by Dr Gonzo
Little things count. On my last hunting trip, an epiphany came in a pig & a kangaroo joey.
|Around thirty years ago, I was invited to a cattle station near the outback town of North Star, in northwest New South Wales, Australia. The station is called Minillia, where they ran four thousand head of grain-fed beef cattle. There were four of us, Bealy, John, Grub and myself, and we were lucky to have been offered this trip. A friend of ours knew the station manager and had gotten approval for a weekend hunt.
Stations like Minillia get a lot of requests from shooters to hunt on the property, although it isn't often granted. Experience has taught property owners and managers only too well...where shooters had been invited onto the property, only to do the wrong thing, and with the vast area's stations like this covered, it could be days or even weeks before the discovery of water tanks holed from being shot by frustrated and inexperienced hunters, fences damaged and gates, which are either closed or open for a reason, not left in the same position by ignorant and inconsiderate people who, I'm afraid to say, are generally from the city. This had earned the four of us a term by the locals we had to live with, but were determined to prove wrong...city roo shooters.
We arrived at the station and were met by a station hand, who directed us to our accommodation. The shearers quarters he showed us, were not far from the main homestead, but far enough so any shenanigans by the people who were staying on the property, would not disturb the family, who lived there permanently. The shearer's quarters were a basic set-up, with four single rooms side by side, a cot in each with a communal washroom at one end. There were no complaints from the guests as we inspected our digs because we weren't there for five-star luxury.
Wild pigs are an introduced species in Australia, damaging the land, as well as competing with native species, and on a grain-fed beef cattle station such as this, wild pigs could eat as much, if not more grain than the stock it was intended for. I would estimate the area of the property to have been a few thousand hectares or more.
We had looked forward to the trip for months, and as our gear was being unloaded, rifles with the breaches open or bolts removed for safety...then, we chose a room, making our beds, before we built a fire and ate under the clearest starlit sky any of us had ever seen.
After dinner, the consensus was to go shoot some rabbits, which are also an introduced species, in plague proportions. The word from the manager was to 'please shoot a many as you can.' Grub and I were to concentrate on the driving and navigating, and Bealy and John were to be the shooters for the night. After an hour or two of driving around paddocks, with quite a few rabbits dispatched along the way, we decided to call it a night, and as we made our way back to our digs, it quickly became apparent we had no idea where we were...wisely deciding to stay put until someone missed us. Eventually, we saw a set of headlights coming our way and were relieved to see it was the station manager, who must have seen this a hundred times or more, arriving to guide us back.
Grub was the least experienced at handling firearms, and the next morning we were stalking through the bush, making too much noise and smelling of aftershave and coffee. When hunting in groups, it is imperative everyone is aware of exactly where the others are, and strictly no wandering off from the group because it's extremely dangerous to do so. Having the most experience with handling guns and hunting, I was regularly checking the other's positions and monitoring if safe firearm practices were being utilized. I looked over at Grub, his .3030 Winchester in hand, and noticed it being indiscriminately aimed at whoever was going to die in the 'shoot me please' lottery. The pointy end was now aimed at my guts, so, I quietly approached him, took the gun away and uncocked the hammer.
The safety on this lever-action rifle is always on until the lever is held up hard onto the trigger guard and then if the hammer is pulled back, it's ready to fire, and was something I didn't want to think too much about. The best practice is to always assume a gun is loaded and ready to fire, even if you believe it isn't. After a stern lesson on proper gun safety and control, the rifle was now pointing up...and the owner all the wiser on how not to kill friends and influence people.
The way they would feed four thousand head of beef cattle, all earmarked for overseas market, was via silos of grain that operated via a gravity feed system. Feeding cattle grain is a good way to fatten them up, but it was also a great lurk for swine, who would come for the free breakfast, lunch and dinner special seven days a week.
Now, country folk are not stupid and will take advantage of any opportunity to recoup losses caused by vermin, and so, a sideline business was created especially for the German market. They love to eat wild pigs. The only issue for the farmer was the meat was only fetching around one Australian dollar a kilo, whereas the beef the grain was intended for, was beyond astronomical in price, and most, if not all, was destined for Japan.
