From my wood-plank perch in an old oak tree, I saw the sun rise on a splendid morning as squirrels played chase over leaf-covered ground. It was a pleasant sight. If I hadn't climbed the tree with the intention of shooting deer that never showed, it might have been perfectly pleasant.

Listen. Do you hear those guns of autumn? They signal the start of another deer-hunting season. In Maryland, Virginia and points west, men and women are taking to the hills to re-enact a blood-letting tradition that is older than memory.

And each year their going ignites an always strained debate about the quality of mercy.

This year, the local focus for the annual debate, between hunters and those who condemn us as cruel, is centered on Gibson Island, an exclusive, 1,000-acre island near Annapolis where some of Maryland's wealthiest citizens reside. Sharing the island are deer, of the white-tailed variety, and so many that they have exhausted their natural food supply and are eating vegetable gardens, ornamental flowers and bushes.

Maryland conservation specialists warned that the deer would face starvation and death if their numbers were not reduced. The islanders, after some debate, agreed to allow a one-day deer hunt to accomplish that. But, on Thanksgiving afternoon, two days before the hunt was scheduled, it was postponed indefinitely as a result of legal threats made by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a Washington-based animal rights organization.

The PETA thinks there are more humane ways to thin the herd, even though it doesn't give specifics. And though an attempt to capture rather than kill starving deer in the Florida Everglades a few years ago was an abysmal failure, with a mortality rate of captured deer at worse than 95 percent, they might be right. With heaping portions of luck and money and manpower, some Gibson Island deer probably could be captured and transplanted to another part of the state.

A more basic question is why, when hunting is allowed in Maryland, should public money be spent to spare these deer? If this hunt deserves to be stopped, then so does all hunting in Maryland. And that is exactly what PETA wants.

"The vast majority of hunting is done for pleasure or sport and therefore is unnecessary and unwarranted," says the PETA's Alex Pacheco. "It cannot be justified on any reasonable ground whatsoever."

Facing one another across such a straight and simplistic battle line, both hunters and antihunters tend to spout foolishness. Start with hunters. When subjected to hostile questioning, many will resort to ridiculous language, using words like "harvest" instead of kill and claiming they are shooting the deer as a favor, to save them from death by starvation or disease. It is certainly true that, in many areas, where natural predators have been eliminated by civilization, hunting is the only check on deer population.

But it's hard to swallow a hunter's claim that he spends hundreds of dollars on licenses and weaponry, then goes without sleep to shiver in a tree because he doesn't want any deer to go hungry.

The antihunters have their own specious arguments. To claim hunting is cruel while eating fish, fowl and beef purchased from a supermarket is at best ignorant and at worst hypocritical. Meat that comes wrapped in cellophane is no less meat. And the animal that died to provide it gets no consolation because someone was paid to butcher it.

Vegetarians have sturdier moral ground on which to stand. But to assert that eating meat is an abomination is to deny a million years of human evolution. You have only to check your mouth to see proof of that. Canine teeth are not needed to chew celery.

"Whether we love hunting or hate it," ethologist Valerius Geist wrote 10 years ago, "eulogize its blinding passion or condemn it, hunting was the force that shaped our bodies, molded our souls, and honed our minds."

Because homo sapien has always been smaller, slower and weaker than many of the animals he ate, he needed to develop cunning and cooperation to succeed in hunting them. Many anthropologists attribute the evolution of man's enlarged brain to that.

In 1968, anthropologist W.S. Laughlin wrote that "man's life as a hunter supplied all the other ingredients necessary for achieving civilization. Hunting is the master behavior pattern of the human species."

But what about modern America, where hunting is no longer necessary for survival? Isn't it best to leave all the killing to USDA-approved butchers? Hunters refuse to surrender the connection to their ancestral past, despite the societal pressure put on them, often by friends and family.

The most common question a hunter will encounter in an urbanized society probably is, "How can you shoot such a beautiful animal as a deer?" Cut off from any real connection with the land, and raised on Walt Disney's anthropomorphic characterization of wildlife, where deer and bear are reduced to woodland pets, the question is understandable.

But it also is unarguably subjective. Who cries for the life of creatures less cuddly and brown-eyed? Where are the defenders of catfish and earthworms, mosquitoes and fire ants, animals with no less right to life than Bambi's mother.

John G. Mitchell, a former editor in chief of Sierra Club books and author of a provocative study titled "The Hunt," warns that as long as man has carnivore teeth beside vegetarian molars, the debate will never end. He quotes Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, who wrote that man "combines the two extreme conditions of the mammal, and therefore he goes through life vacillating between being a sheep and being a tiger."