Author Charles Foster in the field.
Author Charles Foster in the field. (Photo: Courtesy of Charles Foster)

Thoughts from an Experiment in Being Hunted Like a Deer

In his new book, 'Being a Beast,' Charles Foster attempts to understand the inner lives of animals by living as they do—as an otter, fox, badger, deer, and swift. In this excerpt, he "becomes" a red deer and allows himself to be hunted by a bloodhound.

Charles Foster

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Matt, a plasterer from Dunster, met me outside the White Horse in Stogumber. His family had chased foxes and hares across Exmoor and the Quantocks for generations, and in the back of his van were some of the country’s best-nosed bloodhounds. One of them, Monty, was going to hunt me.

“Let him have a sniff of your boot,” said Matt. “I bet we’ll have you before you break a sweat.”

I set off running along the side of a field of young maize. It had been raining, and there was now a hot fog rising from my footprints. It was bad weather for being a hunted deer.

I wasn’t going to be killed, but still the chase seemed to matter very much. That’s the neurotic temperament for you.

A piece of grit in my shoe, which I’d usually have ignored, was vast and malignant—conspiring with the universe for my destruction. The low, dry fences were high and slippery. I retched up my heart and it sat hunched in my throat, stopping the sea-fog-air from seeping into my blood. I was rushing, and, mockingly, nothing else was. The field was brutally, callously relaxed. A beetle crept calmly down a maize stem. I hated it for its leisure and indifference.

Then I stumbled out of the field and could stride, and my heart retreated to my ribs, and again there was a tide in my chest. The wood was still maddeningly leisurely, but it wasn’t out to get me. Everything seemed to have a voice, and now the voices were, by and large, sympathetic. The nettles apologized for stinging my legs and assured me that they’d do a far better job on Monty’s drooping lips, which were swaying up toward me.

But then I began to doubt the kindness of the wood. A carrion crow, which by all the rules should have scrambled as I thrashed past it, sat and watched me from a branch five yards above my head. I saw myself in its eye: hunched and panting. I’d have thought that everything in a crow’s eye would be black, but I was a brilliant red. I thought, absurdly, that it was waiting for me to be killed so that it could pick up some scraps. This was very undeerlike behavior.

In the back of Matt's van were some of the country’s best-nosed bloodhounds. One of them, Monty, was going to hunt me.

In other ways, though—mostly unconscious—I was behaving very much like a hunted deer. My adrenals were pumping out cortisol and adrenaline. The cortisol made me taut. (The next day its immunosuppressive effect threw open the drawbridge of my throat to an invading virus.) Blood was diverted from my gut to my legs. Though I was slumping from the effort, I’d stop from time to time, hold my head up high, and reflexively sniff. If I’d had mobile ears they’d have pricked and swiveled. Though I looked for water, as deer do, to cool me and to send my scent spiraling away, I ran on the driest ground I could find. I knew (from well before birth, rather than because I’d read books and watched hounds) that dry earth doesn’t hold scent well, or, if it holds it, hugs the particles close, leaving few for snuffling noses.

Unlike a deer, though, I longed to be out of the wood. It’s often very difficult for staghounds to push deer into the open. Sometimes it takes hours. The deer double back, lie flat in deep cover, and saber-rattlingly confront hounds rather than breaking out.

It would have made sense for me to stay in the wood. Scent bounces off trees like balls in a pinball machine and eddies like the dark, curd-coated corners of the East Lyn River. It’s hard for even the most educated nose to read it there. Out in the open, there’s a slime trail of scent through the grass. It points in the direction of the prey. 

My preference for the open was therefore strange. I suppose we want to die where we’ve evolved, just as an overwhelming majority of people say that they’d prefer to die at home. We evolved on an East African plain. Like most people, I now express this inchoate preference in many neurotic ways: in a fear of the dark and of caves (though, like everyone else, I began life in a totally dark, pounding cave, and was safer there than I’ve ever been since); in a need to have the curtains open at night so that I can see turning stars and tell myself that the universe is still doing what it should; in the malaise I get in a room with no natural light; in the conviction that maggots eating something underground are more obscene than maggots eating something in the sunshine; in shuddering at coffins. A private hospice on a mountainside could charge a lot more than one in the suburbs. It’s no surprise that seaside towns are full of retirees, desperate for a big view as the sun sinks. It’s all because of Tanzania.

No: I wasn’t going to die. But I couldn’t tell that to my adrenals. They pushed me on through the maize. My breath was deafening. I couldn’t hear anything else.

I hadn’t expected silence. I’d expected an exhilarating duet between baying hounds and rasping lungs. That would have been an appropriate, dignifying, and comforting soundtrack to the drama. But there was no noise at all behind me: no deep funereal belling from between wobbling jowls.

This silence was hard to take. That, too, is a legacy from the savanna, and another reason for my suspicion of woods. Neurologically I’m set up to expect dangers, opportunities, and options to be pretty clear. There are unseen, unheard, and unsmelled things on the plains, but they are calculable. There’s a fair chance that there will be lions in that long grass: I’d better skirt it to get to the zebra. My skill is not in detecting the dangers: it is in mentally testing out the possible responses; it’s in painless, risk-free optimization.

But, panting in that Somerset field, I didn’t have the data necessary to start calculating. I am physiologically set up to avoid dying gloriously in the open, and thus have a distinct preference for dying in the open rather than elsewhere. My heroic metanarratives have evolved to justify my physiological settings. “How can man die better,” asked Horatius, urging the Romans to hold the bridge against the surging Etruscans.

than facing fearful odds;
For the ashes of his fathers 
And the temples of his gods?