On the second night (hunting pigs is best done at the night because spotlights see them before they see us), we got dressed in the warmest clothes we had...which were grossly inadequate for the middle of winter in outback New South Wales. It was proper freezing, but we, the city roo shooters, didn't care because we were going pig shooting for the first time in our lives. Well, that's what we thought...until the station hand who was taking us said there were to be no guns on this trip, and instead, we would be using dogs to chase and hold the pigs until we could catch up and dispatch them with knives. On the back of his Landcruiser was a cage, with two partitions making three separate cages situated hard up to the cab, where the wind didn't cause the dogs frostbite. Unfortunately for us, we were further back behind this cage, as we huddled together for warmth, driving from paddock to paddock, taking turns to get out and open gates...waiting for the vehicle to go through, then closing them again.
As we approached a rise in the land the station hand stopped the vehicle, got out, and told us the plan. He was going to drive fast, with us in the back, holding two mad bull terrier crosses, who looked like they had gone five hundred rounds with Mike Tyson (we had nothing but air to hang onto, which was fine at normal speeds, but at this rate, we would be lucky if we weren't thrown out with only cowpats to ease our fall). He explained that just over the hill was a silo where a mob would be having their dinner...a dinner we were about to rudely interrupt.
The plan was simple, as soon as the vehicle stopped, we were to set the hounds loose and chase as many of the piglets as possible, stopping their escape by kicking them like a football, then grabbing the winded piglet and placing it into one of the cages on the back of the vehicle. We took off and almost flew over the peak of the hill, and then, as the silo came into view, he slammed on the brakes and screamed like a US Coronel barking orders at his troops, which gave us both courage and fear at the same time, as we threw the dogs over the side and began the chase.
Pigs of all sizes were scattering in every direction...a diversionary tactic I assume because pigs are highly intelligent animals...some say smarter than dogs, although I have only seen one pig doing dog trials, and that was at the movies.
"That'll do pig...that'll do." Thank you, Farmer Hogget and Babe.
In all the confusion and calamity, a few piglets were kicked and placed into the cage. The city had a low score that night, mostly falling on our faces or running in circles, without much effect.
All the while, the two dogs had taken off after the biggest boar and when the station hand, our Colonel, had seen them disappearing out of sight, it was like a bugler sounded the call, as he ordered us back onto the Landcruiser, and off in hot pursuit of the two dogs and the pig...always, and for life, sworn enemies.
The pig we were after, we were later told, was called a Barra...the biggest and meanest pig you could ever imagine...but, he wasn't always this way.
A Pig's Perspective
When this huge boar was a small piglet, who at that time, didn't have a care in the world, who loved all creatures great and small, had seen the monster coming over the rise at the dinner place, his brothers and sisters had scattered in all directions, but he became confused and didn't know which way to run. He then felt pain in his side, as one of the evil creature's boots kicked him in the guts, and it was then, for the first time, he came face to face with the devil.
He was placed in a steel cage, and in another first, couldn't run. He tried and he tried, hurting his snout each time it rammed into the mesh. After many attempts, he became tired and realised he had no choice but to wait and see what these stinking devils wanted with him. Keeping his attention on those who were closest to the cage, he stood as one approached his confines, before opening the top and lifting him out. He squealed his disapproval...until his disapproving squeal changed to one of agony...pain like he had never felt before burned between his back legs as his scrotum was unceremoniously hacked off with a knife. His ears and tail were next to go...removed in the same fashion, before he managed to escape, running as fast as he could...away from these devils who had caused him such excruciating pain...until at last, he reached the safety of the darkness, where he could begin to heal. He was alone now, something he had never experienced before, and he remained this way for the rest of his life.
