We had been searching for wild boar all evening, climbing over rural Monterey County’s dusty oak-studded hills in an old jeep with no roof, no seatbelts, and a driver who had just drank a small cooler’s worth of beer. I was sitting in back, instructed by our guide to hold onto the metal bar in front of me, just in case the vehicle’s jerky clutch caused me to fly forward and knock out all my teeth. As far as first hunting experiences go, this one was feeling kinda dicey.
Sitting up front next to our driver/guide was Trevor Latham, the 43-year-old president of the East Bay Rats Motorcycle Club, with a Remington 700 bolt-action rifle. For years, Latham had tried to convince me to go hunting with him, and I had never said yes — until now.
Why I finally agreed to do so is not entirely clear. To say I’m not the hunting type would be putting it mildly. Although I eat meat, I find the thought of killing — let alone harming — an animal abhorrent. I’m the kind of person who can’t even kill a spider, and I hate spiders. I realize this is a hypocritical stance on my part, and also one that’s not at all uncommon in American society, which is the main reason why Latham thinks I’m exactly the type of person who should go hunting. He thinks I need to come face to face with my decision to eat meat. I need to be able to kill something, gut it, and eat it. And I don’t entirely disagree with him.
Whether I was actually going to do it or not, however, was still to be determined. For starters, we — me, Latham, our guide, plus (in another vehicle) another guide and JJ Jenkins, who owns Merchants Saloon in Oakland — had seen everything but wild boar: cow, deer, jackrabbits, quail, squirrels, and horses. It turns out that pigs — which are an invasive species in California and a scourge for many farmers — aren’t that easy to find. They travel at dusk and in the early morning, and spend the hot days bedded down. Even though they’re black and travel in a straight line (you can spot them by the trail of dust they kick up), they’re surprisingly hard to see in a landscape dotted with dark bushes and tree stumps.
And that was just fine with me. While I had agreed to go on this hunting trip, and had obtained a hunting license and a pig tag (the legal document required to shoot a pig in California), I still felt ambivalent about the whole situation. I had decided that even if I did spot a wild boar, I wouldn’t say anything to Latham or our guide. I wouldn’t be responsible for a death — at least not tonight.
But after hours of scouring the landscape — a surprisingly tiring task — in decreasing daylight and dipping temperatures, I found myself eager to see something. As we traversed a hilltop, I suddenly saw something move out of the corner of my eye. Just as soon as I uttered the words, “There’s something,” I knew I’d regret it.
“Where?” our guide asked, excitedly.
I pointed to the hillside to our left, to a patch of clearing between oak trees. The animal’s fur matched the color of the dry grass. It definitely wasn’t a wild boar, but its trotting gait indicated it wasn’t a deer, either. It turned out to be a coyote.
Our guide quickly stopped the vehicle and pulled a rifle out of the case that was strapped to the dashboard. Suddenly, my heart was pounding.
“You’re gonna shoot it?” I said, with more than a twinge of PLEASE NO DON’T in my voice.
But it was too late. I covered my ears.
The animal fell over, kicking up a small patch of dust in the distance.
Instantly, pangs of guilt washed over me. Our guide, however, felt no such remorse. “They eat fawn. That’s why I don’t like them,” he said, continuing to drive on as if nothing horrific had just happened. “They’ll rip babies straight from the mother’s asshole. They’re mean little animals, meanest animal there is — well, except for me,” he said, only somewhat jokingly.
His words didn’t make me feel any better. As we continued driving through the hills, beer bottles clinking around on the jeep’s floor, I suddenly remembered something.
“It’s Friday the 13th.”
“I thought about that — that’s why I’m in first gear,” our driver responded in his thick Southern accent. He paused, then added, laughing, “It was Friday the 13th for that coyote.” As the evening wore on, we continued searching for our prey, crossing fields and endless cattle gates, stopping occasionally to examine tracks or just scrutinize the landscape. After the coyote incident, I wasn’t sure which animals we were trying to kill and which we weren’t, but it was clear there were distinctions. When we passed by a decomposing cow in a field, our guide remarked, “poor little fucker.” And when he spotted a bobcat in his binoculars, and I asked him whether he was going to shoot that, too, he replied, “No, I like bobcats,” much to my relief.
