Tough Decisions: What’s Right May Not Be Black and White

It’s easy to say you’d shoot this buck if you knew it had a terrible injury or had been hit by a vehicle, but what if it was a small buck with a weird rack or a doe? What would you do then?

It was one of those picture-perfect southwest Colorado mornings — no wind, a cobalt sky and the sun just painting the oak brush a fiery red on the ridgetop in front of me. I had a bull elk tag in my pocket, my beloved .300 Magnum in my hands and you couldn’t have lured me away from that place at that moment with a thousand-dollar bill. It was my first elk hunt, and brother I was ready.

The brush started quaking to my left down the ridge and suddenly at 40 yards a cow elk hobbled into view; I say hobbled because her right front leg was shot nearly in two, just at the brisket, and there was a huge, gaping and bloody wound across the bottom of her chest. She labored out into the open and stopped, broadside, bloody froth blowing from her nose and mouth, and looked right into my eyes.

When I started my wildlife career with the Virginia Game Department in 1978, I expected that I would have to deal with all aspects of wildlife management — the good, the bad and the ugly. As a recent college graduate, I thought I had a good grasp of those aspects; but as a new wildlife management area supervisor for the Department I did not know that my education was just beginning. Within just a week of taking my dream job I got my first call on injured wildlife, the first of hundreds of such calls I would answer during my 25 years of state and federal service in wildlife biology. I answered that call and found a white-tailed doe hung by its back legs in a woven-wire fence, beside a lonely rural back road.

The doe had tried to jump the fence and had not made it, her back legs going under the barbed-wire stringer on the top of the fence, which had turned her legs back into the lower woven-wire. She had been there long enough that all of the meat from her ankles to her hips had been scraped away in her struggle to free herself. When I approached she stopped her struggling and looked directly at me; it was obvious that she would not survive her injuries and I ended her suffering with my revolver. After all these years, when I think of that incident I still feel that knot in my stomach I had when I pulled the trigger, but pull it I did, as I did so many times later, on the hundreds of injured animals I encountered during my career.

I would like to think that all of us that call ourselves hunters have a compassionate and ethical side, a part of us that finds suffering and prolonged death of wild animals an anathema. We strive to be, when the moment of truth presents itself, the quick, deliberate and humane dealer of death, whether it is with a rifle on deer or with a shotgun on rising quail. But the sad fact is that among us are folks who do not feel this way, that intentionally break the laws, both of man and ethics. I have been witness to both the good and bad sides of human nature during my wildlife career, and like it or not, my compassion is tempered by the knowledge that wanting to see the right thing done in the case of injured wildlife can be in conflict with the law.

The simple truth is this: Not everyone out there wants to do the right thing.

A buck gets slashed badly during a fight and you later can see it has a badly infected gash and is limping. What do you do?

If you come upon a deer that has been hit by a vehicle, and is obviously dying but yet not dead, or one wounded and struggling, should you end its suffering? Before you answer or fuss about the laws in many states that keep you from doing what you believe is the right thing, let me tell you about some of the incidents I have encountered during my wild- life career. Perhaps these true examples can give you some perspective on why the laws are like they are.

A fellow had a hunting cabin near where I lived when I started my job with the Game Department, and wardens from other counties had told me that this fellow was suspected of intentionally hitting deer with his vehicle and then calling the law. He was suspected in at least two cases of first shoot- ing deer from the vehicle, then placing the deer and his vehicle so it appeared that he had first struck the deer with the vehicle and then dispatched the injured animal. (This guy drove an old International Scout with a brush-guard made of heavy steel pipe.) Then he would ask for the deer. (In Virginia it is up to the discretion of the officer if the animal is awarded to the person who hit it.) The records show that this had happened in three different counties — a total of six deer in three years.

whitetail deer management

Mother Nature usually takes care of injured animals. Should hunters “do the right thing” by killing a wild animal to say they did a good deed or let nature take its course?

