As a lifelong fan of Ernest Hemingway, who wrote long and hard on the subject, I've had a lingering desire to see a bullfight. But I squelched that wish for good two years ago in the Spanish seaside city of Cadiz.
The little hotel there had a plastic couch in the lobby where I plopped down to watch a best-of-bullfighting tape on local TV. Ten minutes was all I could take. It was hideous.
One after another, bedraggled, bleeding bulls were vanquished by leaping matadors. It was brutally routine -- stab, bleed, die -- as if everything Hemingway wrote about the emotional complexities of this ageless sport were meaningless. All that mattered was blood and death.
I didn't think Americans had a taste for such rot. Then came last week's protest on opening day of bowhunting season at McKee Beshers Wildlife Management Area in Montgomery County.
Activists from the Fund For Animals set up a videotape display in which creature after creature was brutally brought down by arrow. Was this something the antihunters had cooked up especially for the occasion?
No, indeed. It was a commercial videotape widely available for sale and rent at outdoors stores: Ted Nugent's "Down To Earth," whose dust jacket promises "raw, unedited footage" of "America's No. 1 rock 'n roll bowhunter" as he "whacks 'em and stacks 'em."
Nor was it hyperbole. In the first 10 minutes, viewers got bird's-eye views of broadheads fatally piercing such fearsome creatures as an armadillo, a squirrel perched in a tree, some pigs and a goat.
"I love that part," said glinty-eyed Nugent after running the death scenes in sequence. "Let's see it again." And the appalling whack 'em and stack 'em compendium ran all over in slow-motion replay.
Nugent, a 41-year-old rock star who swings across the stage in a loin cloth like Tarzan during his shows, conceded with sociopathic candor later in the hourlong tape that he'd been "a gut-pile addict" all his life.
Fine, I thought, so there are screwballs around who have the money to advertise. But when I asked a veteran hunting companion from Virginia about the extent of this swill, he said Nugent wasn't alone.
Ray Sasser, outdoors columnist at the Dallas Morning News, recently wrote critically of a tape called "The Kill," in which 40 creatures were graphically slain in an hourlong video. Sasser said the tape had about as much to do with hunting as pornography has to do with a love story.
My Virginia friend said his local video store carried some other ghastly stuff and sent along an example by return mail -- Dan Fitzgerald's "Down for the Count," whose jacket gushes: "Witness eight explicit kills, never been done on video before."
Fitzgerald's tape may be cheap and amateurish, but it lives up to its grisly billing. Much time is spent on-camera, strategizing ways to set up angles to assure a "pass-through shot," where viewers get to see the arrow go clean through a deer, pushing guts and organs out the exit wound. In case you missed it, everything gets replayed in slow motion. It gave me nightmares..
Who would buy this tripe?
Evidently enough people to put serious pressure on the industry. Sasser said a colleague who specializes in high-quality, instructional hunting tapes with little or no blood and gore has had trouble moving the product.
"The distributors told him to go back and splice in some kill shots," Sasser said.
Which brings us back to McKee Beshers, where last weekend antihunting activists rallied around their Nugent tape at dawn, chanting and cheering slogans, while across the street hunters dressed in business suits sheepishly handed out pamphlets characterizing their sport as respectful and respectable.
The ghoulish video did little to advance his cause, said hunting proponent Russ Melanson of Ellicott City, who went home and wrote a piece for Eastern Bowhunter magazine expressing his outrage.
"Ted Nugent is not helping us by whacking and stacking animals on videotape," he wrote. "This is not what bowhunting is all about. And by refusing to rent or buy this garbage, you can do your part for our sport."
As a hunter, I applaud the developing antihunting/prohunting debate because it puts spokesmen for both sides out in the open, arguing the issues.
It also shines a light in the deepest recesses of a sport that has been operating in semidarkness for decades. Some upstanding folks are emerging to speak up for their sport, and in the process one hopes they'll send some vermin scurrying for cover.
Everyone who hunts knows that in addition to those hunters who obey the laws, honor their prey and respect the land they use, there are some who ignore laws, demean their prey and defile the land.
For years, sadly, honorable hunters largely have ignored the bad guys and hoped they'd go away. They didn't, of course. Now that the whole world is watching, the good guys can no longer turn their heads and walk away.
The battle lines have been drawn in the war over the future of hunting. The public will decide the winner.
If hunters come across as ghouls whose goal is to whack 'em and stack 'em, the future of their sport will be brief indeed.
If upstanding spokesmen rise to the occasion, throw the rascals out and slam the door behind them, everyone benefits.
One thing is clear: If hunters want their sport to survive, it's time to clean house.