be only a couple days old?

I knelt down and put a tuft of grass in his mouth as a sign of respect; it’s a German tradition, a final gift of food to the fallen.

By the time I stood up, Sheamus was walking up the hill to help me out. We carried the pronghorn in silence and carried him back toward the truck. I skinned and quartered him quickly. We remarked that he was almost the exact size and color of a baby goat. “That’s gonna be some good meat,” Tad said.

He’s right. Holly and I will probably get six meals from that little antelope. But I can’t stop thinking about its fate. I know in my heart I did the right thing. Not every hunter would have chosen to use his tag on such an animal. And had we left him, the yearling would have died of starvation or, more likely, have been torn to pieces by the coyotes when they returned for him in the night.

My brain tells me that this fawn did not know this, that he could not possibly look his death in the eye serene in the knowledge that with his leg in ruins, a bullet was the best of all possible ends. My heart says otherwise. And I can only hope to show such courage when the Reaper comes for me.

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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44 Comments

  1. Thanks, Hank. I’ve always said that hunting is defined by honor and respect, as much as by skill or stamina.

    Respect for the land you’re hunting; respect for the weapon you’re carrying; and respect for the animal you’re harvesting.

  2. I just found this site and of all the wonderful things on it (my taste buds are daydreaming), this piece draws me to a comment.

    As a hunter, an angler, and a forager, I know this scene and this feeling all too well. Time and again, I’ve been the hand servant of The Reaper and several times in similar situations to this pronghorn encounter. Whether it be the whitetail buck chasing a doe with its rear leg shattered, or the one that escaped feral dogs by swimming a creek but not before they had torn the hams, hocks, and abdominal cavity, or be it the goose with the wing broken from a mid-migration collision, or be it one of a number of other animals, I’ve provided that merciful coup de grace not infrequently and will be called to do so again. I say called to do so because I believe that we are: we are called to provide that last measure of relief and to be the predator that takes the life, makes use of the life, and does so hoping that some day when The Reaper has come for us that the end will be as swift and as merciful.

    Beautifully written, Mr. Shaw. Thank you.

  3. Tricia: Thanks for the kind words. As for the meat, you’d think that the hormones would affect the meat because the animal was certainly stressed. But we ate the shanks last night and they were wonderful.

    But you should know that even an seriously stressed animal’s meat will not be a “negative, potentially harmful substance.” It will be darker, tougher and “gamier” than well-shot meat, but not harmful per se.

  4. Hi Hank,
    I am new to your blog and am enjoying it very much, even though I do not hunt or fish. I recently reposted your link to my FB Wall on corned venison (along with a heavy hint) in hopes that some hunting friends would make it and invite us to dinner (I even offered to provide the corning ingredients!).
    I just wanted to say that I love to read, I love the gift of words, and I love animals. Your story about the Wyoming Pronghorn fawn was very moving. Thank-you for sharing this experience, and your heart, with us. I lived in CO at 8,400 ft for 9 years and we had herds of deer, elk, and Pronghorn roaming our own 40 acres and the surrounding national forest. I have a question that stems from living in a free-range state. We have hit deer, elk, and even a calf on the roads and others have taken the animals to use for meat. (Our insurance company even paid the rancher who owned the calf for his loss, and then he had it butchered and stocked his freezer.) Our vehicle broke the calf’s back leg and even though we immediately tried to find which of the neighboring cattle ranchers owned this calf, it wasn’t until two days later that this poor, suffering animal was loaded onto a trailer and taken to the butcher. My question is this:
    Aren’t hormones resulting from fear, pain and stress released into the flesh, turning the meat from a healthy, nutritious fuel for our bodies into a negative, potentially harmful substance?

  5. Thinking back over my career as a deputy sheriff in a fairly rural county here in Ohio. Thirty years of responding to all manner of calls.

    Some of the calls that stick with me today, were those where I had to “finish-off” deer that were stuck by motor vehicles. Fractured limbs, but otherwise alert animals. You did what you had to do. Had to euthanize (the clinical word) probably close to 300 animals, maybe more. Most found their way to freezers, but I’ll never forget their tragic end.

