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When Nature Lovers Attack

Death and the Great Outdoors

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By Bill Boisvert

"The hardest thing about hunting deer is finding them," says Fred Lutger, a renowned bow hunter, as he addresses a few dozen men in flannel and camouflage at the Fishing, Hunting, Travel, and Outdoors Show at the Rosemont Convention Center. This seminar promised "Twenty-five Ways to Trick Whitetail," but Lutger, a last-minute replacement for a sick colleague, can only offer a few subterfuges to supplement his basic strategy: hiding up a tree until a deer walks past.

Lutger's ruses capitalize on the passions of young bucks caught up in the rutting season, when they come out of the brush to look for mates. One trick involves rattling a pair of antlers to mimic the sound of two bucks locking horns over a doe. Soon a portrait of the successful older buck emerges--an aloof, suspicious type able to sublimate his sexual urges in lonely sojourns far from the beaten track.

Wildlife isn't hard to find on the floor of the convention center. Over at the Trout Pond, three dollars will get you a fishing pole and five minutes to catch an eight-inch rainbow trout. Several hundred specimens drift lethargically in a long plastic pool. Most of the customers are children whose two basic maneuvers involve bobbing the lure up and down and raking it back and forth through the water. The trout look unconvinced. That's a problem for the pond's sponsor, a charter-boat company trying to give away free walleye fishing trips on Lake Erie to anyone who lands a fish. The MC interrupts his patter to advise the kids on technique: the trick is to tug the lure fitfully along the surface in the manner of a water bug. A few trout begin to bite, but something has put the fish off their feed; maybe it's the blinding overhead fluorescent lights, the clamor of the crowd, or the 12-year-old anglers peering into the water. In desperation, the MC announces that free trips will also go to anyone standing next to someone who catches a fish.

Everywhere there are banks of video monitors showing abundant and available nature. Salmon thrash, grizzlies pace, and caribou flee. Overhead, stuffed raccoons and coyotes have been captured in mid-snarl. An archery range features a video loop of strutting turkeys, rearing bears, skulking wolves, and startled elk. Slowly, provocatively, they turn their flanks toward the bow hunters, who shoot arrow after arrow at spots just behind and below their shoulders--that's where the vital organs cluster. The booth for Wildlife Inc., a nonprofit group attempting to set up a "natural habitat" zoo near Rockford, provides photo ops with live tarantulas and pythons; its star attraction is a lion cub named Taraka, who remains unconscious as two preschoolers take hold of her legs and pull.

Once upon a time, the sky could turn dark from clouds of passenger pigeons; buffalo herds were known to stretch out to the horizon. When human beings first set foot on this continent, there were bigger and easier-to-spot beasts, such as mammoths and fierce arctic lions. Now mostly the small and furtive survive, living in murky water and dense brush. Hunters search for them with sonar, infrared and night-vision scopes on their rifles. The big game has withdrawn to tenuous footholds in the wilds of Africa or the far north, where it is pursued by packaged safaris. The signs read "Zimbabwe--Hunt Lion With Your Bow" and "Newfoundland Moose--Nearly 100 Percent Success." Promotional photos show hunters, flushed and beaming. They throw familiar arms around the necks of dead lions and impalas. The fur is matted and bloody, the legs tucked demurely beneath the body. Trophy hunters and anglers are not, of course, to blame for the depletion of wildlife. Yet the Fishing, Hunting, Travel, and Outdoors Show is a reminder that when man communes with nature, nature dies.

In the Wildlife Inc. booth, Taraka is awake and padding about the concrete floor. She had not been drugged--she was just tired and jaded. Stopping to gnaw on a stick, she stares out through the chicken wire at the crowd of people surrounding her pen. The crowd stares back.

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