Essay by Steve Voynick
Hunting – February 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine
Prayer Slayers and Drive-by Shooters
by Steve Voynick
I’M A NONHUNTER, but living near the base of Mount Elbert gives me a ringside seat for the Colorado deer and elk hunting seasons. Although 250,000 individuals hunt elk each year in Colorado, my overall impression of Colorado hunters is shaped by only a few individuals who occupy opposite ends of the hunting spectrum.
I call hunters the prayer slayers and the drive-by shooters. The prayer slayers are by far the more vocal of the two groups. This past hunting season, the pray slayers have penned their views in everything from High Country News and The Denver Post to Colorado Central and Field and Stream. They’ve explained at length how hunting intimately connects them with the Earth’s cycles of life and death.
Through hunting, prayer slayers procure food for subsistence in both real and symbolic terms, and they experience the drama of personal involvement in the food chain. They profess a deep reverence for wildlife and a thorough knowledge of requisite wilderness skills and the habits of their prey. They claim they are morally bound by the code of the close, well-placed, single shot, and successfully tracking wounded animals is a point of honor.
Some prayer slayers claim that killing, and the taking of warmth and life from the flesh and blood and hides of their prey, reincarnates them briefly into the hunter-gatherers of ages past. Kneeling in the red-stained snow, as life and blood ebb from the downed wapiti, they unabashedly utter prayers of thanks (O Great Spirit . . .).
This is heavy stuff. Were I to hunt, I would want to be a prayer slayer. With that single, dead-on shot, I could channel with my heavy-browed Pleistocene ancestors, beat the primal drum, commune with the gods, connect with the real food chain, and screw Safeway in the process. What a deal.
Although I think prayer slayers sometimes go a bit too far to justify their sport (remember that hunting today is a non-essential recreational activity), I admire them. Whether through prayer or personal reenactment of a timeless ritual, they bring the elements of respect and awareness to the taking of animal lives. If there were more prayer slayers, I might not impatiently count the days until the hunting season ends.
Now, I’ve never seen a prayer slayer in action. But I have often seen their antitheses — the drive-by shooters who, because of their numbers and visibility, do much more to shape my image of hunters.
From the shot patterns that echo from the Mt. Elbert forests, I try to visualize the drama of the hunt. BAM. The single, well-placed, close shot of a prayer slayer? The culmination of a long, patient stalk that even Cooper’s Deerslayer would be proud of? Or a drive-by shooter snapping off a shot from the window of his pickup?Later, I hear, BAM . . . BAM BAM. Certainly not a prayer slayer. The first shot is obviously errant, and the rapidity of the two that follow belie any careful aiming. Then, moments later from a different quarter, like rolling thunder, BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM, each shot less than a second apart. The fusillade fades away, I’m certain, only because state law limits the magazine capacity of hunting rifles.
When the sun rises, I watch the road hunting start. I watch pickups, jeeps, and even passenger cars, their occupants dressed in blaze orange and driving slowly back and forth over the county and Forest Service roads. On both U.S. and state highways, I’ve passed cars driving 25 miles per hour in 65 mile-per-hour zones, their orange-clad drivers and passengers studying the nearby hills–“stalking” their prey. I’ve seen elk — mouths open and eyes wide with terror — driven from forests into open meadows where hunters have pursued them in vehicles and killed them.
With the last shots still echoing through the Mt. Elbert forests and the warm and fuzzy rhetoric of the prayer slayers just starting to fade, the news last season reported that Colorado elk hunters had “accidentally” killed at least 31 moose. And it’s a good bet that more moose carcasses, undiscovered and unreported, are rotting out there somewhere. Yet apart from hooves and four legs, moose look nothing like elk.
Actually, I can understand how an occasional hunter, possibly because of poor light conditions or an overly-excited state of mind, might errantly shoot a moose that he or she honestly thought was an elk. But how is it possible to “accidentally” kill more than 31 moose in a single season?
As I see it, the answer obviously lies in the drive-by shooter mentality. They shoot at animals that are much too far away to identify, or they simply don’t know — or care — what an elk or a moose actually looks like. They bought a license and, damn it, they’re going to shoot something, or at least at something.
LAST SEASON, the Herald-Democrat reported that elk hunters killed a domestic cow. The next week, the Herald reported that a local politician got nabbed for illegally shooting from his pickup. In a newspaper quote, the politician conceded that “he might have been” shooting out his truck window, but added, “As far as I know, nothing was killed.” Not that he bothered looking, because there was “only an hour” of daylight left. But something was killed. The next day, state wildlife officers found the elk near death a short distance away.
After hunting seasons past, I have found elk carcasses, with the hindquarters gone and the rest left to rot. I have come across sites where hunters had butchered illegally-killed animals, and I’ve found plastic garbage bags filled with deer parts. And once, in a hidden gully just off U.S. 24, I found an elk head, a heap of bones, the lesser cuts of meat, and a bloody hide.Now, another long hunting season has come and gone, and the Mt. Elbert forests are cloaked in the heavy silence and peace of winter. Yet despite the writings of the prayer slayers, the callous actions of the drive-by shooters have again won out in molding my image of Colorado elk and deer hunters. Intellectually, of course, I know that most hunters are part of a silent majority whose approach to hunting falls in that big middle ground between that of the prayer slayers and the drive-by shooters. But until the drive-by shooters learn not to publicly cheapen the taking of animal lives, my image of hunting will remain one of day-glo orange B
Steve Voynick lives near Leadville, but far enough out of town to see plenty of hunters. His latest book is Riding the Higher Range, a history of Coleman Natural Beef.