Dressing My First Deer Cut Me to the Core
While on a hunting trip in Germany, I got up close and personal with Franz Joseph—not the Austrian emperor, but a majestic old stag who lived his life in a deer park.
Welcome back to our column Hunter/Gatherer, in which we showcase the resourceful—and hungry—people who gather wild food sources without the help of the grocery store. Photographer and writer Isabella Rozendaal is back with a dispatch from her project, Isabella Hunts, in which she follows hunters from different cultures around the world.
Last week, Isabella wrote about hunting wild boar in the pitch-black forests of Germany. Read the first part of her story here.
We tear back to the farm and Sjoerd mentions that he has received a text from his friend, who is stationed in a blind a couple of fields over. According to the text, Franz Joseph is down—"a joke, obviously," he says. Finishing a hunt in a matter of 15 minutes rarely occurs, and we can hardly believe it just happened to us. But as we drive past his hunting blind, we notice the hunter's car is gone. Why would he leave so soon if he hadn't shot anything? And who is Franz Joseph anyway? When we get to the farm, we pull up to the garage. Every hunter is gathered around an enormous body suspended from the ceiling. The neck and head are draped on the floor while gargantuan antlers jut out across the room. Today was Franz Joseph's last day.
Franz Joseph was a majestic old stag who lived his life in a deer park. As a young buck, he took charge of his herd, and he was promptly named after the old Austrian emperor. After a long, prosperous life, he somehow managed to escape his enclosure. The local authorities then put out a message to hunters in the area to make sure that someone would take him down, because unfortunately, his familiarity with humans made him a notorious hazard on the road.
Franz Joseph dwarfs the space like a horse in a living room. This world is not to his scale, and the sheer size of him renders him mythical. I can't help but hold my breath in awe. I have never identified with hunters who measure their worth by the size of their prey, but I have to admit that this adds a whole new level of excitement to the idea that I will be the one to dress him.
In my head, I go through the steps we took to dress that roe deer earlier today, and I figure—save for a few details—it's exactly the same procedure. But when someone hands me a knife, I become acutely aware that if I want to get inside his belly and remove his organs, the first step is to sever the penis that obstructs my access.
Somehow, it's different with a room full of hunters watching me. Roughly speaking, the insides of Franz Joseph are no different from those of a mouse, but because he's so big, it's like someone put a magnifying glass on the practice and now I really get the full impact of what it is I'm doing. There's nothing to do but to take a breath and grab on.
The fur makes it hard to discern his exact phallic dimensions, but when I wrap my hand around him, my eyes widen in shock: it feels like I'm holding an erect human penis in a coarse fur coat.
It is exactly the girth of an average human's, and I'm not sure if I should throw up, blush, or have a fit of giggles. There's no backing out now, so I lift up the shaft, cut through the skin, and slide the knife underneath it. I am now holding it like a suitcase handle. I slide the knife further down through the skin, working my way down his belly. I have to use quite some force now. I think this blade must be dull. I go down, and down, and further down—to the point where I start to feel intimidated. About halfway down the curved belly, I reach the tip and cut through the skin.
The penis now hangs from his body like a human's. I don't want to spend any time contemplating what's happening here, so I grab it firmly and sever it at the base. I want to do it decisively, with a clean cut, but the flesh resists the dull blade and I have to hack until I make it through. With each hack, I feel the men around me suck in their breath.
Once severed from his body, the deer's penis seems to have lost its mythical power. It even seems smaller, floppy, and insignificant. I cast it aside and continue the work. From this point on, Franz Joseph is just another carcass. It's a surprisingly clean affair, with hardly any blood spilling out. The organs are each wrapped in elegant packages of connective tissue that are easily nudged apart with just a nick of the blade and a bit of pressure in the right places. When you know where to move your knife, the insides of a body unfold at your fingertips with origami precision. It's chilling to see how simple and delicate our own construction is.
Because of his size, the operation takes some time. By the time I've worked my way down to his chest, my hands are getting cold and stiff, and I want to be done already. There's a beer waiting for me back in the cabin and I can't wait to get to it. In my rush, I nick my finger and blood flows freely into his flesh. I've been sliced open by the knife that I thought was so dull, and I didn't even feel it. Franz Joseph, you are now my reluctant blood brother.