  6. I am a former city girl living in a commuter farm town. I don’t hunt or fish. I’d love to forage and am hoping to someday find a seasoned buddy to help me out. I unsuccessfully attempt a garden every year, and with each passing midwestern season, I become more grateful for the local farmers I support. I adore your blog. I greatly appreciate the respect and consideration you give each subject you write about. You’ve certainly opened my mind and made me think more carefully about my food choices. Today’s post isn’t the first that’s brought me to tears. Thank you.

  7. Thank you for the well written peice and being a ethical hunter. I am looking forward to some antelope recipes as one of my hunting buddies just gifted me some and it will be my first time cooking it.

  8. Hank,
    You gave the fawn a quick and painless death at a time when it would otherwise have had a slow and painful death. Even the most anti-hunting person would (should?) have wanted to do the same.

  9. Nice work. I was just north of casper hunting antelope as well. I could hardly believe how many antelope were there. Thank goodness for a GPS. We were able to harvest a buck and doe each….I will have to try a few of your recipes. So far the meat has been amazing.

  10. What about the poor coyote! Nobody mentioned him? He painstakingly stalked his prey, was able to fend off blows from the mother Doe and father Buck Prong Horn and herd, chased the young fawn, wounded the fawn, then not able to finish the fawn off for some unknown reason, is still searching for it’s wounded meal when he heard a truck pull up the road. He probably hid from site while Hank approached. He sure got the short end of the stick when Hank showed up. Hopefully he got to have the innards as a conciliation prize for his efforts? Poor Coyote!

  11. Rather than say the same things as everyone else has, let me say I read your post with the feelings expressed by all so far…however I am surprised that someone hasn’t latched on to there being something wrong.

    for that I am grateful – that all seem to see your post for the feeling that it was certainly meant to evoke. Thank you for caring for the things you hunt

  12. Heather and Ricardo: I made a judgment call. The wound was very fresh, maybe 48 hours old, and there was only a touch of gangrene at the edge. The rest of the meat looked and smelled good and since I will be freezing the meat before eating it, I should have no problems.

    But… I have eaten a wild boar that had an old, infected wound, too. I cut a wide swath around that wound but ate the rest. No ill effects.

  13. Thanks for sharing your experience. No doubt you did facilitate mercy to this animal.

    As a newbie to handling and cooking game meat, I also wondered the same thing that Ricardo Rodriguez posted above, how do you know that with an animal in this state, that the meat is safe for you to consume? (Is there “practical guidance” you can share with us, that guided your decision to deem it safe – and/or is the decision to eat the meat, at the end of the day, your own personal judgement call?)

  14. Hi Hank,
    Thanks so much for this lovely post and indeed your whole blog. My husband and I are looking toward a similar model of living and it’s encouraging to have people like you as role models.

  15. Hank, you have an amazing gift with words (not to mention your recipes). As a conscious carnivore I am constantly in debate with “moral” vegetarians and naive meat eaters who don’t (or choose not to) understand the life and death of all animals.

    Your story just reaffirms my theory that every wild animal will live its life free until it gets eaten alive by preditors, maggots or ants. Then you have the intensely farmed animals that whilst being killed “humanly”, they live a cruel and inhuman life.

    As a conscious being we wish for a free life and a swift death. Hunting game is our way of offering that to the wild.

    I will be directing sceptics of this way of life to your blog for enlightenment.

    Ps can’t wait for the new book.

  16. It is a tough thing to realise that there is a death involved in your meat and that it does not come cling wraped from a supermarket.

    Even harder on situations like this. Tough call and I have nothing but respect for you. I can only hope I would make such a good decision in the same circumstances.

  17. Thanks for that piece. I had the same experience elk hunting… “why am I getting this close to a two year old bull?” In my case the “coyote” was another hunter that had left two bullets in him. I can’t know why he wasn’t found by the person that shot him, but I was proud to take that elk home to my family.