“I’m just calling to mentally prepare you for when you get home”, my wife said over the phone. These are not the words one wants to hear after a long day of work. In the grand scheme, as it turns out, things could have been much worse. No one was hurt. The house was still standing. We had accumulated no new pets. But, my wife, knowing me as she does, understood how poorly I handle inconveniences and hassles at the end of the day. So, I appreciated the warning.
It seemed our stand-up freezer in the garage had gone on the blink and had apparently done so a couple days before since nearly everything had thawed and our garage smelled like the inside of a turkey vulture on this hot summer day. Like those of many people, our freezer had contained things which should have been tossed long ago—a six-year old package of tater tots, freezer-burnt green beans, and the over-ripe bananas my wife saved to make banana bread a year or two ago. The freezer also contained items that were perfectly fine—meat, sweet corn, ice cream, and a twenty year-old slice of wedding cake.
I’ll spare the gory details and descriptions of the malodorous fumes wafting from the dormant freezer as I proceeded to clean it out. The worst thing about this incident for me was the loss of the redfish, sea trout, and deer meat I had stored. I was grieved by the loss. It was such a waste and the fact that these were once wild, living creatures I had personally removed from the world made the loss cut deeper.
As it turns out, it wasn’t the freezer at all. There was an electrical problem with the outlet. The freezer itself was fine. After the outlet was repaired, we plugged in the freezer and it fired right back up again. Since it was summer, I was able to replenish our stores of redfish and trout pretty quickly. But, I would have to wait until Fall to stock up on deer meat again. It would be a long, hot summer without deer “poppers”-a succulent, bite-size piece of cubed venison backstrap wrapped in bacon and grilled to perfection. My youngest daughter and I relish these on 4th of July, Labor Day, and any other day that offers an excuse to consume this savory delicacy.
When deer season rolled around I went to the orchard late one afternoon to climb the rungs of the deer-stand attached to a tall pine tree bordering the symmetrical rows of the pecan orchard. After a summer of mowing, spraying, repairing irrigation, and countless other tasks involved in maintaining the orchard, it was nice to simply stroll through the trees, taking note of the their growth and admiring the stand of clover beginning to emerge through the grass. Once in my stand, I bolted a round in the chamber of the same scratched and dinged Ruger .270 I’ve hunted with for over 20 years, set my binoculars down next to me on the wide, expanded metal seat, and pulled out my field notebook where I take note of the date, time, weather conditions, and animal activity I see and hear. I can’t help it. This obsession with writing things down.
It was only the second day of the season. The October weather here in south Georgia was still warm and the sun would linger above the horizon for a while yet. I took note of the pine warblers and chickadees fluttering and foraging around me. Cotton combines rumbled and hummed in the distance. Occasionally a pickup rattled down the dirt road several hundred yards behind me, kicking up a cloud of dust that rolled away across the fields.
As the sun finally fell below the tops of the pines, the day’s warmth cooled and shade enveloped the orchard. A great-horned owl called from somewhere deep in the wooded head of timber across the cotton field to the East. Back to the West I noticed a deer emerge from the orange and yellow blanket of wildflowers I planted on the outside edge of the orchard. Then another, smaller deer appeared. And another. A doe and two yearlings.
Feeding independently on the newly sprouted clover, the deer eased further into the orchard. As I watched, I noticed something different about this doe. Her foreleg was swollen to the size of a softball at the knee joint and she had a slight limp. Not enough to hinder her ability to move around as she needed, but noticeable.
I had come to the orchard in search of a doe for my freezer, but I preferred not to shoot one with yearlings hanging around, which many do at that time of year. The yearlings were old enough to fend for themselves and they would likely be run off anyway when the doe was ready to breed, but I just didn’t have the heart for it that day. I’ve hunted for most of my life but the killing doesn’t get easier with time and experience. The yearlings just make it that much harder, at least on this day. So, I contented myself with watching these animals feed on clover and wild turnips until the sun sank beyond the horizon.
People hunt for all sorts of reasons. There are those who hunt out of blood lust, an unconscious yearning for barbarism to feel they can exert dominance over something. These are the braggarts who hunt horns and nothing more. Those who’s goal it is to kill as many of whatever animal they are pursuing as is humanly possible, limits be damned. They are the ones who hunt more for the interaction with their guns than to interact with the natural world. They are the ones you will find trespassing and hunting with a spotlight on dark nights. These people are out there. As much as today’s commercial hunting culture tries to pretend they’re not, they’re out there. Every group of people has its black sheep.
But by and large, though it seems strange to many people who do not hunt, most hunters care deeply about the natural world and the animals they are there to hunt. Aside from filling my freezer, one of the goals of my hunting is to serve as a means, however meagerly, of managing the deer population on the farm. Perhaps there’s some arrogance or delusion in that thought. Perhaps to some extent, its one of those things we like to tell ourselves. But, the fact remains that in the absence of large predators, we are left to fill this role to some degree. As such, for some of us, hunting becomes a responsibility. In order to do so, one must view it from the standpoint of ecological science, conditioning oneself to consider the population rather than the individual animal. But, unless one has a stone heart and veins of ice, there is always that twinge of sadness borne out of respect for the living world, when it comes down to the kill.
