The alarm goes off at four in the morning—before sunrise and the joggers hit the parks and woods. I ride my bicycle down Boren Avenue toward Lake Union, turning at the Greyhound station, past two prostitutes, one white, one brown, both young, who shout: "Hey honey! Hey there, baby! Hey! Hey!" The lightening sky is pretty, the breeze clears my head, and I am biking along Westlake Avenue, headed to Woodland Park, to shoot a rabbit.
The hundreds of rabbits in the park are a scourge. Many are Easter gifts people have come to regret and left there. They lack the instincts and habits of wild rabbits. Fed by fair-weather parkgoers, they overbreed and, in winter, die of starvation and disease. They eat everything in sight, stripping the park of vegetation and chewing up tree roots. They sneak into the nearby zoo to forage and, according to Woodland Park Zoo spokesperson Gigi Allianic, are hunted by lions and stepped on by elephants. (Allianic later recanted the elephant story as "anecdotal.") The city parks department has tried—with mixed results—to capture, sterilize, and relocate the bunnies to a sanctuary in Redmond. They want, at some public expense, to decrease the rabbit population in the park. I've come to help.
A few weeks earlier, I was sitting in a bar with some friends. The conversation turned toward crazy people. One friend told a story about a man arrested at Green Lake for chasing geese and breaking their necks. The man told police he was hunting. Everyone laughed. I said hunting for geese in the park didn't sound that crazy. Hunting for food in the city makes a kind of sense. It's inexpensive, ecologically low impact, and less distasteful than rich politicians and businessmen spending extravagant sums to hunt for sport on private ranches. Sane rural people hunt in their backyards all the time. Why shouldn't urban people?
And what about disasters? What if the city were ravaged by a volcano, an epidemic, or a North Korean nuclear weapon? The authorities advise us to have three days' worth of provisions—canned food, bottled water, extra batteries—tucked away in our basements or kitchen cabinets in case of disaster. But no one I know has food set aside for the inevitable, catastrophic earthquake and its attendant tsunami.
Riding my bike through downtown, it is easy to imagine the lower streets flooded, the buildings bent like broken teeth, the highways severed, the city quarantined and afraid. And it is easy to imagine this city full of animal lovers turning to the local fauna—harvesting rabbits, pigeons, and squirrels. Eating off the land without regret or sentiment, the endless bickering about what to do about the rabbits in Woodland Park or the geese at Green Lake finally brought to an end.
If the city were eviscerated, we would have no choice but to live off its wildlife. But do any of us, urbanites all, know how? There are "u-pick" farms where people go to gather berries—shouldn't there be "u-kill" chicken corrals, where we can learn how to hunt and clean birds? Non-vegans, I told my friends, were hypocrites to not have confronted the reality of eating meat and wearing leather by killing an animal with their own hands.
"Have you ever killed an animal with your own hands?" someone at the table asked.
"No," I said.
Woodland Park's rabbits live primarily in a big warren of rubble on the side of a hill. At dawn, dozens of them—gray, brown, mottled black and white—hop around, nibbling on nettles. I set my bike on the rabbit-stripped ground at the bottom of the hill, and load a pellet into my air pistol—it's a quiet gun, but dawn is even quieter, and I wonder if the sound will wake a homeless man tucked under a blue tarp nearby. No matter: Rabbit is delicious, a high-end luxury—a plate of lapin goes for 20 bucks at Cafe Campagne. If the homeless man wakes up, I thought, I'll offer him half.
I squat, extend my arms, and aim at a big brown one. At the sound of the shot, the rabbits freeze, then cautiously resume their grazing. I miss. I reload and try again. Miss. Reload. Miss. I am a terrible shot. I walk to the top of the hill, reload, and aim at a gray rabbit that watches me warily. I extend my arms again, aiming through the sight, and shoot. The rabbit scampers away. Just then I notice two nearby joggers coming toward me. I run back to my bike and fly home before they can call the police about the crazy man in the park with a gun.
This is not the way to catch a rabbit.
