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NZ’s killing season enters full swing

It’s the killing season – and the Tuesday Morning Quarterback is loving it

“It’s harder than you think to cut off a horse’s head.”

That’s not a reference to the Godfather movies. Or a Confucian proverb highlighting the difficulties facing the Blues.

It’s a professional insight provided by a Swedish-based slaughterman during a chance conversation on a train many years ago.

The Swedes love horses. Love riding them. Love eating them. Sometimes they even do both, to the same animal – like this woman.

It’s an inescapable reality that to get a horse – or any other decent-sized carcass from paddock to plate – requires decapitation. And, according to an expert in the field, horse heads are particularly tricky to remove.

What’s the point in this disquieting dissection of equine butchery? Keep your head on and we’ll get there.

First, back home to New Zealand, where we’re in the midst of our own killing season (insert another Blues gag of your choice here – this column has enough mention of corpses as it is).

The Autumn roar – the time of year when hunters take to the hills attempting to impersonate deer well enough to lure rutting stags to their doom but not so well that they meet their own at the hands of another hunter – is just winding down.

Opening day of the duck shooting season – a second Christmas morning especially for those who like dressing in camo and shooting things with shotguns – is this Saturday, May 5.

With around 35,000 licensed shooters able to take a daily bag limit of around eight ducks (20 in Southland), a significant slaughter will ensue, delighting some while appalling others.

Disciples of the appalled tend to raise two broad questions about the legitimacy of hunting as a sport.

Firstly, why is it necessary to participate in a leisure activity that requires the death of an animal?

“You could say the same about cricket”, is the answer preferred by this column's author, who will be firmly entrenched in a maimai on the Pelorus River on opening morning.

The “genuine leather” used to make cricket balls doesn’t exactly grow on trees. The thousands of cricket games played around the world each day couldn’t happen without the slaughter of an animal.

We humans have physically and mentally divorced ourselves from the animal slaughter that caters for our needs to the point where many of us don’t even acknowledge that it exists.

Before you go storming the picket fences in protest of this horror, it’s probably worth noting that there wouldn’t be many sporting activities, if any, where the number of degrees of separation from an animal’s death exceeds the daily bag limit of ducks in the Nelson-Marlborough Fish & Game region.

Going rock climbing? Let’s hope there’s no leather components in that harness or those boots.

Driving into the city to watch the Blues (cough)? Doesn’t that car steering wheel feel nice. Now what could it be wrapped in?

Staying home for the match so you can avoid the queue at the kebab stand (again, unlikely) at Eden Park? That’s a comfy looking leather sofa you’ve got there, and I love the matching duck down pillows…

We humans have physically and mentally divorced ourselves from the animal slaughter that caters for our needs to the point where many of us don’t even acknowledge that it exists.

How many people walk into a shoe store full of shiny leather wonders and think: “poor cows”?

Or stroll into the meat department of a supermarket and think: “my god what happened here”?

That’s fine. But it’s more than a little bit rich for people who wilfully ignore the carnage they aid and abet to question the validity of sports such as duck shooting.

Strangely, many do.

As this excellent piece about the contradiction in the way we treat rabbits as compared to crayfish lays bare, hypocrisy is all too common when it comes to animal welfare.

The second question posed to hunters – typically by those who accept that some degree of animal slaughter is a requirement of human existence – is: “But why do you have to do the killing yourself?”

Implicit in the question is that it is in some way morally inferior to be the one who pulls the trigger or buries the knife.

Cobblers.

A hunter who shoots a deer might well feel a sense of melancholy at having taken the life of a beautiful animal. And they’ll almost certainly feel a responsibility to ensure the proceeds of the kill are maximised.

The human condition is perfectly capable of dealing with inflicting death upon animals on a scale that makes sense to an individual; but an incomprehensibly vast, endless cycle of factory slaughter, not so much.

Having hauled the carcass to a place where it can be processed, sliced the belly open to remove the guts and cut off the head before hanging the carcass from its hocks for skinning and butchering, said hunter is going to be fairly well acquainted with what it takes to turn an animal into a meal by the time they sit down to dinner.

The same applies to ducks that need to be gutted, plucked and scalded before going anywhere near an oven and a l'orange sauce.

Having put in hours of effort planning and executing a hunt and processing their catch, hunters feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in their efforts. They’re happy.

Which brings us, at last, back to our Swedish slaughterman, who, it transpired, wasn’t happy in his work. Butchering horses, day-in, day-out was a profoundly miserable way to earn a living. It ate away at him, he admitted.

Numerous studies have linked slaughterhouse work with increased susceptibility to mental illnesses, particularly post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the lesser known PITS – perpetrator-induced traumatic stress.

“The worst thing, worse than the physical danger [of on-the-job accidents] is the emotional toll,” PTSD-suffering former slaughterman Ed Van Winkle told a shareholders' meeting of the food company he worked for in 2006. “Pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them – beat them to death with a pipe. I can’t care.”

Van Winkle’s account is repeated in a Metro article that also includes the story of Virgil Butler, a man who worked in a poultry plant in the US from 1997 to 2002, before becoming an animal rights activist.

“The sheer amount of killing and blood can really get to you after a while,” he wrote on his blog The Cyberactivist in 2003. “Especially if you can’t just shut down all emotion and turn into a robot zombie of death. You feel like part of a big death machine. You are murdering helpless birds by the thousands (75,000 to 90,000 a night). You are a killer.”

Compare those experiences to those of the 35,000 happy hunters who will take to the nation’s waterways on Saturday morning, where the predominant sentiment will be a mixture of anticipation, excitement, comradeship and, hopefully, achievement.

The human condition is perfectly capable of dealing with inflicting death upon animals on a scale that makes sense to an individual; but an incomprehensibly vast, endless cycle of factory slaughter, not so much.

Whatever your views on hunting, hunters at least deserve credit for taking ownership of the process of gathering and processing meat, and will almost always possess a deeply-vested interest in the preservation of their quarry's environment.

Yes, some people shoot purely for enjoyment, shamefully neglecting to harvest their catch. Others hunt for trophies, with the sole purpose of the killing being to capture a memento of the act. This hunter finds those acts morally indefensible – but no more so than throwing a steak on a barbie or slipping on a pair of shiny leather shoes with zero regard for where they came from.

Ponder that next time you're munching down a horse burger – which if you visited Europe any time around 2013 is something you've likely already done.

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