Franz Joseph's body is hoisted up and weighed in at 133 kilos cleaned. A steaming pile of offal sits in a bucket beside him. The crowd gathers around him and Jaap, our jachtmeester, begins his speech. Traditionally in Germany, hunts are concluded with a series of rituals. The animals are honored in the order they were shot, and Jaap addresses their hunters one by one. He talks about the circumstances and execution of the hunt, complimenting them on their competence where they showed it, but scolding them like a schoolboy if they showed poor judgment. After this evaluation, he hands the hunter a small pine branch, which they solemnly place underneath their hat as a token of their success, and he warmly shakes their hands while saying "waidmannsheil," to which the hunter replies "waidmannsdank." It's not easy to pinpoint the origins of this tradition, but it is practiced all over Germany, and variations of it in countries to the (south)east as well. It is meant as a moment to reflect on the death of these animals, and as contradictory as it may sound, to honor them. Often preceded by a few rounds of Jäger, it can be an emotional moment, especially when the hounds start howling along.
Dutch hunters adhere to these traditions as well, especially when they visit Germany, which they often do. The Dutch identify much more with the German style of hunting than the French: the Germans are seen as more ethical hunters than the French, and they offer forests full of big game close to home. Holland is so densely populated that big game territory is mostly restricted to a handful of nature reserves. It's great for hunting birds, and there is a fair amount of roe deer to be had, but for big game, the Dutch head east and hunt in the style of their hosts.
The last one up is the young guy who shot Franz Joseph. This was his first deer, and that deserves a bit more pomp and circumstance than just a twig and a handshake. Jaap runs his hand through a bucket beside him and smears his soft, round face with thick, dark blood, which lights up like it's his fifth birthday.
After each hunter is addressed, a young woman in the group blows her horn, a different song for each animal. Jaap announces that this concludes the official part of the day's events, and it's time to head inside for the unofficial part. I assume this just means it's finally time for beer, but I am dead wrong.
With everyone around the table back inside the cabin,the bloodied hunter is subjected to one final ritual. It culminates in him having to drink a large beer stein filled with a revolting mixture of apple juice and shots from whatever liquor bottle was within reach–sloe gin, jäger, jenever–while the crowd cheers him on. This part of the ritual is something I've never witnessed before, but just like the blood-smeared face, it is performed at the occasion of every hunter's first deer.
To make me feel welcome, they have come up with an initiation rite for the dressing of my first big animal. It's an adaptation of the traditional Jägerprufung. This is a test that German hunters take after their first few years of hunting, to show that they are worthy of being called a hunter. I am expected to answer ten questions about the hunt and for each answer I get wrong, I have to take a shot of alcohol.
I don't remember all the questions, but I got six of them wrong. And as if it's not bad enough that I find jäger liqueurs revolting, each shot is poured from a different bottle, some of which are home-brewed by Jaap. How old was Franz Joseph at the time of his death? Thirteen, apparently. What exactly are the duties of a jachtopziener? I had no idea that that was just another word for jachtmeester. I manage to save my honor by correctly anwering that the reason why the petite roe deer has a ten-month gestation period is that their embryonic development is halted during the winter months through a mechanism called "delayed implantation."
For my last shot, a bottle is brought out that has a piece of fruit floating inside it that vaguely resembles a pear but strongly reminds me of a deformed baby in formaldehyde. Cries of disgust sound from the room. Apparently, this bottle is notorious. I throw back the shot and the crowd cheers—probably because they finally get to drink now. The merrymaking begins, and four beers later, I call it a night.
The next morning starts with what feels like a standard, classic hangover. It gets exponentially more terrible. I throw up. I throw up again, repeatedly and violently. I can't move without throwing up. I shower and I lie down again. Then I throw up again. It's so bad, I need Max to come in and pack my remaining things. We get into the car and I stretch out in the back. He drives carefully on the winding roads, but it's no use—in no time, I'm heaving into a bag again. After almost a year of trying to be a dignified teacher to this boy, his final task as my intern is carrying bags of vomit out of the car as he takes me home.
Two days later, I look through all my pictures to relive the day. I am especially fascinated with the ones that Max took of me. The butchering made an impression while I did it, to be sure. But seeing myself doing it through someone else's eyes makes me relive it with a completely different intensity. I look back at them again and again, smiling uncontrollably. I text them to my friends. Franz Joseph hanging from the ceiling, a portrait of me with bloody hands, I can't tear away my eyes. I try to make sense of this sensation and can honestly compare it to only one thing: the day after a first kiss. I have to admit, my reaction scares me a little.
Despite all my talk of penis and bodily fluids, nothing about this experience has been sexual, but it was visceral, and animal, and it woke up a part of me that is soundly asleep during office hours. To eat meat is to commune with another body, and I think every carnivore stands to gain something by learning this.