Later that day I get a box, some lettuce, and twine, borrow a car, and head back to the park. It's afternoon and there are plenty of people—most with small children—milling around. I prepare an improbable story ("I have a friend, her rabbit just died, she wants to adopt a feral one") and set a trap, remembered from cartoons: a box propped up with a stick tied to a string with lettuce as bait. Even this is too complicated. The cardboard box is light, it falls too slowly, and the startled rabbits get away. Finally, I squat, sprinkle some lettuce on the dry dirt, and hold the box a foot off the ground. A young, gray rabbit approaches warily, bites off a mouthful of lettuce, and hops back to chew in safety. I keep still. It returns, hops away, returns, hops away. Within a few minutes, it feels comfortable and greedily tucks in. I slam the box down with a thud, slip another piece of cardboard beneath it, and walk—then run—to the car, expecting someone to accost me at any minute. Nobody does.
I ease the box into my bathtub and take off the lid. I look at the rabbit. It calmly looks back: Well, here we are. The rabbit. The bathtub. Me. It is undeniably cute; it is also dinner. I ease the barrel of the pistol inches from its head. I shoot. There is the small pop—the bullet is in its brain. The rabbit falls on its side, kicking, spurting blood, but silent. I reload and shoot. It keeps kicking, the blood pulsing out more softly, with the regularity of a heartbeat. Then nothing.
I find my Buck knife and start the tap—blood gathers, thickening in little pools. I rinse the rabbit. I cut off its head. I cut off its feet. I slice the hide along its stomach, careful not to let the blade push too deep, where it would perforate the guts, letting its bile spill out and contaminate the meat. I pull off its skin like a tight sock then cut the stomach lining and scoop out the organs. A terrible, hot smell fills the bathroom, like shit and sex and death and sweat—all the brutish smells of the body in one dense mist. I throw the guts, head, feet, and soggy fur into a plastic bag and take it to the Dumpster. I rinse the rabbit, throw it in a pot of saltwater to soak, and return to the office.
Later, I quarter the rabbit, cook it in a cast-iron skillet with white wine and rosemary and onions and potatoes and, since I'm feeling sinister, carrots. It tastes wild—nutty, tough, and surprisingly bitter.
"The rabbit tasted bitter," I said to my father over the telephone. "But maybe that was just my guilt."
"Guilt? What guilt?"
I was born on an Alaskan island and weaned on venison my father had killed. I shot at tin cans with my uncles in middle school. My mother, from southern Virginia, was taken by young suitors on squirrel-hunting dates (which sounds like a euphemism—she swears it isn't). And the first time my father met my mother's grandmother, at the old family farmhouse called Hidden Acres, he passed a big bucket of skinned squirrels soaking in brine on his way up the porch steps.
I felt queasy about what I had just done, but I couldn't explain why. Factory farms are reprehensible: their labyrinths of tiny, shit-filled cages; their abuse of minimum- (or sub-minimum-) wage workers; and well-documented cruelty to animals and people. The rabbit I had eaten had a free-range, organic life—hopping where it wanted to, eating what it wanted to. Hunting wild animals for food is the most ecologically and ethically sound way anybody, urban or rural, can eat meat. But when I told the friend whose car I had borrowed for the rabbit hunt about the project, she was revolted.
"Why would you do something like that?" she asked.
We're both meat eaters, I argued, so the problem isn't ethical—it's aesthetic. When we see video footage of factory farms, we are disgusted by the blood and bits of brain hanging off the killing machines. Those of us who are morally offended become vegans. Those who are merely disgusted forget the images and go for a ham sandwich. The rabbit in my bathtub suffered a scant few minutes compared to the shrink-wrapped holocaust in the nearest QFC. If you're outraged by eating a wild rabbit, put your money where your mouth is and go firebomb a supermarket, I told her. Otherwise, you aren't being righteous, just squeamish.
"I get it," she said. "I just don't get it."
"That's okay," I said, happy that I'd won the argument. "Can I use your car next week?"
"No," she said. "Not for this."
There is a vacant lot at 12th Avenue and Spruce Street—next to the county juvie hall and across the street from a charity called St. Francis House—that is always filled with pigeons. They peck at crumbs and gravel and, when frightened, sweep up in unison to perch on the power lines and rain shit onto the sidewalk. Then they sweep back down to the lot and keep pecking.
I ride my bike into the lot—they fly up to the wires—then lay a dip net with a long handle ($34 at Linc's Tackle on Rainier Avenue South) flat on the mangy grass and sprinkle it with bread crumbs. The plan: Wait until the pigeons are on top of the net, then quickly flip it to trap them. Ten minutes later, they are, like the rabbits, approaching and retreating, getting bolder each time. A middle-aged man and a boy park a van nearby, walk into St. Francis House, and come out with a bag bulging with bread. (Is that why the pigeons are always here? Eating scraps from a food bank?) A young man with a blue baseball cap stops and leans against the chainlink fence.