Wild boar was our main target, and so far we weren’t having any luck. Both Latham and our guide feared that the full moon wasn’t boding well for the hunt. “These pigs aren’t moving till the break of daylight,” said our guide, frustrated. As darkness descended, we decided to call it a day. But just as we pulled up to the nearby house where our cars were parked, a small dark animal came into view of the jeep’s headlights.
“Is that a raccoon?” our guide asked.
“It’s a skunk,” Latham replied.
Suddenly, our driver gunned the car, chasing the animal up a dirt road and into tall grass. He stopped, and with headlights shining, pulled out his rifle. BLAM! Was it dead? BLAM! It fell over, and a distinctly skunky smell began to permeate the night air. “It sprayed the dogs twice,” our driver said, attempting to once again justify his deadly deed.
By then, I had had enough killing for the evening. If one thing was becoming clear, it was that out here, decisions about life and death get made in an instant. I wasn’t sure yet whether what we were doing was right or wrong, but I knew we’d be making a similar decision before the weekend was over.
Just how comfortable you are with guns, hunting, and eating animals largely depends on how you were raised. And for many urban dwellers like myself, even those who eat meat, there’s a gaping disconnect between the acts of killing an animal and putting food on the table. We buy our meat in packages, from cases, where almost all signs of their previous state as living, breathing creatures with hair, organs, and entrails are obscured. So while we may have no problem eating bacon, we probably couldn’t actually kill a pig.
Latham wasn’t introduced to guns or hunting until relatively late in life. A self-described “city boy,” he grew up splitting his time between two parents and two coasts: East (Long Island, where his dad lived) and West (Berkeley, where his mom resided). He described his mother as an animal lover who enjoys the outdoors and is fiercely “anti-hunting,” while his father, an aeronautical engineer, encouraged him to pursue computers. But Latham wasn’t the type to sit in an office all day. He said he was drawn to trouble and “ran around the woods a lot as a kid.” His father had actually grown up hunting, but had given it up when he got married. While Latham had never seen his dad hold a gun, something about the idea appealed to him. “He always told stories, so obviously I was drawn to that,” he said.
Wherever the edge of safety was, Latham wasn’t far away. For him, the concepts of danger and fun are very closely linked; in fact, they could be the same thing. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising then that Latham was attracted to motorcycles (another one of his father’s hobbies that he had given up to raise a family). After graduating from high school and permanently moving to the Bay Area, Latham decided to buy a bike, even though he had never ridden one before. “Suddenly, going from one place to another was a rollercoaster,” he said. “It was the most fun.”
Soon, he met other bikers, people like him who enjoyed “just being wild and not knowing what to do with themselves and wanting to be independent.” They began putting on rides and throwing crazy parties and generally acting like a motorcycle club, so Latham decided to create his own. Founded in 1994, the East Bay Rats Motorcycle Club has become synonymous with a kind of urban outlaw. (“Rats” is a reference to rat bikes — ugly bikes that are painted matte black and constructed for maximum endurance.) The Rats are perhaps best known for hosting fight parties at their San Pablo Avenue clubhouse, in which regular people get into a boxing ring and beat the crap out of each other. They’ve been featured in numerous articles and reality TV episodes, and are also the subject of a forthcoming book.
For Latham, there’s a life-affirming aspect to the danger of riding motorcycles. “You get a perspective on life by risking it,” he said. “You almost get into an accident, which happens once a week. You realize what’s important and what isn’t.” (In 2001, Latham did get in a serious accident, when he was hit by a drunk driver. He broke his hand and both legs and hit his head so hard that he had trouble thinking for a while.)
Naturally, guns fit right into this hazard-courting lifestyle. Not long after founding the East Bay Rats, Latham was invited to go shooting with a friend. “I absolutely loved it,” he recalled. Like riding motorcycles, shooting guns keyed into something primal for him. “It’s one of those few times when you’re not thinking about what you’re doing — you’re just doing.”
Almost immediately after shooting his first gun, Latham knew he wanted to hunt. But, as with riding motorcycles, Latham said, hunting was difficult to get into if you didn’t already know someone doing it. Then one day, his friend “freaked out” and shot a deer that was sitting in his Oakland hills backyard.
