Hunting With a Rat 

What happens when the leader of one of Oakland’s most notorious motorcycle clubs tries to convince a squeamish reporter to shoot a wild boar.

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The Department of Fish and Wildlife seems well aware of this fact. In the 106-page booklet the agency distributes to every hunter ed student, there are tips on how to avoid the "disdain of non-hunters." For example, it recommends avoiding tying animals to the hood or roof of a car, refraining from consuming alcohol while hunting and from "taking graphic photographs of the kill and from vividly describing the kill while within earshot of non-hunters," and maintaining "a presentable appearance while on the street — no bloody or dirty clothing."

These all seemed reasonable enough. A few weeks later, however, I'd witness several of these guidelines being ignored.

I didn't grow up killing things — at least, not consciously. Maybe I killed ants and mosquitos and (inadvertently) a goldfish or two, but I never intentionally took the life of an animal, nor have I ever had the desire to do so. While reporting this story, I repeatedly came up against this feeling as a barrier to my ability to hunt. Even though I eat meat, there was a still a threshold I had to cross in order to kill a living thing.

Whenever I brought up this dilemma to hunters, I got the same response: "Anyone who eats anything ... they have participated in the act of killing," said Mark Batcheler, a hunter and former naturalist who's now an organic farmer in Santa Cruz. "I kill a lot of animals by farming." Batcheler — who's also a member of the Bay Area Tracking Club, a group of individuals who practice tracking animals for fun every month — said whether it's aphids, gophers, or the plants themselves, he has to kill something to keep something else alive. "We all take life. What kind of life we take is really up to us."

Batcheler grew up hunting with guns in the Midwest, but said he now only hunts with a bow. For him, hunting means getting to know the natural landscape by using all his senses — looking at tracks, gauging the wind, smelling scat on the ground, and examining trails. Hunting with a bow enhances his relationship to the natural world. "It means I have to get closer to my prey," he said. "There's a lot more intimate connection. There's a lot more tracking that has to occur."

In hunting, there's a concept called "buck fever" — essentially, it refers to the nervousness that happens right before a hunter kills something. For Batcheler, "buck fever" is a good thing. "If a hunter stops feeling that, they don't feel the sacredness of life," he said. "I would feel not good about hunting if I took the life of an animal and didn't feel something. That would be akin to a psychosis."

This sentiment is one that can be hard to grasp for someone who's against hunting. Batcheler believes that if more people hunted, they would have a greater respect for living things. Is it possible that hunters actually care deeply about the life they're taking, perhaps even more deeply than someone — I'm talking about meat-eaters here — who doesn't hunt?

"We're interdependently woven together," said Batcheler. "It's not just survival of the fittest. We need life to sustain life."

After our unsuccessful hunt on Friday, we drove back to the house where our guides were putting us up for the night. It was a single-story ranch-style house with four bedrooms and four huge animal heads (two wild boar, one buck, and a cow) mounted on the living room wall. Latham had brought dinner, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it consisted solely of meat — sausage and steak. We sat in the backyard around the fire pit eating chunks of meat and drinking whiskey (except for Latham, who's sober).

Even though Latham and Jenkins look like roughnecks and espouse libertarian values about gun rights (although they both advocate for restricting handguns and imposing better background checks), they also exhibited a surprisingly softer side. While driving to King City, Latham and I talked at length about relationships. He told me getting married and having children had been his main priority in life (he has been sober since he found out his wife was pregnant, about a year and half ago), and when I mentioned that path likely wasn't in my cards for me, he said I needed to devote at least fifteen hours per week to the pursuit. Latham and Jenkins also talked about how excited they were that their significant others are both pregnant and that their kids will be close in age.

By then it was getting late, and we had to wake up at 4 a.m. for the next leg of our hunt. A few hours later, we arose to find our new guide, with his two sons and another boy, outside waiting for us. Under the light of the still-full moon, we loaded up the vehicles with guns and supplies, then drove back to the private property where we'd continue our search. Once there, Latham and I climbed into the back of our new guide's pickup truck. Compared to the night before, this experience felt luxurious — although there were still no seatbelts on the bench that was built into the bed of the truck, there was also no funky clutch, no booze, and no metal bar precariously positioned in front of my face.

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