"You trying to catch one?" he grins.
"What are you going to do with it?"
"I thought I'd try to eat it."
"Really," I say. "Just once. Not an everyday thing. Just this one time."
It's an adventure, I try to explain, like a mountaineer scaling a peak—you know, because it's there. And what if some horrible disaster hits, a giant earthquake, and there's no food in the grocery stores? The young man shakes his head, his face both puzzled and alarmed. He walks away, to the end of the block, where another man, who has been watching me, is lounging against the same fence. My interlocutor stops to talk with the other man, both of them looking at each other, then me, then each other.
A couple of minutes later, a dozen pigeons are jockeying to stand on my net and get at their last supper. A quick turn of the wrist and the net is flipped, trapping three. They struggle beneath the blue netting. I lift the edge, freeing two, then pull on a pair of gloves, grab the third by the back, and twist its head to break its neck. Unexpectedly, the head pops off, thin arcs of blood squirting into the grass. I stuff the decapitated bird in a garbage bag, stuff that into the saddlebag of my bike, and ride away.
After the feathers are in a blue-gray pile in the bathtub and the air is full of sneeze-making down, there isn't much to a pigeon except a nice little breast. It is musky and fibrous, like the dark meat of a turkey. Garnish with a sprig of parsley.
Another friend—let's call him Jed—lives in the Central District, in a nice house with rats in his backyard. They climb around at twilight in the bamboo lining his property, horrifying his summer barbecue guests and providing sport for him. He owns several weapons—he grew up hunting and fishing around the Great Lakes—including a powerful air rifle. He offers me a glass of wine and a tutorial at dusk: "Tuck it against your shoulder" and "breathe" and "squeeze the trigger, don't pull" and "don't shoot out my neighbor's windows" and "you know, I kind of stopped hunting rats in the backyard because my wife said she'd leave me if a pellet ever ricocheted and hit anybody." His wife, I should add, is a doctor and a beautiful, wonderful person. And they have a kid. So, you know, no pressure.
She is clearly uncomfortable about the project.
"It's a bad idea," she says. "What about rabies?"
Rabies is, after all, fatal. You can get preventative shots if you know you've been exposed, but once symptoms set in you're a goner, and any mammal could have it. I asked if rabies could be cooked away. After searching for a few minutes on her laptop, perched at the kitchen counter, she says yes, rabies can be cooked away at high temperatures. But rabies isn't her only concern. "Drinking and shooting don't mix," she says, her glance jabbing at the wine glass in Jed's hand.
"But I'm not shooting, honey," he says. "He is."
I smile, raise my glass of water in a deferential toast and take a sip. Jed and I hurry outside. We talk for a couple of hours, take practice shots, and listen for rats rustling in the leaves. He tells a story about his grandfather, a professional hunter and trapper, one of the last of his kind. He once told Jed about going deer hunting, falling asleep under a tree, and waking up to a huge buck, just feet away, staring at him. The old man and the deer looked at each other and shared an indescribable something. The old man kept trapping, but never hunted deer again.
We can hear the rats creeping around in the leaves, but only catch a glimpse of one, which I shoot at to no effect. (Did I mention I'm a terrible shot?) As I say my goodbyes at the front door, Jed says: "We'll try this again soon." But behind him, his beautiful, wonderful wife's expression shines like an illuminated billboard with one simple message: "No fucking way."
A few days after my aborted rat hunt, a vegetarian friend held forth on Immanuel Kant. The German philosopher argued that being cruel to animals was a bad thing—not for the animal's sake, but for the man's, that by hurting animals we are sullying our own humanity. In Kant's words: "He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men."
But cruelty can also be a means toward greater understanding of what it means to be human.
Consider the ortolan: Years ago, I was, improbably, on the Champs-Elysées, drinking in a sidewalk cafe late at night with my then-girlfriend and a Belgian stranger. He was named, improbably, Claude Souvenir (he swore it wasn't a pseudonym). We met him at a small, dark restaurant run by a blind Frenchman—the owner and only waiter—whose daughter was the chef. (You've never seen a waiter until you've seen an old blind one weaving flawlessly through tables, carrying trays of full wine glasses.) It was Claude Souvenir who told us about the ortolan, a toe-sized bird that was eaten by the Romans, then the French—a tiny, sweet songbird sadistically tortured and consumed in one bite.