He survived his ordeal only to become an outcast...unable to mate with any females who came into heat, and untrusted by his mob because of his strange behaviour...only ever seeing them around the dinner place. And then, after he had eaten his fill, he would wander alone in the fields, where he had no kin, and no numbers to protect him. In time, and after a few dog attacks that he had beaten off with relative ease, he came to the realisation there was nothing, other than the devils themselves, that could harm him. The dingoes would kill and eat him if they could, but he had grown so big and strong in the three years since his encounter with the humans, there was now little for him to fear.
On the night in question, his last here on Earth, he weighed over one hundred kilos, but a mostly grain-fed pig is bound to carry a bit of extra weight. He could still run like the wind, and with little to fear, no predators that could catch him because his ears and tail were missing and so, nothing for a dog's powerful jaw to bite and hold onto, and with tusks that were long and sharp, which he used to great effect on the dogs that had tried, incorporating the various tactics he had learned as he grew, ensuring that they never tried again.
One of his favourite techniques was to lead a dog away from the devils, and, once he felt it was safe, would slow his pace, allowing the dog to bite onto the skin at his shoulder, and once the dog was locked on, would rip at its sides with his tusks, causing serious wounds, and, if he had the chance, would come back for the kill.
Another tactic the pig had learned, which he was to try one last time, was to lead the dogs to one of the many dams (small water holes) scattered around his domain, enter the water, and if the dog was foolish enough to follow, would then turn, biting the dog on its neck and hold it under the water until it stopped moving.
In this, his domain, there was only one creature he feared, and they were now hot on his tail...if he had one that is.
A Human's Perspective
Dust flew up, caused by the momentum of the Landcruiser and carried by the lightest of breezes. The sly old Barra had entered the water just before we arrived, with one of the dogs about to go in after him. The station hand called the dogs back from the water's edge, and the old pig, tired from the run and the swim, knew at that moment, he was done for. He held off the inevitable for as long as he could by swimming in slowly widening circles in the centre of the small dam until he could swim no more, and with humans closer to him than any other time since that first encounter, he swam to the edge, took two slow steps out of the water, before the station hand's .222 rifle placed a projectile just behind where one of his ears would have been. The pig stiffened, standing motionless for a few seconds before he died, then falling slowly backwards, and promptly sank to the bottom of the dark and murky water.
It was the coldest night I had ever experienced, and, as we stared at the water, I broke the silence with, "I'm not going in there to get it."
We all agreed, murmuring to each other without any thought of the depth of what had just occurred. The station hand looked at us with a mixture of pity and astonishment, finally realising that we city folk had no clue on this land he had grown up on...but, if we were to take him to the city, where there were skyscrapers and more people than he had seen in his entire life, would turn the tables on the now smiling cow cocky.
He then yelled (In the years after this trip, I often wondered if he always yelled, or if it was only at people from the city who came to visit), still in battle mode, "Come on boys, there's more work to be done yet!"
And he wasn't joking.
You see, we thought of this trip as a bit of a getaway...a holiday on the farm, but what we didn't realise was, we had to pay our way for the privilege, and that night, we did just that, as we found more mobs in different paddocks. At one point, he pulled up on a track...the diesel motor in his Landcruiser still running as he turned on the brightest spotlights I had ever seen...which lit up an entire paddock, and there, around seventy-five metres away, eating the fresh young grain shoots that were their favourite food, were about six Eastern Grey Kangaroos...which are our national symbol. He took the .222 from its cradle behind the driver, locked a round into the chamber, took aim across the bonnet of the still-running vehicle, and took the shot. One of the kangaroos went down as the others bounded away. We drove over to where it lay, seeing it was a clean shot and the roo had died instantly.
It was killed to secure fresh meat for his dogs, and as he hacked away at one of its hind legs, I noticed some movement in the area around its belly. The station hand, who had seen this to, then placed his hand in the kangaroo's pouch, removing a young joey by its rear legs. It was around ten inches tall. I didn't comprehend what was happening as the joey went from the safety of its mother's pouch to having its head smashed into the wheel hub of the Cruiser, killing it instantly.