“He calls me in a panic,” Latham recalled. “I don’t know what to do either, but I know a guy, and he showed up like Mr. Wolf in Reservoir Dogs …. [He] shows us step-by-step [how to gut it] …. And we ate that thing. We ate that whole deer.”
Shortly thereafter, Latham made his first kill — a jackrabbit — on his property up in Susanville. “The first time you put your hands in the guts … it’s really gross,” he said. “You have that squeamish hesitation, but once you dive in, the more you do it the more you get used to it.” He’s even eaten roadkill. He recalled an incident in which his buddy hit a deer and then brought it to the clubhouse. And then the deer woke up. “I slit its throat. Then we cut it up and ate it,” Latham said, laughing.
About that laughing. Latham often laughs when talking about hunting and eating animals. Although he only kills animals for food, he also seems to enjoy a certain satisfaction from the actual act of killing. And that’s especially true with pigs.
“I get so excited about killing them that it’s possibly unhealthy,” he said. “Whereas [hunting] a deer, I’m excited about it, but I’m not like stay-up-all-night-run-through-the-woods-naked excited.”
“They’re dangerous, they can hurt you, and, uh, they’re really tasty,” Latham explained. “Pigs are this environmental disaster — they tear up everything, they’re an invasive species.”
It took Latham a while to actually kill one, however. After scouring public lands (where boar are over-hunted), he finally found a guide who takes people out on private land in King City, in Monterey County, where wild boar are abundant. The guide guarantees hunters one fair shot — that is, he’ll find the pig for you, but it’s up to you whether or not you’re able to shoot it. For the opportunity, he charges $500, whether or not you make a kill.
On that first hunting trip, back in 2004, Latham ending up shooting a wild boar that was sleeping four hundred yards away. “They freaked out that I made that shot and went crazy,” he said. “We were jumping around, yelling.”
Since then, Latham has gone boar hunting every time his freezer is empty. He estimated that he’s killed about ten pigs, and his ultimate goal (which he said he’s close to achieving) is to only eat meat he has hunted.
Meanwhile, he has been teaching others how to do the same. About four years ago, he began taking guests out to his Livermore property and showing them how to kill and gut rabbits. Taking a cue from the 1984 movie Red Dawn, he makes them eat the heart of their first kill. (After a Vice episode aired in 2012 showing this process, Latham’s caged rabbits went missing — the culprits, he suspects, were animal activists.)
Latham pointed to the lack of “machismo” among the generation after his as one of his motives for making meat-eaters learn how to shoot and hunt. But there’s also a part of him that wants people to get closer to the dangerous side of life. “It’s pretty real and pretty dramatic,” he said about hunting. “It shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“It’s weird that people can’t accept what they’re doing and take any responsibility,” he continued. “People want to be as far away from that responsibility as possible.”
Seeing as I had never shot a gun before in my life, Latham decided I should practice first before actually thinking about killing something, which seemed like a good idea. He invited me to the East Bay Rats’ clubhouse, where he and other members shoot pellet guns in the backyard every Monday evening.
I arrived around 6 p.m. to find a bunch of guys sitting around a table playing a boisterous game of cards while a few more were out back drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and setting up paper targets.
Before I got to actually handle a gun, Latham told me three safety rules: “Keep your finger off the trigger, don’t shoot at anything you’re not willing to destroy, and make sure you have a proper backstop so that the bullet doesn’t go on and kill anything.” That last point is important: It turns out that rifles have a projectile range of several miles, which is why you should never shoot at something that’s on a ridgetop.
We were only shooting pellet guns, but even so, it wasn’t something I was taking lightly. First of all, it’s still a gun. Second of all, pellets can do damage.
Another thing about guns: They’re not light. Holding one while trying to precisely aim at something while thinking about the fact that you could take an eye out turns out to be an incredibly taxing situation. To make it easier, Latham had me sit in a chair and rest my elbows on a stool. One of the Rats loaded the gun and handed it to me.
Actually firing the gun was another matter. We’ve all seen movies of people shooting guns, so most of us know roughly how to hold one, but there are particulars about the stance. You have to press the butt of the gun firmly into your shoulder (the meaty part, not the bony part), and put your cheek against the stock. That requires convincing your brain that pressing your face up against something that’s meant to kill things is actually the safe thing to do.
