As a northerner, I’ve come to relish the quirky differences in language, culture, and cuisine I have with Georgians when I’m in the South. I love Michigan beer, they love their biscuits. I love snowball fights, they love noodling for catfish. I enjoy a good stroopwafel, they love fried okra. Of course, it’s not that cut-and-dry, but you get the idea.

Sometimes, however, differences will surface that catch me off guard. During Abigail’s and my last visit to Georgia, I was talking with a cousin of hers about their life in rural Georgia and about raising pets on the land. Among other details of rural life, she told me about her pet chickens. Knowing my predisposition for all things bird, she told me about a hawk she’d seen—a particularly adventurous hawk that got a little too close to her chicken coop. 

One day, she looked out her window to see her chickens cowering to one side of the pen. There on the opposite side stood a hawk over the body of one of her chickens, eating what must have been a gourmet hawk lunch. 

“It killed just one of my chickens, and then it flew off,” she said. “But it came back, and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to get rid of it, so I went out and threw rocks at it but it just wouldn’t leave. It just stared at me. This was a mean bird. It just looked mean in its eyes.” 

She continued, “I tried throwing rocks at it, but when that didn’t work I went out and got those fake owls to scare it off. I think it could tell they were fake because it kept coming back.”

But then she hesitated, ended her story abruptly, and started to pick a new topic of conversation.

“Wait, so what did you end up doing? How did you keep your chickens from getting killed?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“Well … we shot it with a .22 rifle. See, I didn’t want to tell you that part since I know you like birds.” 

“What!?” I yelped with too much gusto. I had genuinely thought she was going to say that she built a more protective coop or put bird netting over the enclosure to keep out the hawk, but not this.

“Dang,” I said, trying to hide how obviously disappointed I was. “I mean, you know that’s highly illegal, right? Like there are big fines for that. I mean, you really can’t do that.”

I was torn. I wanted her to like me since she’s a member of Abigail’s family I don’t see often, and I wanted to save face, to not make her feel bad at an already difficult time for the family. 

“Wow. Man, I can’t … I can’t sympathize with that,” I stammered out awkwardly. I had no idea what to say. “My strategy for these kinds of things is to first make your space as un-welcoming to the creature as possible before killing anything, you know?”

“Oh is it? Yeah…” she said, a warble of guilt in her voice. “That’s just how we get rid of pests in the country, I guess”.

My face was warm and red, and my pits were starting to sweat good. What could I say? How could I convince her that shooting hawks is a really big deal? How could I articulate the value of predators, of birds or prey in general, in a way that connected with her? I had no good answer. I was drawing a blank. I felt ashamed for not being able to stand up for a cause I believe in but also pinned in a position where it wasn’t my place to be lecturing about the environmental movement.

We changed the subject. Another cousin brought up the owls that live around her house and how she was dive-bombed once when taking out the trash one night. She scared the owl off with a nerf gun. I laughed and felt relieved to move on.

Long after the story of the hawk shooting had passed, the exchange of dialogue rattled around in my head. Why was that her impulse—to shoot the bird? How can I help guide people away from making that kind of decision? What could I have said to her that I didn’t?

The act of killing a bird of prey is illegal and comes with a hefty fine. Depending on the state, fines can range upwards of $10,000 and can also pose jail time of up to six months. By all accounts, this is a serious crime to commit. Still, it’s common knowledge that in rural areas killing a hawk to protect one’s chickens is pretty normal. The mantra for dealing with predators is summarized succinctly by the three S’s: shoot, shovel, and shut up. 

Of course, there’s no law that can really prevent us from killing predators, just like there is no law that can prevent racism, classism, poverty, or any of our human brokenness. Punishment simply does not have the power to cause us to live in a way that reflects the better angels of our nature. 

Angela Davis says it well in Abolition Democracy: “We naturally assume that justice and equality are necessarily produced through the law. But the law on its own cannot create justice and equality.” 

We need the law—I’m not saying we should do away with it. But at some point, we have to move away from laws and punishments and get to the heart of the matter.

At some point, we have to talk about love.

