I am not a hunter. It’s not that I disapprove; it’s just that shooting guns and killing animals is not my thing. I have, however, seen lions in Africa kill an antelope. It is a different experience in person than it is on television. It is more visceral, more intense, and it helped me realize that it is perfectly natural for one animal to die in order to feed another.
I grew up poor on the Gulf Coast of Florida where my Dad “hunted and killed” mullet with his cast-net in order to feed his family. In a rural economy, hunting is a way of life. That is why, after retiring from a forty-year career working with animals in zoos, I felt comfortable accepting a part-time job driving a mule wagon at a local quail hunting lodge.
During the hunting season, I spend my workdays managing a couple of draft-horse sized mules and handling a small English cocker spaniel that serves as a retriever. Most afternoons I sit with my feet propped up on the wagon, my hands firmly on the reins, and a dog standing in my lap waiting for her handler to call her name. I have watched vultures floating in a cloudless sky, felt the breeze as it rustles the pine trees before me, and listened for the call of bobwhite quail in the sea of broomsedge.
It is a job that affords me plenty of time to think. My attention is usually directed toward the job at hand—the mules, the horses, the dogs, and the hunters—and occasionally my thoughts are drawn to the conversations behind me on the wagon. But there are the long periods of quiet that remind me of the quote often attributed to Winnie the Pooh author, A. A. Milne: “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits…”.
Our operation takes pride in offering an experience that harkens to an earlier era. Instead of jeeps, we use horses and mule-drawn wagons. A typical hunting party consists of four guests, two on horseback and two on the wagon behind me, with a guide and his assistant leading the hunt. Six or eight English pointers are kenneled in the back of the wagon until it is time for them to find the birds.
It is a leisurely experience with a morning hunt, a couple of hours for lunch, followed by another hunt in the afternoon. We ride until the dogs point a covey, we stop to shoot birds when they are flushed, and once the birds are found and picked up we ride off in search of the next covey. The guests hunt in pairs, usually alternating between the two on horse-back shooting together then the two people on my wagon shooting.
As a wagon driver, I find myself in close contact with our guests and I meet some interesting folks. They are mostly business people hosting their friends, relatives, and clients—often working important deals in an intimate, relaxed setting. Some drive in from nearby cities in the southeast and some fly from far away—many on their private jets. Conversations on my wagon often include comments on our southern hospitality and I have lost count of the number of times I have heard a guest exclaiming “My gosh, this place is beautiful!” This is often followed by a description of comparable experiences hunting grouse in Scotland, waterfowl in Spain, and doves in Argentina. These folks can afford to be anywhere in the world and one of their favorite spots is a place of world-class beauty at a quail hunting lodge in South Georgia.
My experience on the mule wagon has given me time to sits and thinks about such things as how the dog handler controls the pointers with a whistle and a “whoa”, why the retriever races out to find a quail with such enthusiasm, and what—if anything—the mules are thinking about as they stand immobile awaiting my command to “gitty-up”.
It has also given me time to think about my own life and how I might incorporate some of the lessons learned from my hours on the wagon. I have written down the most salient points—points that I boiled down to five bits of advice. I believe they might be worth exploring in some detail in the coming Thursday Blogs. Next week—an overview.