The gun was too big for my body, so holding it felt awkward and clumsy. But aiming it (especially with a scope) was easy. Once I had the target in my sight, I turned off the safety (a little button you press on the trigger guard) that allowed me to pull the trigger. Here’s another thing about rifles: You actually don’t “pull” the trigger, you “squeeze” it — and, yes, there’s a difference. Pulling it may cause you to move too much and miss your target.
Breathing is another component. Every time you breathe your body moves, which you especially notice when you’re aiming at something through a tiny scope and even the slightest movement can mean missing your mark. People have different methods when it comes to breathing and timing a shot, but Latham suggested fully inhaling and exhaling, and then inhaling halfway.
If you take too long to pull the trigger, your arms can get tired and wobbly. So you need to act fast — but you also need to take your time. Did I mention this was stressful?
Finally, you also can’t hesitate or feel apprehensive. You have to fully commit to what you’re doing. You have to sharpen your focus and really concentrate. And you have to think about what’ll happen once you pull the trigger. You can’t loosen your grip or lose sight of your target or let the gun jerk when it fires. You have to keep it steady — your mind, your body, and the gun.
When I had the target firmly in my sight and had partially inhaled, I squeezed the trigger. The force, even for a pellet gun, was a bit jarring. Remarkably, I hit close to the bull’s eye. After so much effort and concentration for such a seemingly simple task, I felt exhausted, yet also exhilarated. The next shot I loaded myself.
After practicing with the pellet gun at the clubhouse, I had to take the next step toward hunting: getting a hunting license, and that required taking a hunter education class, as mandated by the State of California. The Department of Fish and Wildlife certifies hunter education instructors to teach these classes, which are offered all over the state and are listed on the department’s website.
Much to my surprise, most of the upcoming Bay Area classes were full. I finally found an open spot for a class held on a horse ranch in Novato, about 35 miles north of Oakland. It required two three-hour sessions, plus one six-hour class.
The first thing that struck me when I walked into the converted barn/classroom was the kids. There were four of them, all boys — two who looked to be about eleven or twelve, and another two who were about seven. I was expecting to learn about guns and safety, but I wasn’t expecting to do so with a bunch of children.
There were also two twentysomething dudes, an older guy, and one of the young boys’ thirtysomething father. When the teacher asked how many people in the room had handled guns before, every arm shot up. I was definitely feeling like the odd woman out.
The class was taught by Daniel and Janet Gookin, a married couple. After we signed a legal document stating that we weren’t restricted from owning or possessing firearms, ammunition, and/or dangerous weapons, the Gookins began with an overview of what we’d be learning in class, which was mostly about how to safely handle guns. But almost immediately, the discussion turned political.
Janet said we’d be learning “why hunting is important, why we have our Second Amendment, why we need to protect that. So what we’re here for is, we want to involve you in the process in keeping some of our liberties and our freedoms.”
It was unclear whether this discussion was part of the normal routine or whether it was being said for my benefit — I had informed Daniel I was a reporter when I initially signed up for the class — but if they were trying to present hunters in a positive light to a skeptical audience, they weren’t exactly successful.
Janet continued: “There are many organizations out there that are really, that we need to listen to or be able to know about so that when someone comes on and goes, ‘oh, the NRA,’ and they’ll say a bunch of bad stuff, well, you know what, there are some good things that they’re doing, too.”
Another part of hunter education was making sure everyone in the room understood how hunting is good for the environment. Daniel referred to hunters as “environmentalists” who protect habitats, keep animal populations under control, and “are harvesting a continually renewable resource.”
