I was unprepared for what I ran into at the next tent, in front of which looked like red and gray fox skins drying on a rack. A small crowd had gathered, and a Rendezvouzer was introducing 90-year-old trapper Jake, a wiry old codger in a buckskin shirt and brown pants. A local school district official was there with his family, and Jake was about to show them and the rest of us how to skin a beaver. Two of that species were lying on the ground; one had been in deep-freeze for some time, but Jake picked up a fresh kill, one who’d been making a nuisance of him or herself at a local residence lately.
Let me now reveal something of my inner nature: I’m a complete failure as a carnivore, and a pathetic excuse for an omnivore. I once tried to whack a gopher on the head with a shovel, and when its eyes met mine, its little body shivering in pure terror (it was soaking wet because I’d flooded its home underneath our vegetable garden), my killer instinct vanished as my nurse-to-be compassion flooded in. I let the raised shovel drop down to my side. "Go!" I told the eater of most of my pea plants in a choked up voice, "and don’t come back," I finished weakly in a state of emotional exhaustion. The funny thing was, it never did, and neither did any of its extended family. As time went on, I came to believe that meat-eaters really ought to be able to kill the ones they eat. Yes, I’m living in hypocrisy; I should be a vegetarian. But husband Bob has killed many gophers in his time, and I do like the taste of meat, so…life and death goes on.
Trapper Jake chatted with us for a few minutes before he got down to business. He’d had his share of confrontations with animal rights activists, and was dumbfounded by what he perceived as their hypocrisy. "I don’t enjoy killing animals; I only kill predators and nuisances." For at 90, he is still for hire and good at what he does. He first cut off the beaver’s extremities, showing us the webbing between the digits of the large hind feet that helps to make the beaver such a good swimmer. Then, with sure steady hands, he began to expertly remove the skin from the beaver. Methodically, and also using his increasingly bloody hands as he spoke to emphasize or illustrate his speech, the beaver was slowly separated from its skin. Expressions of those watching ranged from fascination to disgust. I remained for the entire skinning, taking pictures, clinically interested and more fascinated than disgusted. Jake took time to remove and show us the perineal glands, which contain castorium, the extract of which is used as a scent to attract more beaver to trap. Once done, Jake proudly held up the skin. He told us an excellent stew can be made from the meat. Without washing his hands, he went inside his tent and grabbed his old beaver coat to model it for us.
I have no argument with Jake. He started trapping when he was 7 years old, helping his immigrant Russian parents. He’s pragmatic and down to earth about what he does, a good storyteller with a mischievous glint in his eye. He’s not disrespectful of the life he killed, yet the part of me that’s read many books by and about indigenous peoples would like to see some kind of ceremonial showing of respect, some kind of giving back or thanks for the life taken and used. But who am I to know that doesn’t go on within his own soul in the privacy of his mind?