One of the more cherished benefits from my backyard is the space it allows me for soul-searching and deep thinking. In today’s hustle-bustle world, we too often fill every available minute with mindless things, or at least things that occupy our minds to the point that we can’t take down an idea, mull it over, turn it inside out, and try to understand the subtleties that underlie it. I don’t do social media, and I don’t watch a lot of TV. My spare time is more often taken by trying to keep up with the stack of books that seem to accumulate by my easy chair faster than I can read. For those with family, and a job, and an active social life, there just isn’t much thinking time left. I find that sitting on my sauna porch, mowing the lawn, weeding the garden, pruning, or any of a dozen other activities in my yard provides just the right space to think. I need space, perhaps because I need more time for my less-nimble mind to digest complex ideas. With most work, my mind is usually filled with problem-solving related to the work at hand. While cutting firewood, for example, one doesn’t want one’s mind to wander too far. When I’m inside, books, computer, phone, cooking, sleeping, or conversation seem to soak up every available minute. It is the simple tasks in my yard that hold the key for freeing my mind to think.

As a metaphor, “ruminate” is exactly the right word to describe what often happens in my yard. The word comes from the complex digestive process certain animals, such as cows, goats, giraffes, deer, and antelope have evolved. Cows will busily graze for two or three hours before stopping to rest. As I was growing up, we always kept a cow or two to provide milk, cream, and butter for the family. Our cows were very friendly, more like pets. In fact, one, a big Guernsey, was named “Pet.” I recall very often being near her when she was lying in the shade, and hearing her burp, a big, satisfying belch. She would then begin chewing a cud. She might chew for five or ten minutes before it was all swallowed, at which time she would burp up another bolus and continue chewing.  One might think that a cow’s breath would be sour, but I remember it being sweet, or at least smelling more like freshly mown grass than sauerkraut.

Ruminants (the word comes from Latin ruminare, meaning to “chew over again”) have four stomachs. The coarse vegetation they swallow while grazing or browsing resides in the rumen and reticulum (a two-part compartment), where fermentation by bacteria begins, along with separation of solids and liquids. After feeding for a period, the ruminant will take a break and burp up a cud, or bolus, a slightly fermented wad of vegetation, which it masticates leisurely. The finely ground food then is swallowed and goes into the next digestive organ, the omasum, where fermentation continues. The process is repeated until all the coarse vegetation in the rumen is processed. In the omasum, complex compounds such as cellulose and hemicellulose are broken down into their component compounds that then enter the abomasum, essentially a true stomach, much like ours. Were it not for the aid of bacteria, along with some fungi and yeasts, and this more complicated digestion process, ruminants would not be able to extract sufficient nutrition from the coarse vegetation they consume. Likewise, were it not for ample opportunity provided by my backyard, I could not digest the complex ideas that make our world so interesting.

In mid-August, Mourning Doves become increasingly abundant around my feeders, which I often have to fill twice a day.  Of course, many other birds also are busy at the feeders…Blue Jays, various woodpeckers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, American Goldfinches, nuthatches, and a few House Finches and Purple Finches, but the number of doves exceeds all others. The nesting season is coming to a close, and the young doves, now looking very much like the older adults, swell the ranks. I was busy pulling common purslane from under the spreading vines of my squash, while keeping a loose eye on the feeders, hoping to see something less common. There would be ten or more doves at a time vying for space on the feeder. It was a combination of the mindless weeding coupled with the observation of so many doves at my feeders that triggered rumination. Why was I feeding doves? Too soon, many would move south with approaching cold weather, to be shot by hunters. Why do some people like to shoot doves? Should we feed doves so that more survive to become sport for a few who like the challenge? Such was my rumination as I pulled purslane.