The ortolan does not exactly taste good. It is more art than nourishment. One does not eat it for the simple pleasure of flavor; one eats it to experience something transcendent—to commune with life, suffering, and death in one mouthful. It is said to be the final course ingested by French President François Mitterrand at his legendary, opulent last supper. Mitterrand, dying of cancer, drifted in and out of consciousness during the meal. He died eight days later.
You catch the ortolan with a net spread up in the forest canopy. Take it alive. Take it home. Poke out its eyes and put it in a small cage. Force-feed it oats and millet and figs until it has swollen to four times its normal size. Drown it in brandy. Roast it whole, in an oven at high heat, for six to eight minutes. Bring it to the table. Place a cloth—a napkin will do—over your head to hide your cruelty from the sight of God. Put the whole bird into your mouth, with only the beak protruding from your lips. Bite. Put the beak on your plate and begin chewing, gently. You will taste three things: First, the sweetness of the flesh and fat. This is God. Then, the bitterness of the guts will begin to overwhelm you. This is the suffering of Jesus. Finally, as your teeth break the small, delicate bones and they begin to lacerate your gums, you will taste the salt of your own blood, mingling with the richness of the fat and the bitterness of the organs. This is the Holy Spirit, the mystery of the Trinity—three united as one. It is cruel. And beautiful.
According to Claude Souvenir, chewing the ortolan takes approximately 15 minutes.
I bought my gun—the one I used to shoot the rabbit—at Central Gun Exchange in downtown Seattle, on First Avenue. I'd asked the salesman if people ever came in asking about guns for urban hunting. "No, not really," he said, biting at his chapped and torn-up lips. "But there's this here." He walked down the glass counter to an old, tarnished air pistol that looked like something pillaged from the body of a dead German in World War II. When I asked if the gun worked, the salesman smiled, loaded it, and shot a round into a nearby garbage can. The shot was a small pop, the impact a tinny plink. "Yup," he smiled, biting at his lip again.
Do I have to register an air pistol?
"Nope," he said, licking the spot of blood off his lip with the tip of his tongue. It was only $30.
"So what are you going to shoot?" he asked.
"Uh, squirrels," I offered.
"Oh yeah," he said. "I got squirrels in my backyard."
"Do you hunt them?"
"No, no, I just feed them," he said, slowly. "They like peanuts."
Even the gun salesman thought I was a brute.
It is a beautiful, sunny day and she seems like a beautiful, sunny person—but she is threatening to call the police. I have been riding around Volunteer Park on my bicycle with a big metal squirrel trap (borrowed from a friend of a friend, but you can buy one for $17.50 at most hardware stores), a small jar of peanut butter (for bait), and my cheap pistol. I set the trap in the shade of a large tree, near an inquisitive squirrel, but a dog scares it off. There is a youngish woman in a car with the City of Seattle logo stenciled in green on the driver's side door. She looks at me and cocks her head disapprovingly. I bike over to her car, cage in hand.
"If I said I was trying to catch a squirrel, what would you do?"
"I'd call the police."
"Yes," she says firmly. "Really."
I explain that I am trying to hunt squirrels to eat, say my family is from rural Virginia, and that I am trying to get in touch with my roots. "Well, I'm from Virginia and if you want to hunt in the city, get a permit and go fishing." Just then, a police car rolls by. I thank her for her time and bike away.
A Seattle Police Department public-records request for hunting-related arrests produced nothing. But, police spokesman Rich Pruitt said, urban hunters will probably get slapped with something. You can't discharge a firearm in the city limits. An air pistol is not a firearm, but shooting it in public still constitutes reckless endangerment. Then there are the game violations (for geese and ducks) and animal-cruelty laws. Drowning vermin in traps, a common method for homeowners and building managers, is considered a "process" and therefore cruel. Shooting them in the head is not, but in most cases shooting is illegal anyway.
But what about the eating? I asked Pruitt if a homeowner who had legally killed a dozen rats with snap traps could barbecue them in the front yard. He snickered: "If you want to eat your rats, I guess you can." And your neighbor's squirrels? More snickering. "Yeah, if they agree to it."