Monty caught up with me on the side of another maize field. He was ten yards away when I first saw him. When he saw me, from under those heavy roller-blind lids, he just turned away. He didn’t need any consummation other than a checkmark on his time sheet. The job was done. He turned around and ambled back up to Matt, who was several minutes behind.

I was glad to be comprehensively humiliated and scared. To be brought down with a whoo-whoop after a five-mile point on airy downland wouldn’t have taught me about being prey. It would have been like a greyhound race—a contest between two predators—in which I’d come off the worst. Being prey is never glorious.

Usually large prey species are killed quickly. Those epic hunts of caribou by wolves for many hours make good TV, but they are unusual. Usually wolves explode out of the trees, course for a few hundred yards, and then either kill or give up. That’s just how the thermodynamic arithmetic generally works.

Unlike wolves, staghounds don’t give up. That’s at the root of most reasoned opposition to stag hunting with hounds. Red deer, the argument goes, never evolved to be long-distance runners. They rarely had to be. They’re sprinters. But hunted deer on Exmoor run for an average of around twelve miles, and for around three hours. That, it’s said, is likely to exact a painful physiological price. If you’ve trained to run the hundred meters, it’s going to hurt to run a half marathon. There’s a loud, bitter debate about whether there is credible evidence of those physiological costs.

Hunted deer run for an average of around twelve miles, and for around three hours. That, it’s said, is likely to exact a painful physiological price. If you’ve trained to run the hundred meters, it’s going to hurt to run a half marathon.

Of course there is a physiological cost to pursuit: the animal is brought to bay precisely because it runs out of the funds necessary for continued payment. The cost is plainly more than when a high-speed projectile smashes up the heart of a grazing stag. And the physiological toll must have some “emotional” corollaries. (You leave those quote marks in or out, as you please.) There’s much more adrenaline surging through the hunted stag; its neurons are burning like the bars of an electric heater as the messages spurt through them. But whether that’s painful is a matter of definition and opinion. The membrane between pain and pleasure is often thin and sometimes invisible. Pain brings pleasure: as the tiring stag leaps over a farm gate, tearing some muscle fibers, its brain gets a euphoric, analgesic dose of endogenous opioids.

I’ve run long distances: sometimes fifty miles at a time, and then up the next morning to run a lot more, carrying all I need on my back. The cacophonous scream of the muscles is orchestrated by a masterly Mozartian brain into harmonies that are lovely—lovely because they chime with the frequencies of the rest of the wild. When I’ve crept, cramped, bleeding, and blistered, into a sleeping bag, I’ve always said: “So this is what legs are for, and this is what being alive feels like!”

This might be because I’m a masochistic pervert, in which case it’s unlikely to say much about hunted red deer. But that’s not necessarily the case.

I’d rather be killed outside, after fifteen heart-bursting miles, having tried every possible ruse: having taken the hounds plunging through pad-ripping gorse, with my having been tried and found wanting, with a good chance achingly forfeited, with my natural heroin beginning to pry my consciousness out of my throbbing head, with a splendid malicious hope of disemboweling a hound, with a look, through salt-stung eyes, through the haze to Wales, than be chewing cud, and then a thud and the dark.

But perhaps that’s just me. A quick, unreflective death (ideally, it seems, a catastrophic heart attack at dinner) is what everyone seems to want. It’s a fashion. A few generations ago people prayed to be saved from sudden death: they prayed for time; for context; for goodbyes; for the chance to take stock and to make memorable gestures. Now the prayer is to be spared all this: to be catapulted without warning into the void. Very odd.

Red deer, though, don’t have much idea about their own death. Timor mortis shouldn’t be added to the indictment against the staghunters. Hunted deer are fearful, but you can have fear without having a clear reason to be afraid, and indeed there are many reasons other than the fear of personal extinction to be afraid of snapping teeth.

Red deer are programmed to avoid danger, but in their definition of danger there’s no existential category, and so there’s no existential angst.

Fearing one’s own death and empathizing with the death of another aren’t the same thing: presumably death row psychopaths don’t go quietly into the night. But there’s an obvious connection. If deer were horrified by the sight of a dead deer, we could start to argue that they subjectively fear their own extinction. The fact that they’re not makes it hard even to begin the argument.

That’s not to say that the deaths of other animals are emotionally irrelevant. Herbivores have relationships with one another that no doubt have some emotional color. To kill an animal that has been part of the survivor’s life is to destroy an ecosystem. That’s bound to disturb. But it seems that with ruminants, horses, and pigs, the disturbance is not triggered by outraged empathy. Indeed, there’s little evidence that they’re empathic at all. They’re machines; islands; cold gene bearers.

C. S. Lewis remarked that if the reductionists were right, humans should not complain as they do about death. They should breezily accept it as something as natural as breath. “Do fish complain of the sea for being wet?” he asked. That humans complain about death was an indication for him that they weren’t designed to die. That red deer don’t complain about death is an indication that they are.

Morality, at least in part, is about the fulfillment of natural expectations. It’s less morally culpable to eat an herbivore than a carnivore. Herbivores expect it, and carnivores don’t.

In every culture there’s a taboo about eating carnivores. The shamans agree with Yahweh.

Excerpted from BEING A BEAST: Adventures Across the Species Divide by Charles Foster, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY, LLC.  Copyright © 2016 by Charles Foster.  All rights reserved.

Lead Photo: Courtesy of Charles Foster