Here’s the thing. There are two parts to hunting: One is the killing of animals for food, and the second is the tool used to do it. Seeing as that tool is most often a gun, the class at times felt like a bunch of pro-gun propaganda. Gun safety is also a tricky topic, and one that the instructors danced around several times, because essentially you’re talking about how to safely use something that’s meant to kill. The topic of safety was often framed in the context of avoiding the kind of accidents that give hunters a bad rap. (Daniel referred to them as “incidents,” not “accidents,” because, he said, they’re preventable.) The instructors also used euphemisms such as “harvest” (meaning to “kill”) and “expire” (for “die”). Considering all the gun deaths in this country, it was difficult to separate my dislike for guns from my feelings about hunting.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife seems well aware of this fact. In the 106-page booklet the agency distributes to every hunter ed student, there are tips on how to avoid the “disdain of non-hunters.” For example, it recommends avoiding tying animals to the hood or roof of a car, refraining from consuming alcohol while hunting and from “taking graphic photographs of the kill and from vividly describing the kill while within earshot of non-hunters,” and maintaining “a presentable appearance while on the street — no bloody or dirty clothing.”
These all seemed reasonable enough. A few weeks later, however, I’d witness several of these guidelines being ignored.
I didn’t grow up killing things — at least, not consciously. Maybe I killed ants and mosquitos and (inadvertently) a goldfish or two, but I never intentionally took the life of an animal, nor have I ever had the desire to do so. While reporting this story, I repeatedly came up against this feeling as a barrier to my ability to hunt. Even though I eat meat, there was a still a threshold I had to cross in order to kill a living thing.
Whenever I brought up this dilemma to hunters, I got the same response: “Anyone who eats anything … they have participated in the act of killing,” said Mark Batcheler, a hunter and former naturalist who’s now an organic farmer in Santa Cruz. “I kill a lot of animals by farming.” Batcheler — who’s also a member of the Bay Area Tracking Club, a group of individuals who practice tracking animals for fun every month — said whether it’s aphids, gophers, or the plants themselves, he has to kill something to keep something else alive. “We all take life. What kind of life we take is really up to us.”
Batcheler grew up hunting with guns in the Midwest, but said he now only hunts with a bow. For him, hunting means getting to know the natural landscape by using all his senses — looking at tracks, gauging the wind, smelling scat on the ground, and examining trails. Hunting with a bow enhances his relationship to the natural world. “It means I have to get closer to my prey,” he said. “There’s a lot more intimate connection. There’s a lot more tracking that has to occur.”
In hunting, there’s a concept called “buck fever” — essentially, it refers to the nervousness that happens right before a hunter kills something. For Batcheler, “buck fever” is a good thing. “If a hunter stops feeling that, they don’t feel the sacredness of life,” he said. “I would feel not good about hunting if I took the life of an animal and didn’t feel something. That would be akin to a psychosis.”
This sentiment is one that can be hard to grasp for someone who’s against hunting. Batcheler believes that if more people hunted, they would have a greater respect for living things. Is it possible that hunters actually care deeply about the life they’re taking, perhaps even more deeply than someone — I’m talking about meat-eaters here — who doesn’t hunt?
“We’re interdependently woven together,” said Batcheler. “It’s not just survival of the fittest. We need life to sustain life.”
After our unsuccessful hunt on Friday, we drove back to the house where our guides were putting us up for the night. It was a single-story ranch-style house with four bedrooms and four huge animal heads (two wild boar, one buck, and a cow) mounted on the living room wall. Latham had brought dinner, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it consisted solely of meat — sausage and steak. We sat in the backyard around the fire pit eating chunks of meat and drinking whiskey (except for Latham, who’s sober).
Even though Latham and Jenkins look like roughnecks and espouse libertarian values about gun rights (although they both advocate for restricting handguns and imposing better background checks), they also exhibited a surprisingly softer side. While driving to King City, Latham and I talked at length about relationships. He told me getting married and having children had been his main priority in life (he has been sober since he found out his wife was pregnant, about a year and half ago), and when I mentioned that path likely wasn’t in my cards for me, he said I needed to devote at least fifteen hours per week to the pursuit. Latham and Jenkins also talked about how excited they were that their significant others are both pregnant and that their kids will be close in age.
By then it was getting late, and we had to wake up at 4 a.m. for the next leg of our hunt. A few hours later, we arose to find our new guide, with his two sons and another boy, outside waiting for us. Under the light of the still-full moon, we loaded up the vehicles with guns and supplies, then drove back to the private property where we’d continue our search. Once there, Latham and I climbed into the back of our new guide’s pickup truck. Compared to the night before, this experience felt luxurious — although there were still no seatbelts on the bench that was built into the bed of the truck, there was also no funky clutch, no booze, and no metal bar precariously positioned in front of my face.
