A Renewed Definition of "Trophy"

By Daniel W. Parson

As a native Midwesterner, the hunting I did growing up focused on simply filling ones tag(s) and enjoying the camaraderie of deer camp. We hunted mostly public land for whitetails in the forests of northern Minnesota. I don't have to try very hard to remember a small A-frame cabin and its smells of fried side-pork, coffee, and wood smoke.

Some of my most treasured memories are of standing near my father and his friends as I listened to them talk the talk of men around an evening fire...wondering if one day I might stand among them as an equal. Their conversation was of work and politics and hunting. Things I did not always understand well. But one thing came through clearly to my young and forming mind. When we hunt we must work hard, we obey the law, we are ethical, we are reverent. Every animal taken - young or old, buck or doe - is a "trophy". They are gifts of the land.

I now proudly reside in the open space of Wyoming. I stand around a fire each fall with good friends and talk the talk of men, while my little boy sits quietly near by listening. The gratitude I feel for this good country is profound. This is an area with far more big game animals than people, a place where the hunting traditions run deep. Come each October, school days are cancelled. Families gather in mountain valleys that have served as hunting camps for generations. Strangers talk with each other of mountains and animals and bad roads as they fill up with gas in the predawn darkness. It is an excellent place to live.

However, times have changed and brought with them trends in the hunting community that I find distressing. It seems the opinion of many that unless the harvested animal has massive antlers or horns it isn't worth killing, that is unless you're a young kid or female. Furthermore, a small spike is still considered better than a legal doe or cow. I have taught hunter education for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for 8 years now and get the opportunity to discuss hunting with a variety of people on a nearly daily basis. Over and over, I hear my fellow hunters say things like, "all I got was a doe" or "I don't want his first elk to be a lousy cow".

Many of my friends and family do not hunt. They do not oppose hunting, but they have no desire to participate in it, either. The one thing they seem universally curious about is why we hunters seem so obsessed with killing the healthy dominant male animals in a population. Why not the young, tender ones? Why not the old and barren females? Why not the old buck who is unlikely to survive the winter? The answer is that under field conditions it is very difficult to be that picky.

The non-hunting public often seems to think the killing of a game animal is a simple undertaking. Hunter's know differently. These same people wonder why hunting programs on television talk about the kill, but not the use of the animal? They incorrectly, yet perhaps understandably, infer that the guy in orange who kills the big buck simply cuts off its antlers and lets the rest rot. Hunters know differently, and many times I have tried to explain to them that hunters always use the animals we kill, even if we do not seem to talk about it much.

It is not only the law, but also something we look forward to. Clean white packages of healthy game meat in the freezer are yet another reward of the hunt. But this information is lost in a blizzard of images and stories put out by a hunting media who bombard the public with images of huge bucks and bulls meeting their end at the hands of some guy obsessed with its headgear's mass and tine length. Is this the message we want to send about us? Is this the message we want young hunters to receive?

Let me be clear, I do not think it is wrong to harvest a large male big game animal and then hang his mounted head in your home. In fact I have a couple of animals in my den right now. But I do feel strongly that if we are to truly be "hunter conservationists" we must closely examine why we hunt and be able to explain it. The non-hunting public understands, or at least seems ready to accept, the idea of hunting as a way to control game numbers, make money for a local economies, and to put meat on a persons table. They find the hunter who only shows minor interest in the meat his efforts have provided highly distasteful.

I believe the time has come for hunters to redefine what they perceive as a "trophy." Not because I think hunters need to justify their actions, but because hunting is not, and never has been, a competitive sport.

For example, Kristina my wife recently harvested her first elk. She worked very hard. Kristina practiced with her rifle and became a competent shot. She scouted her area, made a plan, hiked and hunted hard, and after several days of effort finally tied her tag to the leg of a big cow she took with a single well placed shot.

I was there. The effort involved in this success brought us closer together, created memories and stories we will relive in the telling a thousand times, and put healthy and delicious food in our freezer. She is having that cow mounted and even though others have snickered at that, we make no apologies. Every time I look at that cow hanging in the den, I will be able to drift back to the time we shared. The memory is precious to me.

Had she not harvested her elk, and I had, would I have mounted my animal? Probably not, as I have been blessed to take many elk in my hunting career. But my first elk many years ago was also a cow, and I admit I wish I had mounted it now, even if it meant I would suffer criticism over doing so.

My father taught me that killing an animal should never be taken lightly. When I take a life I must be reflective, or I may become callous to it. I would be a killer rather than a hunter. I might forget that the life I took was a gift of the land and when receiving a gift it is rude to criticize it or refuse it.

As hunters we are granted the opportunity to participate in nature rather than just watch it. When I am in the mountains I am not shopping, but hunting. I take the animal offered to me with a grateful heart. Whether that animal is a cow or bull, buck or doe, I do not care. They are all gifts and befitting the distinction of "trophy." I hope the young and forming mind of my little boy will understand that one day. I will do my best to teach him this renewed definition of "trophy."

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Copyright 2004 by Daniel W. Parson. All rights reserved.