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TELEVISION / Howard Rosenberg

Hunters and gatherers of beautiful, deceased animals

November 22, 2002|Howard Rosenberg

I remember the day I turned on TV and immediately began trembling with excitement and fear.

Excitement because I was watching "Sportsman's Quest," one of many wildlife series on ESPN2.

Fear, because of the danger.

My pulse was thumping, my heart beating like a tom-tom, for on the screen, vulnerable and exposed in southern Africa, was Jay Novacek.

Sportsman in peril.

Novacek had known pain. As a former tight end for the Dallas Cowboys, he'd been slammed to the turf by bruisers outweighing him by 75 pounds. He'd been shoved, crunched, hammered, bent, speared, trampled, pummeled, kneed, creamed.

Opponents had battered and punished him severely enough to send him grimacing to the bench feeling as if run over by a truck.

But never had he experienced such terror, for facing him now was a threat much greater than any he'd encountered on a football field. Just a few hundred yards away, capable of closing the distance in seconds, was a creature so ravenous for grass and shrub sprouts that it made my skin crawl just to hear its name.


Yes, the striped African antelope with long twisted, spiral horns. Grassy areas, beware!

Thus, the tone projecting danger. Why ... the hungry kudu could mistake Novacek for a shrub sprout. It could charge him, hurl its 500 pounds at him, impale him. Worse, it could nibble him to death.

So what was a sportsman to do?

Novacek and his professional guide stalked, they advanced, they hid, they whispered, they quietly observed. Then ready ... aim ... and in self-defense:


"Great shot!" proclaimed the guide. As the two men later stood over the lifeless antelope, Novacek was clearly overwhelmed by his achievement. "Wow! Holy cow! Look at the sight of him! He's beautiful!"

Too beautiful to live.

That was my introduction a while ago to ESPN2's abundance of wildlife shows, that rare TV universe where premeditated killing is not merely shown -- talk about your snipers in ambush -- but encouraged. And where ending life is softened by such euphemisms as "take," "cull," "thin," "manage," "harvest" and, my favorite, "getting involved with the outdoors."

As in another ESPN2 show, "Ultimate Outdoors With Wayne Pearson." Cue suspense music as a hunter in hiding raises his rifle and prepares to nail an elk. "Good shot!" someone shouts.

On these shows all the shots are "good" or "great." Nothing too gory. The crack of gunfire is followed immediately by footage of a dead animal lying on the ground as if in a peaceful sleep, one from which it will not awaken.

"Sweet death" is what prolific hunter Ernest Hemingway said he dispensed to the animals whose heads he had mounted on his walls.

Death is as clean on ESPN2. That's because messy shots are bad for business. And business here is booming. "Sportsman's Quest" has become "Cabela's Sportsman's Quest," for example, advertising its major underwriter, a big clothing outfitter, just as ESPN2 also gives viewers "NaturalGear's Wildlife Quest" and "Kawasaki's Under Wild Skies."

At commercial breaks, you also hear from a host of other sponsors, including the National Rifle Assn. The line separating these shows and their commercials is sometimes blurry, as when a NaturalGear executive recently surfaced as an elk hunter on "NaturalGear's Wildlife Quest."

It doesn't pay to get too huffy here, given the double standard of some in the anti-hunting crowd who fall all apart at humans slaying animals in the wild but think nothing of wearing and using animal products or eating those that suffered and died in a slaughterhouse.

Coming to mind as a vivid metaphor is Tony Soprano, the HBO mobster who gorges himself on meat but weeps over ducks and was so devastated by an act of animal cruelty recently that he whacked the guy he held responsible.

What some of us can't begin to comprehend, though, is the exhilaration hunters experience when arbitrarily ending the life of a sentient creature they ooh and ahh over and profess to admire.

I recall seeing an ESPN2 show's feature on adults teaching kids, ages 10-12, "hunting ethics" and "respect for the animals you harvest," while thinking their thrills would multiply were they learning to operate cameras in the presence of "prey" instead of guns and crossbows. Instead, a kid, so tiny his orange vest draped him like a tunic, aimed his rifle at an unsuspecting deer from behind a tree as his teacher whispered instructions. The next sound I heard -- boom! -- signaled a rite of passage being attained.

Meanwhile, ambushing wild turkeys on "NaturalGear Wildlife Quest" one day this week was a foursome that included host and executive producer Shane Jones, who is a noted archer, and Daytona 500 champ Ward Burton, on whose "wildlife foundation" property this hunt was held.

A shot from a blind found its target, after which there were high-fives and a round of congrats. "Incredible turkey," someone said. Then they all marched off together like Dorothy and her pals in "The Wizard of Oz," birds slung over their shoulders.

And under those "Wild Skies," caribou-hunting actor Brad Johnson bagged himself a "beautiful bull" in Canada, while getting involved with the outdoors on "Cabela's Sportsman's Quest" were Novacek and professional angler Denny Brauer, their excitement palpable as whitetail deer advanced into their crosshairs.

"Wow," Brauer whispered from his hiding placed in the brush. "If that's what I think it is, that is a monster deer coming right at us. That is the one I've been waiting for. C'mon. C'mon. Stop right there." A shot split the silence. "I got him," Brauer said.

Cut to the dead deer, whose eyes gazed vacantly as its head was held up for the camera. "Golly, I don't believe it," said Brauer. "It's the biggest deer I have ever taken. Wow, look at that deer. It's absolutely beautiful."

So beautiful it had to die.


Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at

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