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Saturday, December 24, 2005

Good-Bye To a Family Friend

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., December 24, 2005.)
Her whip-tail controlled every inch of dog except her
intelligent, probing nose, which was all business as it
sniffed the wild and exhilarating smells that accumulated
on my pant legs from my hours in the woods.
Our 14-year-old miniature dachshund wasn't a sporting dog, but she had the heart of a hunter.

Greta's ancestors were bred in Germany to hunt dachs, a European badger. Here in the northeast United States, groundhogs occupy the niche that satisfied her need for the chase. From puppyhood, she would pursue groundhogs down their holes -- just because she needed to.

We'd worry sometimes when she was inside a groundhog's den, yapping herself hoarse, that she might not get out -- that a groundhog every bit as big as her might get the best of her. But the size of the fight in her was bigger than any groundhog -- or anything else she encountered. That's what she was bred for, and the fight in her lasted until the end.

Greta was a tough old girl even when she was young, and she stared death down several times. In the springtime she loved to run in tall weeds -- all weeds were tall to her -- and she would come home with wicked looking allergic rashes where the weeds whipped and scarred her little barrel chest. One time she swallowed a honeybee, which stung her internally and she went into shock. She barely survived in time to reach the vet's office.

She wasn't aware that she was a pipsqueak in dog-dom. Apparently other dogs didn't look very big to her from a distance, and she would race out to intimidate any that dared stroll by. One day a big dog wouldn't stand down. It fought back, and ripped her abdomen open. Another trip to the vet, this time for surgery.

When she finally realized that few dogs were her enemies, her playful side emerged often. Her rambunctious wrestling twice resulted in cauliflower ear, which required the veterinarian's surgical attention again.

Whenever I came home from hunting, even a couple of days before her death, she would dance and prance like a puppy. Her whip-tail controlled every inch of dog except her intelligent, probing nose, which was all business as it sniffed the wild and exhilarating smells that accumulated on my pant legs from my hours in the woods.

Whenever I brought a deer home, she stood guard while I skinned the deer in the garage. Usually my neighbor-brother would bring his 2 dachshunds over for a look-see, and Greta would position herself between them and the deer. When she heard another dog bark -- even if it was so far away that it was barely audible -- she would growl a warning as if to say, "Keep away from our deer."

For the last couple of years cataracts clouded her vision, but the more serious malady was congestive heart failure. Fluid in her lungs relentlessly punished her strong will to be a dog. Growling at imagined threats and barking at woodchucks diminished, and coughing became her trademark. She was tough enough to survive other close calls, but this one would eventually take her.

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving her breathing became very shallow, and she sat up all night. She couldn't lie down because the pressure of her 10-pound body on her chest made it even more difficult to breathe. We came home from church on Sunday and found her exhausted, but stubbornly sitting up. I took her outside for potty time. After obediently doing her final duty she was too weak to stand. Her hips rolled over and she staggered. Before her front legs toppled, I picked her up and brought her inside.

She rested her head against my chest and stopped breathing. I gently placed my hand on her chest until I felt her valiant heart finally quit. I dug a hole in the back yard. It was hard to put her in it.

Greta wasn't the smartest dog around, but she was the favorite even of many other dog owners -- full of character and personality -- or at least "canine-ality". She was as loyal as any dog can be. She would love you whether you did right or wrong, whether you punished her or praised her, whether you ignored her or indulged her.

Other families are equally blessed by hunting dogs, lap dogs, service dogs, show dogs -- dogs that love without condition, serve without reservation, and offer joy without hesitation. Greta wasn't unique, but she was one of a kind. She was our dog.

Greta, we saw you through so many hazards. We're sorry we couldn't get you through this one.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Good and Bad About Deer Season

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., December 10, 2005.)
If you still have an unfilled tag, today is the day.
Believe that. Believe it every day you hunt.
Good luck in bringing home some last-day venison.
Remember, next year's wallhangers are out there now.
Someone has said, "There's good and bad in everything." That's certainly true of the deer season that ends today. We definitely have mixed opinions and mixed results. Some people aren't seeing deer, and others are bringing home bigger bucks than ever.

What's good?
For the most part, pinball deer hunting is over in Pennsylvania. The old opening day pattern of deer bouncing from one hunter to another is already a memory.

Fewer shots heard, fewer deer sighted by nearly everyone, and a reduced harvest (official numbers are months away) mean that wild eyed deer are not racing along the hillsides with tongues hanging out trying to get past the next hunter.

That's good. It's one factor that should lead to safer deer hunting (not that it ever was more dangerous than other sports), and it means that deer are less panicked when our opportunities come to harvest them.

It's good because some hunters who left the sport because they didn't like pinball deer hunting might be encouraged to return now that deer hunting has entered a new age.

It's also good that deer densities are down, although I won't argue with anyone who says that in some places they are lower than necessary. But just because you didn't see deer doesn't mean deer aren't there. On opening day I had a fleeting glimpse at only 3 deer. On the first Saturday I saw about 20, including 2 sub-legal bucks, and could have shot half the deer I saw. Same area. Different conditions. Different hunting method.

Deer have to be there to be seen, but deer sightings also depend on hunting conditions. Conditions favored the deer on opening day in Warren County. It was windy, the winds were extremely variable, and visibility grew poorer as the day progressed.

In contrast, the first Saturday offered ideal conditions for still-hunting. It was possible to walk up on deer. I encountered deer 7 times that day. Most of the time I saw them before they knew I was there. I wish for cold, quiet conditions every day I hunt.

What's bad?

Fewer deer will result in fewer hunters. Hunter numbers are already headed downward at a startling rate. Hunting license sales have declined 10% nationwide in the last 20 years. In Pennsylvania they have dropped by over 22%, from 1.3 million in 1983 to just over 1 million in 2003. That trend will probably continue.

Fewer hunters along with antler restrictions mean more bucks will get through the season, becoming more mature and offering greater challenges in coming years. But in the long run, as hunters leave the sport we will have fewer hunters helping to recruit new hunters, political influence will diminish, and license revenues will continue to decline.

That's not good for gun rights or hunting rights. And it will cause the Game Commission to seek new sources of funding. Hunters are better off when license revenues – rather than contributions from non-hunting interests – form the foundation of the Game Commission's budget.

What else is bad? Many hunters who have hunted their favorite stands for many years are finding out that stand hunting is not as reliable as it once was. Over the years as tree stands, shanties and stationary posts have become more popular, deer have had less reason to move. More hunters need to get on the ground with the deer.

What to do:

If you've been disappointed in your old faithful stand for a couple of years, it's probably time to try something new. Learning a new territory or new hunting methods are not something to be feared, and are likely to be rewarding.

Learn to accept the challenge of lower deer densities. That means more scouting, and there is no better time to begin scouting than right after deer season. It means changing the way you hunt, being more creative in how to approach a hunt – not doing the same thing every time you go hunting. And it means making a plan for every hunt – even if your plan changes.

Hunting is changing and the old days – call them good or call them bad – will not return.

If you still have an unfilled tag, today is the day. Believe that. Believe it every day you hunt. Good luck in bringing home some last-day venison. Maybe it will be a big one. Remember, next year's wallhangers are out there now.