The Mourning Dove is one of the more common birds in United States, breeding from southern Canada through all of the lower 48 states and into Mexico. Those from more northern areas migrate south for the winter. Some Wisconsin doves may remain year-round, but many from farther north move into Wisconsin in the autumn, resulting in doves being one of the most abundant birds around my winter feeders. Mourning Doves were legally hunted in Wisconsin until 1918. Thereafter, arguments for approving dove hunting in Wisconsin surfaced from time to time, most recently in the ‘90s, triggering some of the most heated disagreements of any natural resource issue. In 1971, the Mourning Dove was made the official Wisconsin symbol of peace, no doubt an effort to prevent it being declared legal game again. Nevertheless, those favoring a hunt garnered enough support in 2001 to get the Natural Resources Board, which sets policy for the Department of Natural Resources, to authorize a dove hunt, making Wisconsin the 39th state to recognize the Mourning Dove as a migratory game bird. Animal rights activists successfully sued to block the hunt, but the decision was overturned in the Court of Appeals. The first dove season was opened in 2003. The Department of Natural Resources estimated that as many as 30,000 hunters participated in the annual 60-day hunt, harvesting as many as 150,000 or more doves. While that sounds like a lot of birds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that as many as 4 to 5 million doves breed or migrate through Wisconsin annually. Also, studies elsewhere indicated that legal hunting had no detectable effect on the dove population.

Dove hunting is more popular in many other states, with a total annual estimated kill of 20-25 million birds nationwide, more than the combined total of all other migratory game birds. The number is surprising both because it is so high and because shooting a Mourning Dove in flight is so challenging. Bear in mind that this is a small bird, roughly the size of a robin, that flies very fast–30-40 m.p.h. during normal flight and up to 60 m.p.h. when frightened, as when it is the target of hunters. Game for the table cannot be a good argument for dove hunting. Usually only the breast is eaten, and it takes several to make a decent portion. However, the daily bag limit is 15 or more, and the possession limit is 30 in Wisconsin, perhaps providing meat for six to eight people sharing a meal. A high percentage of the doves, estimated to be as much as 20 percent, are wounded and never retrieved by hunters. Opponents of the hunt argue that the Mourning Dove is merely live skeet for those who desire a shooting challenge. A lot of lead enters the environment, as well as entering the birds that escape to die a slow death.

It seems doubtful that anyone needs to shoot doves for the table. Indeed, the ammunition surely costs more than the value of the meager meat from doves. Dove hunting, like nearly all other hunting, is done for “sport,” loosely defined as physical activity providing pleasure for the participant, and often for observers. Most modern-day people are appalled by the “games” or “sport” that occurred in ancient Rome, when soldiers who had failed on the battlefields or prisoners were executed or pitted against lions or tigers, or when brave warriors were sent into the amphitheaters to kill wild beasts, or be killed, all for the entertainment of rulers and other spectators. I expect modern-day bullfighting, while a somewhat more civilized sport but often involving the slow death of the animal, and occasionally the bull fighter, evolved from Roman games. As I pulled weeds, I pondered whether dove hunting was more or less civilized. Policy made it legal, but what about morality? What about ethics?

I am not a biblical scholar, so I do not know the differences in the opinions of the translations, but most modern bibles are in general agreement that God gave man [humans] dominion over the earth and all creatures within it (Genesis 1:26) and, furthermore, instructed man to be fruitful and multiply, and subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28). “Dominion” simply means to have authority, to be in control, to dominate. Who could doubt that we have achieved dominion over the earth when it comes to exploitation, but we have failed miserably when it comes to mastery, understanding, and control.  A farmer does not have dominion over his cattle if they are allowed to reproduce to the point of destroying the land upon which they feed; nor does a fisherman exercise dominion over the fish that are consumed far faster than they can reproduce, even to the point of extinction. If we accept God’s authority and the biblical transfer of that authority to us, it might give us the moral right to kill any and all kinds of things we chose, for whatever reason, but to do so wantonly is not achieving dominion. “Subdue” is a bit more problematic to my mind. Although it can mean several things, including control, it more usually implies forcefully controlling, beating into submission. This more harsh interpretation seems to me to be at odds with dominion. While it is the case that we can dominate by force and, thus, subdue a foe, history has not been kind to this tactic. Understanding of that over which we wish to have dominion, and thereby achieving a sustainable relationship, is also a valid interpretation of the same scripture, it seems to me. Which do you suppose was intended by a benevolent God? I pulled some more weeds.