Sure enough, late one night two weeks before the deer season opened in 1978, I got a call from the sheriff’s office about a deer hit by a vehicle, and since the wardens on duty were in other areas out of the county, I answered the call. When I arrived at the spot, here was this fellow, parked with his vehicle nosing the ditch on a rural road, and a nice buck, dead, lying by the front tire. The deer had been shot through the chest. His story was that the deer had jumped in front of him, he’d hit it with his vehicle and then shot it to end its suffering.

I called for a backup from a game warden and when he arrived I proceeded to skin the buck right there beside the road. There was not another mark on the skinned carcass; no broken bones, no bruises, not a scratch, not a hint of any trauma except the bullet wound, and there was no internal damage other than that caused by the bullet. Even the deer’s head was undamaged. The warden (who had worked two former calls from this fellow on deer he had supposedly hit with his vehicle) found this to be sufficient evidence to charge the man and he was eventually convicted of taking the deer out of season.

When in later years I worked in federal service on a military base in eastern Virginia, I ran the base’s hunting program, a quality deer management project in cooperation with the state. Our limit during deer season at that time was one antlered buck per year (you could shoot multiple antlerless deer). Three years in a row a particular hunter came to me and told me on all three of these occasions that he had wounded a buck the day before (and not reported it), only to find the buck a day later, and wanted to have the rack from the now-spoiled deer (and, of course, keep his buck tag and keep on hunting).

Now, anyone can make a bad shot and wound a deer; it happens to the best of us. But three years in a row, and only bucks? This guy never wounded and lost a doe in all the years I knew him. When it happened the fourth year I let him have the rack from the deer we found, but took his buck tag and made him check the deer as his one-a-year buck. Because of this fellow, the following year we made it a requirement that all deer hunters had to report at the end of the daily hunt whether they had shot at a deer, either during archery or firearms seasons. Funny thing: The woundings stopped.

On this same military base during the mid-1990s, a civilian employee hit a deer on the road near the front gate. The base security officer who responded did not want to shoot the struggling deer with his duty weapon (discharge of the duty weapon for these folks was no small matter) and allowed the driver of the car to shoot the deer with his hunting rifle. The bullet went through the deer, ricocheted off of a hidden rock under it, nearly missing the officer standing off to one side, and struck a nearby (and thankfully, unoccupied) building. I arrived on the scene just after this had happened and cut the throat of the still-alive animal, and narrowly escaped injury myself when the animal struck out with a front hoof that just missed hitting me in the face.


Isolated examples? Unfortunately, these true incidents are similar to dozens I have heard of from conservation officers and biologists in many states. Whether we want to admit it, there are people who will do anything — and I mean anything — concerning wildlife; and in the heat of hurried compassion there have been people injured or killed when trying to do the right thing.

Consequently, laws have been passed in many states that prohibit the killing of wildlife injured on the highways by anyone other than a conservation law enforcement officer. It does not matter if you are the most well-intentioned person in the world; the officer cannot read your mind, and the risk of unintended tragedy has been deemed by many states too great to allow a citizen to take the matter into his or her own hands.

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On that day in southwest Colorado where we started this article, cow elk were not in season and I did not have a cow tag. I watched that wounded and dying elk slowly and painfully hobble and limp out of sight, down the drainage below me. Believe me when I tell you I was physically sick over it. I spoke to a Colorado conservation officer about it that evening. He told me what I already knew; there would have been no way I would have been able to convince him that I had not been the one who shot the animal initially, and I would have been charged had I shot the elk.

And yes, I am ashamed that I did not shoot her anyway. I saved myself a wildlife violation conviction that day, but I will carry this incident, what I perceive as a personal failing, the rest of my life.

Each of us must confront this type of situation in our own way, but you must know the potential conse- quences of your actions. Perhaps this short article will give you a new perspective on this question and you will find out for yourself how your state and your conservation officers view this issue.

Whenever I’m asked about this subject, I’m reminded of two old clichés: No. 1: It is never the wrong time to do the right thing. No. 2: No good deed goes unpunished. Welcome to reality.

— Walt Hampton is a professional deer biologist from Virginia.