We have to talk about how a hawk soars on a summer breeze or about its binocular, eight-times-magnification vision or about its talons, perfectly shaped for grasping rabbits and squirrels, or about the joy a hawk overhead brings to a kid just starting to meet the creatures with which she shares the planet.

We could also talk about the intuitive fact that hawks keep the rabbit population in check, which allows grasses to grow taller, providing more food for plant-eating insects, which are in turn consumed by chickens.

A hawk is not just a hawk. It is a touchpoint to a web of interdependence—a member of a family of living things, to which you and I, dear reader, and every other breathing, moving, responding-to-stimuli thing belongs. We share life, an endlessly miraculous and preciously fragile thing.

And yet, a hawk is indeed a hawk—and gloriously so! Its hawkiness swells from its every attribute and action, reflecting the great Creator himself, like a Picasso reflecting the painter’s genius. 

Before pulling the trigger, isn’t there a part of us that feels this connection with living things? Or have we become so desensitized to death that we no longer flinch at the thought of snuffing out a life?

By no means am I exempt from this death desensitization. For example, I regularly eat meat without much hesitation—though I try to eat more plants. In this pursuit of discerning how to live a good life, perfection isn’t the goal; the pursuit of it leads all too easily toward pride and disappointment. Rather, a better goal might be pursuing joy, which comes naturally when we dwell on the beauty of the living things we’re called to love.

In the end, it’s love that holds us together, love that teaches us restraint, love that offers the only way forward.

 

Photo by Wendy Miller, licensed under CC-BY.

9 Comments

  1. Cotter Koopman

    Kinda beside the point but something I read (I think in “Are Prisons Obsolete”) that’s forever stuck in my brain is that there’s a centrally American assumption that the only way to discourage something is to criminalize it. But like you write, laws don’t work like that (and create many of the associated problems with the prison system…) and to operate differently takes imagination and love. Thanks for this

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Cotter, thanks for adding to the dialogue. I’ve really only skimmed the surface of Angela Davis’ writing so I’ll add this one to the list. I really like that you say “imagination” here; I think that captures a sort-of whimsical-ness that’s necessary in conversations like this, too.

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    Love it Jon! Love you Jon!
    Living in a land of liberty takes a lot of self discipline and character. Unfortunately our law books grow thicker every year and character is a lost trait. We need to build our character first before we try to govern others.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Thanks for reading, Uncle Russ. Your comment makes me think of David Brooks’ “The Road to Character,” that discusses a similar theme of working inward before defining what is right and wrong for others. It is worth the read if you haven’t read it yet!

      Reply
  3. Avatar

    Thanks for sharing this with us all.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Thank you for reading, Deanna. I hope you and your quail are doing well (I saw them on social media ;), and that they are living their best quail lives.

      Reply
  4. Kyric Koning

    One aspect of love is its trying to understand, which can be difficult to grasp at times. While I certainly don’t condone the shooting of a hawk (and not strictly because of the legality), your cousin was placed in a precarious position: which love is greater? The love for her chickens, her livelihood (or at least her interest), or love for the hawk, a predator with its own purpose and place in the environment (which in the moment might be a little tricky to see)? Definitely she could have worked harder to be more loving, to come up with a creative way to care for both. The question is, are we willing?

    You ask that yourself, in this piece. And as you try to find an answer, we as readers also need to better ask ourselves, try to find an answer. Love is something we could all use more of. Your closing remarks are especially thought provoking.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Kyric, thanks for this thoughtful and helpful response. This was a tender subject, writing about family like this, and I worry that I did not do so with as much grace as I would have liked! I like how you acknowledge my cousin’s “precarious position” of feeling cornered to decide which love is greater. I think that’s an excellent question to ask.

      Reply
  5. Avatar

    The first thing I thought of after reading this article was actually how very Confucian it is! Confucianism generally holds that right action and good government should emanate out from virtuous inner character and moral leaders/officials. Nurture the good in people and right action and societal harmony will follow, says Mencius. However, this runs up against Legalism, another major strand of Chinese philosophy, which says right behavior and order can only be achieved through strong laws and harsh punishments. I love how your article recognizes the tension of both belief systems as they exist in tandem. If there’s a sort of balance scale at work in our society now, I agree with you that we need more love and care.

    Reply

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