Moral behavior isn’t dictated by Scripture. Indeed, so much of what we find in the scriptures is subject to interpretation. To behave morally means to be honest, upstanding, virtuous, honorable, scrupulous, etc. I expect there are many hunters who would consider killing and not consuming to be immoral. Killing something that was confined or unable to escape would weigh heavily on the conscious of some, perhaps most. What does this suggest about modern food systems that are based on confined livestock? Is it less moral to kill a chained bear than a steer in a pen? Many game species cannot legally be baited, including Mourning Doves. To do so would be both illegal and immoral. Is slaughtering chickens more virtuous?

So what about the ethics of dove hunting? Ethics deals with the philosophy of right and wrong. Leopold had a powerful statement about ethics: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” I think most would have to agree that dove hunting does not threaten the integrity, stability, or beauty of the biotic community. It is legal, and it is arguably more moral than our slaughter houses. Some might argue that hunting sometimes increases the stability of the biotic community. White-tailed deer, for example, have a tendency to overrun their resources unless controlled, though granted it is because we have created such abundant habitat favorable to them and eliminated most of their important predators. However, we certainly can’t make such claim about all hunting.

Recently, two big-game hunters incited a world-wide outpouring of protests when they shot well-known lions. After Walter Palmer famously killed a much-admired lion that was a huge tourist attraction in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, his upscale home in Florida was vandalized and demonstrators temporarily closed his dental practice in Minnesota. Trophy hunting is big business in Zimbabwe and many other areas of Africa, and although it often focuses on increasingly rare species, it is legal if proper permits are purchased. In Palmer’s case, he reportedly paid $50,000 for the privilege of shooting the 13-year-old lion, which was baited out of the park by his well-compensated guides. The killing was illegal as well as unethical, at least on the part of the guides who lured the lion. A few months earlier, a doctor from Pennsylvania failed to have the proper permits for shooting a lion in Zimbabwe. His crime had largely gone unnoticed until Palmer’s run-in with the authorities, who have had a tendency to look the other way until there is a public outcry. Apparently, hunting policies and enforcement in Africa are mostly political, and not a matter of good husbandry or stewardship of the resource. We like to think that our policies and laws in United States are based more on good science, but clearly politics remains a powerful force here as well.

Trophy hunting stands on one end of the ethical continuum and putting meat on the table anchors the other. Certainly both can be legal, moral, and right if the killing is done humanely and does not threaten the well-being of a wild species. Some question the morality of unnecessary killing. A far more important question, it seems to me, is limiting the suffering of the animal being killed. How can we justify the wanton killing of ants, wasps, spiders, you name it, while standing on the moral soapbox in opposition to hunting. I have a lot of trouble accepting the belief that if it isn’t warm-blooded it doesn’t count. And here I am, in my garden, pulling purslane simply because it is competing with my lettuce and squash! It doesn’t pay to get too high-minded about killing when humans occupy the dominant position in the foodchain, and when we have run roughshod over nearly every natural ecosystem in our dominion over nature. Citing the scripture might make us feel better about our actions, but if we take the time to ruminate, there is a lot more to right and wrong.

Far more than guns, legal or not, is the suffering we have caused to so many species through our ignorance and hubris. Stepping back and considering the short history of Homo sapiens from the perspective of the 3.6 billion years of life on earth, it appears Thrasyumachus, a contemporary of Socrates, was correct in his argument that “might makes right.” We have the power, and assume the moral right to take any life we choose, as long as it is politically acceptable. It is not much of a stretch to extend this observation to water, oil, or other natural resources.  Public opinion, more than science, more than justice, decides what is right and what is wrong. If the majority believes shooting doves is okay, then it is. If too many object, then there will be compelling arguments against dove hunting. The problem this presents for us is that public opinion is seldom based on good science, and is too easily swayed by mass media. Those with a gift of gab, or skilled with a pen, who have good access to the air waves, internet, and presses, can often shape public opinion.

In the case of dove hunting, I don’t believe the decision was in opposition to science, or Leopold’s right and wrong. Most hunting, in fact, is probably more morally justified than the meat factories that put food on our tables. I expect I am in the minority, but killing ants and spiders simply because they get in our way troubles me morally. I’m reluctant to kill wasps and bees as well, although my son is very allergic to them. Where do we draw the line? What about roaches or mice in our homes? It is a slippery slope. Ultimately, it comes down to a personal decision. And a good decision requires rumination.

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