We stood silently...the magnitude of what had just happened hadn't yet sunk in and in a moment I can only describe as an epiphany, a feeling of sadness came over me and I knew I would never hunt again. I understand that these marsupials are a nuisance to farmers when they get into the fields planted with the cattle's grain, but the reality was, I was totally unprepared for what I had seen. To the man who killed that joey like it was a fly, it was just a young kangaroo that couldn't have survived without its mother's milk, and once she had died, it would have to, and it would have been a much slower death, from thirst or dingoes.
That night changed my attitude towards hunting. I had always been pro-gun and pro-hunting...but after this experience, I sold my rifle and never hunted again. Not that I am against it...there is a huge problem in Australia because pigs, as an introduced species, cause so much damage to the land and compete with native species, and are up there with camels, cats and dogs, domestic animals that have gone wild, as the worst pests we have.
I couldn't help but feel for that old Barra...his terrible experience with humans and the life that followed. A deliberate and brutal act, causing him so much pain, and then, over the years they watched him grow, spotting him occasionally, but not taking him until he was a worthy one hundred kilos is something a city roo shooter finds hard to stomach and impossible to ever be a part of again.
There is another introduced species in Australia, which has grown to plague proportions and has caused more damage to the land, and is responsible for more extinct species than any other by far...yet there is no cull...not even a mention.
Later that night, exhausted from the running and adrenalin, we made our way back to the homestead...six large pigs hung from hooks on the steel top rail on the Cruiser, but we were not done yet as the station hand detoured via the dam where the Barra had died. When we arrived, there he was, floating out in the middle, but too far to reach. The Coronel took a star picket, which was in the back of the vehicle and tied a thin rope to its centre and began throwing it out and over the top of the pig, trying to hook it onto him...it took ten or fifteen minutes to finally bring his body to the edge where he was gutted, as were all the pigs we caught that night, except the suckers in the cage, and they were to be fattened in purpose-built enclosures made from concreter's mesh, formed into a circle and attached to star pickets driven deep into the ground, so, no matter how hard they tried, none could escape.
The field dressing of a wild pig such as this Barra was a simple yet fascinating process to us city folk, who rarely get a glimpse of what it entails when meat arrives on our diner plate.
First, a hook was placed through a rear leg at the heel, just behind the tendon which was surprisingly strong enough to support the huge boar. The legs were splayed, with belly showing, as we watched the process take place...the index finger of his non-knife wielding hand went into the rectum and a thin sharp-bladed knife cut around the outside of the sphincter tube to a depth of around three to four inches. Then, a long incision was made down the centre of the belly (I can still see the fat, thick and white as the blade made the incision...careful not to breach the bowel just below). Steam rose from the cavity, caused when the surprisingly still warm body heat escaped and met the frigid cold air.
Once this is done, a hand reaches into the cavity down low, finds the tube and carefully continues the cut from the inside, pulling it out so as not to spill any faeces into the body cavity, which might spoil the meat, and would certainly spoil our appetites. The bowel is then removed, and in the case of the Barra, thrown into nearby bushes for other pigs, dogs or cats to forage on. Then, the kidneys, liver and every organ were removed and thrown to the same place. Only the heart remained, hung outside the carcass, still attached by an artery with a single slice down the middle to show that no worms are present. All the pigs were then placed into a large container-sized freezer, in preparation for delivery to butchers all across Germany.
Each one of us on this earth leads a different life, and in my opinion, it is better to try to see and understand people from their viewpoint, rather than judge from our own without walking a mile in their shoes. This was how I saw this trip...all the people we met were good people, who worked hard to provide for their families, much as we from the city do, but when we arrived, we were judged city roo shooters and we judged them to be country bumpkins...and this kind of segregation, by establishing an, 'us and them' mentality, does nothing towards making this world a better place.
For me, the biggest lesson was learned from the smallest of creatures...because I don't believe it's the big things in life that shape us, it's the many little things. I still think about that Barra and joey...and what a huge effect they have had on my life...always something positive will come from a negative if we are prepared to look, and what I saw that night all those years ago, helped me to become a kinder, more empathetic human being.