My friend Eric is not technically my neighbor, but he and his housemates—one of whom is vegan—agree to let me trap a squirrel in their backyard in a residential area of Fremont, just a couple of blocks from the Buckaroo Tavern. Just an hour after setting the trap in the shade of a small tree, the vegan roommate calls out: "There's one in there."
Nobody knows how many squirrels live in Seattle. Or pigeons. Or rats. All of them are tough, wiry creatures—but on starvation rations, one could feed perhaps two people per day. If we were living in the rubble of what used to be Seattle, we cannot estimate how long we could survive off its vermin. King County wildlife biologist Russell Link says shortages of staff, time, and money have kept population surveys from happening—that and worries about public reaction. "Counting populations involves traps," he says. "And there's fear of the animal-rights people getting upset and removing the traps."
It takes four shots to kill the trapped squirrel. I aim at its head, between the thin bars of its metal cage, and shoot. It seizes up, presses its body against the bars, and bleeds. I reload. I shoot. It spasms and bleeds. I reload. I shoot. Bright blood splashes onto my leg and a bit of brain splatters onto my shoe. I reload. By the fourth shot, it is still.
Against expectations, watching animals struggle against death wasn't getting any easier. I thought I was inoculated, having, just two years ago, seriously considered killing the father of my then-girlfriend. He had become a friend of mine. Cancer had incapacitated his liver, which couldn't clean his blood, which incapacitated his brain. He had stopped being able to eat and couldn't move or speak. He didn't have much family, we were his caretakers, and we talked with an old friend of his who also worked in the hospice industry. People don't talk about it, but it happens all the time, she whispered. If he goes on like this much longer, and you think it would be the right thing, give him his usual anal suppository of morphine, plus this many extra pills.
He died on his own the next day. His eyes were alert and full of unspoken feeling, looking toward the two of us, the morning sun spilling through a window. A tear fell down his cheek. He took a last, shuddering breath and then—nothing. The following 36 hours are one impossibly bright blur—the pale yellow of his skin as we washed his body, the pink of an orchid someone brought during the wake, the maroon of his morphine pills, the greenish-brown trickle of bile that came out of a corner of his mouth and pooled on his pillow, meaning it was time for us to let him go, time for his body to be loaded into the white van that conveyed him to the crematorium.
I ease the squirrel out of the cage and into a garbage bag and the vegan roommate grimaces from the porch and the bright-red blood shines up from the dust. I'm not feeling so cavalier. I think about death and my then-girlfriend's father. I think about my mother, who, that very afternoon, has an appointment with an oncologist, to hear news that is probably unpleasant.
The squirrel is still warm. Its heat radiates through the garbage bag, its face showing in relief through the black plastic. I think: This isn't such a bad way to die. Until three minutes ago, you were robust and alive. You didn't even know what death was. Knowing that you're going to die, that the people you know are going to die, that people you love will have to watch you die, is a longer, slower torture than this.
I cook it like I cooked the rabbit, in a cast-iron skillet in the oven, with potatoes and white wine. "How was it?" my mother asks. "It was fine," I say, "a little greasy, but fine." I ask about her meeting with the doctors, ask if the news is, in fact, unpleasant.
Harvesting slugs is less hunting than gathering, and hardly bears mentioning, but here is what you do: The morning after a good rain, peek beneath the leaves, bricks, and wooden planks of a friend's garden and drop the slugs you find into any nonmetallic container. Allow them to fast for a couple of days, then feed them on sage or other savory leaves. Wash away the mucus—saltwater baths help—and sauté them in butter and garlic, like escargot. They are chewy.
Catching a duck is like catching a rabbit—it takes several attempts. The first time, I go to Green Lake with my friend Bill, my gun, and a bag full of breadcrumbs. It is twilight and the ducks and geese gather on the docks near a concrete amphitheater. There are joggers, rollerbladers, and plump homeowners power-walking off their dinners. My friend keeps a lookout while I lay a trail of crumbs from the dock to a discreet corner, near the amphitheater bathrooms, where I can shoot one without hitting or traumatizing someone else. The ducks respond, waddling along the trail of bait, nipping at each other's necks to get at the bread. After several aborted attempts ("Hold on. Joggers. Okay. Okay. Go! No, wait! Wait. More joggers.") I take a shot. I miss. The ducks scatter, quack, and flutter noisily back to the dock.
