Max Christoffersen: A story about a bird

A shag sunning its wings in the summer heat.
LUKE APPLEBY/FAIRFAX NZ

A shag sunning its wings in the summer heat.

OPINION: I fancied myself once as a coastal man alone. Something of an urban-PC-wannabe Barry Crump.

It seems strange to remember it today, but when I was young and alone, I enjoyed catching kahawai in the Whangamata estuary. I would set a net and wait and come back to take home my fish for tea.

On this day I went down to pull my net in, all the while believing I was some kind of Robinson Crusoe from Hamilton, a survivor against the odds, alone at the coast.

I went down to pull in my fish and I walked out to the net with the sound of birds in the trees, the sunny sparkle of the estuary waters and the feeling of being in touch with the curious ethereal spirit that is always in the air at Whangamata.

But this day would be different. What happened next would break me.

As I pulled the net in, it was obvious something big was caught. The net was weighed down more than usual. Whatever it was, I thought it might make for another meal later in the week.

As I got closer to the middle of the net it still wasn't budging. I felt under the water line to see what was caught. What I found broke my heart.

Twisted in the net lines was a shag. He was after the same estuary fish I was, but he had become entangled in my net. This beautiful bird had drowned and I had caused it.

He was twisted in a mess of beautiful feathers and nylon netting. It took time to untangle him. He had fought for his life and died trying to get away from my indulgent attempt at self sufficiency.

I buried him in the sand and tried to make peace with the spirits of the land and water that flutter around Whangamata estuary. I felt I had done a great wrong and it couldn't be undone.

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I sat on the shores of the estuary and I knew I would never fish again. I had killed something by accident and it didn't need to die.

I write today about the needless death of this black and white shag 30 years ago, as a way of showing respect for the animals that are a deliberately forgotten part of hunting culture.

I write because it's that time of year. It's duck season.

It's the time when people with no business owning a gun licence kill for fun. They don't kill to eat, they kill because they like killing. More ducks will be shot than eaten this season. It's an inconvenient truth that hunting isn't what it used to be.

In today's hunting, shooting, fishing environment, it seems respect for animals is a rare attitude. Injured, maimed animals that die painful deaths having been "winged" are accepted by hunters as merely collateral damage.

Meanwhile, reports of swans, herons, shags and protected species being shot for fun by gun-toting idiots and left behind in piles are discussed in hunting forums away from the critical eyes of the public.

The denial of the cruelty of hunting is evidence of a profoundly disturbed killing culture. And it didn't used to be this way. There used to be animal empathy in the hunting fraternity. Not any more.

The seriousness of accidents and near misses is also a rising concern. The latest in the Hunters Hall of Shame of New Zealand hunting accidents is the man preparing his shotgun for duck-shooting season who instead shot his wife – while still at home.

It confuses hunters to learn I was raised in a house with guns. It was normal to experience the smell of goat pelts being cured and watch ammunition being reloaded in spent shell cases. I grew up around hunting culture, but found no inspiration in animal death.

Today, like so many other areas of life, hunting has been commoditised. Guns are sold like toys. Hunting is now family entertainment done in dress-ups.

Seasoned hunters mock the townies "doing the Camo-Rambo" routine instead of being seen safe in bright high-viz colours (or blue).

The first giveaway of the changing culture is the marketing speak that dominates the public presentation of hunting. Publicly, the hunting narrative is polite and positive. Killing is now an act of socially acceptable "harvesting" rather than entertainment as animal slaughter.

It had to change. No one buys hunting as sport any more. Today it's sold as being about sustainable ecology and family values – it is neither of these things. Animal empathy as a life lesson is seldom raised for family discussion when the guns are fired.

I have been back to the Whangamata estuary. The voices of the hills still whisper as if to remind me of the past. I never fished there again.

Today I rejoice when I see a shag sunning his wings in the summer heat. It is a reminder of the colour of life and that afternoon at Whangamata that changed everything.

I celebrate animals and wait for the day when hunting will be seen for what it really is, animal abuse dressed up as conservation.

Fly high, ducks. Fly long.

 - Stuff

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