With the night’s chill still clinging to the darkened valley floor, we barreled down a road between two pieces of property — a vineyard to our left and a barley field to our right. All of a sudden the vehicle stopped. The next few moments were a blur, but here’s what I remember: our guide pointing to the open field to our right; a big dark object about a hundred yards away; Latham jumping out of the truck; our guide freaking out, loudly whispering to him, “What are you doing?!? Stay in the truck!”; and then Latham’s high-powered rifle blasting into the cold morning air, sounding like a bomb going off.
In the darkness, I couldn’t really tell what had happened. But we quickly sped off down the road. Did he hit it? Did it die? Were we chasing it? As we kept driving on, I realized that it was all over. Latham had killed a wild boar, and we were simply moving on to find more. I felt strangely detached from the whole incident.
We didn’t return to retrieve the wild beast until more than an hour later, after the sun had risen. Our guide sent the three boys with some rope to haul it back, but it was quickly apparent that the animal was too heavy for their little bodies. So with our guide’s help, the four of them dragged it through the blond fields of barley. As they got closer, Latham’s excitement increased: It was the largest boar — it looked to be about three hundred pounds, with three-inch tusks — he had ever killed, and he had done so while it was running, hitting it right in the lungs (if he had shot it in the gut, the animal could have kept running for miles). They hauled it into the truck, right behind where we were sitting. There was surprisingly little blood, and it seemed unreal — maybe because its hair was bristly, or because I hadn’t really seen it alive, and hadn’t heard it squeal or make any sounds. After some photos were snapped, we continued on our way.
A few hours later, while we were parked on a hill, waiting silently to find more boar (hunting involves a lot of silent waiting), our guide decided it would be a good time to gut the pig. If you’ve never watched an animal be gutted before — and I hadn’t — there are a few things you need to be prepared for. As gross as the sight of an animal being cut open is, the most overpowering element is the smell. As soon as he opened up the animal’s cavity, an incredibly sickly, pungent scent wafted over the truck. That, combined with the sound of removing entrails — imagine sticking your hands in a bowl of very wet macaroni and cheese — made my stomach turn. I hopped out of the truck and walked away, thankful that I had only eaten an energy bar that morning.
Again, I was reminded about how you’re comfortable with what you grew up with. The three boys were all engrossed in the process, poking and prodding the entrails with curiosity. The youngest one, who was nine, had no trouble digging into the pig’s empty cavity to retrieve its heart so I could take a photo of it.
After a few more hours of hunting — the guides, with the help of their dogs, shot another three pigs — we headed back to the hunting lodge where there was a “skinning shed” and walk-in refrigerator. The guides had already skinned Latham’s pig by the time I got there, and its remains (head still attached and intact, so Latham could later mount it) lay on the cement floor like a deflated shell of its former self. They hung the meat on hooks and cut it into chunks, which Latham put inside huge plastic coolers. Then they skinned the other pigs, and threw their bloody remnants into a huge plastic bucket. My stomach decided it had seen enough guts for the day.
As we headed out of town back to Oakland, however, we needed to eat a proper meal, so we stopped at a taqueria. There was no way I could fathom eating meat at that point. Even with our jeeps and our radios and the dogs and the high-powered weapons, hunting was an exhausting and nauseating experience. And I had been foolish to think I could’ve shot anything with my limited gun skills. (It turns out that animals are always running, in order to get away from the humans who are trying to kill them — go figure.)
And yet, I also could see why certain aspects of hunting are appealing, particularly the part about spending hours and hours outdoors. Besides witnessing the killing part, I enjoyed being dirty, tired, and sunburned at the end of the trip. So I sort of understood why Latham said he felt his “most comfortable” when he was hunting.
Even though I had many moral dilemmas throughout the reporting of this story, what was important was that I had the moral dilemmas at all. I had to seriously consider my decision to eat meat and my feelings about guns on a very immediate level. And even though I didn’t pull the trigger, I had watched the killing and gutting of the wild boar, and a few days later, had eaten the meat. It turns out that hunting was much more difficult, on so many levels, than I had expected. And that was a good thing.