"Maybe you can strangle one?" Bill suggests unhelpfully. "Or get some rollerblades and a scythe—we could skate along the path in Grim Reaper costumes and cut off their heads."
After a few more failures, including scaring two teenagers making out in the shadows, Bill buys us consolation beers in a nearby bar.
The second time I go duck hunting is a date. I have vaguely told Anna about the urban hunt, but she doesn't know she'll be canoeing around Lake Washington to bag game. This is just supposed to be a reconnaissance mission, but I bring my pistol and some bread—you never know. After some pleasant paddling, we are in a quiet romantic nook among the lily pads and cattails and low-hanging trees. With a couple of mallards.
"Can you keep a lookout?" I ask. She gives a half-hearted "yes?" and I throw some crumbs into the water. They swim right up to the side of the boat. She gamely plays along while I shoot and, predictably, miss. Back on shore, Anna asks the question that has been on everyone's lips: "Why?" I go through all the reasons—ethics versus aesthetics, disasters, the "u-kill" chicken shack. She listens quietly, obviously unconvinced.
Two weeks later I am single again and go to a movie about Mongolian shepherds. They use something called a "herding stick"—a loop of rope, fixed at the end of a long pole, and tied in a loose knot a quarter of the way down. They chase their sheep and use the herding stick as a lasso to snare them by the neck or foot. Once snagged, the lower knot slides up the pole and tightens into a noose. I make a cheap one out of a coat hanger, tape, and twine, then rent another canoe. This time, I get one, a pretty green male duck who, alongside a dozen others, nearly jumps into the boat trying to get at the crumbs. I yank him out of the water while he squawks and flaps against my legs and the metal hull. I grab his head, pull it away from his body, and twist it all the way around. He goes still. I paddle back and pay for the canoe rental, his body bulging in my bag. He feels heavy on my shoulders as I bike away and just gets heavier as I pant up the hill toward home.
As I ride, I pass pigeons and squirrels, imagining what they look like beneath their skins. I can see their tough sinews, the distinct gray-and-blue squiggles of their organs, the pink veins spread across their chest cavities once their wrinkled lungs have been plucked out like soft, gray walnuts. Their freshly spilled blood is the brightest; it gets duller with every second it is in contact with the air. People are built the same way—the woman in the fancy car, the man jogging by with green sneakers, me.
I think about disasters and imagine someone, someday, deciding to eat me—once the pigeons and rabbits and ducks and dogs and cats are gone. He cuts off my head, hacking through my spinal column, slices open my stomach, sweats and curses as he saws through my rib cage, plucks out one of my lungs, rips it in half, examines the intricate folds inside, throws it in a garbage bag, and scatters my body, carelessly tossing my liver on his left side and my left foot on his right. Maybe he'll impale my arm on a stake over an open fire or fillet my calf for broiling in a skillet with white wine and rosemary and potatoes and, if he's feeling sinister, carrots.
The goose is the final challenge. Geese are bigger, smarter, and warier than ducks. I bike back down to Lake Washington, to rent a canoe from the university, with my net and some bread. I planned an aquatic version of the pigeon trap—spread breadcrumbs over the submerged net, then jerk it upward and snare the bird. I paddle near some geese sunning themselves on a dock. I throw crumbs into the water. They swim toward the canoe, eager and greedy. There is nobody else in sight. I watch them dipping their long necks for the bread, then stretching them upwards to swallow.
Canada geese are the epitome of our bizarre behavior toward animals—they are a perennial, and controversial, nuisance. With plenty of food and no natural predators, their fecund population has exploded: They overgraze, crowd out other species, and their voluminous shit contains parasites harmful to people and other animals who swim in the contaminated waters. The city's parks department, the same people failing to save the rabbits, killed geese throughout the 1990s, until animal-rights groups pressured the city into a no-kill policy—to protect an invasive species whose breasts you can buy for three dollars per pound at the grocery store. We should all be out there on weekends, killing the geese and giving them to soup kitchens.
But watching the geese, I begin to feel hollow. Why am I actually doing this? I don't buy goose. I don't really like goose. No soup kitchen would accept a carcass from me. So why am I here, paddling in a canoe, looking nervously over my shoulder, trying to kill an animal I don't want to eat? What's the point I'm trying to prove again? Why do I keep fantasizing about disasters? Why can't I keep a girlfriend? What is going to happen to my mother? What is going to happen to me?
I slide the net underwater and stretch it out three feet from the side of the boat. I throw more breadcrumbs until a goose is just above the net. It is huge. And beautiful. In my mind I lift the net quickly, turn it, catch the goose and plunge it underwater, feel it struggle for air, wait until it gets limp and heavy before hauling it onboard and hiding it in my bag. In my mind, I cut off its head, skin it, scoop out its guts. My hands are still. I am fixated on the white of its cheeks, the fullness of its breast, the grace of its long neck, the slight curl of the feathers at the tip of its tail.
I let it live.
It's warm and sunny downtown, one of the last days of summer, and the Pike Place Market is full of idle strollers. An evangelist stands on a street corner, shouting into a microphone about Jesus: "We broke the law and Jesus paid the fine! Come to Jesus and you will live for-ever!"
Fat pigeons peck at crumbs between the cobblestones, but I am headed into the market, to Fero's Meats, to buy a rabbit. The butcher hands it to me in a sealed plastic bag, headless but whole. It's bigger and meatier than the rabbit from Woodland Park. It is, she says, from California. But it costs $20. At Cafe Campagne, a cooked rabbit served on a nice plate, with olives and thyme and pasta, is also $20. I decline the butcher's rabbit and walk to Campagne instead.
Hunting is ethically cleaner than buying meat at a market, in part because it is more difficult. Unlike urban progressives who shop in high-end organic grocery stores, hunters are not casual carnivores. Though often accused of being bloodthirsty, hunters simply know what blood is—what it looks like, how it smells. The division of labor is one of the good things about living in cities: Not everyone has to hunt his own food, make his own clothes, and perform his own open-heart surgery. But the luxury of urbanism lets us forget that eating is always about blood, about one thing suffering and dying so another thing can live. With every bite—whether ortolan, salmon, or chicken burrito—we swallow a mouthful of death.
The waiter at Campagne is apologetic—they ran out of rabbit last week. Instead, I order escargot, sautéed in butter and garlic. They are chewy.
The next evening, I ride my bike down to Madison Valley, to the Harvest Vine, where I order an appetizer and two entrées for myself—smoked duck, rabbit confit, and braised squab.
I gorge, eating myself sick with all the things I have so recently killed, but this time prepared by professionals. The kitchen is open, the two chefs obliged to chat with the diners—mostly couples, mostly older, all white—perched at the bar. One woman scolds another for falling off her Atkins diet. "But bread is my first love!" the other woman declares. The younger of the two chefs sets a tray of steaming white cylinders on the stovetop. "What is that?" the scolder asks.
"Pig," the chef says. "Steamed pigs' feet."
She replies with an elongated, upward-inflected "oooooh?" It is half indulgent and half disgusted, the sound a dowager might make when presented with a hairball wrapped in red ribbon. The older chef glances briefly at the younger, then at the tray of pigs' feet. The younger chef carries it back out. The woman returns to her pork sausage.
The chef presents my first plate: strips of duck breast. They are smoky and fatty. Then the pigeon, known here as "squab." It is fibrous and dark, garnished with parsley. Then the rabbit. As I chew, I think of Woodland Park, my bathtub, the blood. But this rabbit tastes tame and fatty—nutty and tender and not at all bitter. I ask the chef where it came from.
I ask how it was killed.
"Um," he says. "I'm not sure."
The other diners talk and eat, more absorbed in their conversations—politics, gossip, Alcoholics Anonymous—than their food.
There's a large man behind me with a high voice and glasses, a fresh-faced couple cooing in the corner, and a young woman, alone with a glass of red wine, reading the Sunday New York Times. I invent headlines for her front page: "Death from Below—Earthquake—Millions Dead—Worst Disaster in Recorded History Levels the West Coast." I imagine the Big One, my chair collapsing, the walls buckling, the stove exploding, the windows shattering. Which of us in this restaurant would survive the catastrophe? Which of us would survive the weeks after? Or even the weeks ahead?
Come the disaster, I'll be ready. I'm finally going to the grocery store to buy bottled water, bags of instant rice, and tins of beans—but I'm keeping my net, my Buck knife, and my gun.