Although care of the land is an important piece of why I hunt, it is the quiet part of the day for which I come here. I am here, not only for meat to feed my body, but for the nourishing of my soul. There is something in the blending of these two. I am here to share in the slow, secret acts of the natural world. A blue jay’s feather lying on the ground in bold color against earthy brown leaves. The pappus-clad seeds of golden rod floating in the glow of a late evening sunbeam. Ladybeetles clustering together in the crevices of bark. The things we are too often too busy or distracted to take notice of. The things that only reveal themselves when we are awakened to the ancient senses heightened by stillness, patience, and a shedding of self-consciousness and over-analyzation. It is a place governed by diurnal patterns and seasonal change. By the living, breathing, indifferent world. A place populated by wind and trees and soil. A place filled with small flocks of brush-dwelling birds who are comforted by my melting away into the trees and the land. It is a requirement. The stillness must come so the scales can fall from our eyes, revealing the world without us. There are other reasons for which I come here. But this is the main one. As Rachel Carson wrote, “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature.”
I returned to the same stand about 5 days later and had made up my mind to take any doe, even one with yearlings tagging behind, if given the opportunity. It was a warm day, bright and sunny. Hunting deer in the farmland of south Georgia is much different from hunting deer on large tracs of forested land. The animals are familiar with people, vehicle traffic, farm equipment, and the sounds and smells of agriculture. Throughout the countryside deer emerge from their bedding areas and feed at the edges of fields and orchards in the crepuscular hours like clockwork. Does and yearlings arrive first. Then the young bucks, easily identified by their small, skinny antlers and slim bodies. They are much like teenage boys, with about as much sense. Mature bucks are much less predictable and are more likely to only show themselves during daylight hours when searching for or following a doe at the height of their hormonal fury, which was still at least 3 weeks away.
Sure enough, the same swollen-kneed doe and her two yearlings emerged from the golden glow of the wildflower patch across the orchard only five minutes later in the day than they had five days before. They worked their way to within about 200 yards of me, within range, but there was no reason to take a long shot as they were feeding toward me between the tree rows. So, I waited and watched and tried to block out thoughts of the two yearlings.
After about 10 minutes the doe had eased away from the yearlings who were out of sight behind the trees. Knowing the tree rows were fifty feet apart, it was easy to tell when the doe got to within 100 yards simply by counting the tree rows. She turned broadside. I took aim and fired. The doe hopped, spun in a circle in mid-air, and headed for the edge of the pine trees to the north. But she would not make it and fell about 60 yards short of the end of the pecan rows.
I felt the immediate rush of adrenaline, followed by the glimmer of solemn sadness that tends to swallow me each time this happens. As expected, the two yearlings startled and followed the doe. When she went down they acted confused, unsure of what to do. “Why is she laying down?”, they seemed to be thinking. For a few minutes, the yearlings refused to leave. I hate when this happens. A few moments later an 8-point appeared seemingly out of nowhere. He also lingered near the dead doe, sniffed her repeatedly, and moved on. Eventually the confused yearlings did as well. All was quiet.
Fifteen minutes later I climbed down and made my way across the orchard to the deer, giving thanks with each step. When I reached her, I ran my hand across here smooth coat, rubbed her head and solemnly paid my respects. Later, upon examining her more closely, my eyes fell upon the doe’s swollen knee where two perfectly parallel puncture wounds were located in the center of the swollen joint. It looked, for all the world, to me, like a snake bite. After marveling at the rarity of finding such a curiosity, if indeed it was a snake bite, my mind began to wander to the possibility that if so, and if the snake were venomous, what is the possibility that the venom could cause harm if I ate the meat from this deer? How commonly do deer encounter snakes and what happens when they do?
With these burning questions searing a hole in my brain, I first did what anyone would do in the 21st Century. I googled it. With so much information at our fingertips today, we expect to find the answer to anything on-line. It has become our go-to gut instinct. But, I was shocked to learn, this particular question has not been adequately addressed by the collective wisdom of man found in the ether-regions. Oh, there were a handful of comments from various hunting and outdoorsy type message boards but I was struck by the total absence of authoritative resources on eating the meat of a snake-bitten animal.
Here in the Georgia Coastal Plain the only venomous snakes of real concern are rattlesnakes (Eastern Diamondback and Timber) and the cottonmouth water moccasin. Copperheads are less common south of the Fall Line. All of these species belong to the group of snakes known as pit vipers. They produce hemotoxic venom, which breaks down blood cells, blood vessels, and tissues, preventing the blood from clotting. This can lead to hemorrhaging throughout the circulatory system. Some rattlesnake populations, such as the timber rattlers south of I-10, in addition to producing hemotoxic venom, are believed to have a relatively high concentration of neurotoxic venom compared to their Northern relatives.
Most of the on-line pseudo-experts on the topic of eating potentially envenomated meat suggest that such venom can only harm a person if injected into the bloodstream. After all, snakes eat envenomated meat all the time, right? One person did caveat this information by suggesting you could be affected if the venom entered your bloodstream through an ulcer, cut, or sore in the mouth, which would provide entry into the bloodstream. Ok, makes sense. Some suggested that a deer bitten on the leg would be safe to eat because there is so little meat and vascular tissue in the leg itself. All plausible arguments. But, somehow, I question the credibility of guys calling themselves “DeerCommander” or “Bob Killmaster”.
One on-line article written by a cattle veterinarian stated most snake bites of cattle occur on the lower extremities, which show up as a swollen leg. The biggest problems resulting from such bites occurs from the infection of those tissues. Snakes, it seems also harbor a lot of nasty bacteria in their mouths. Don’t we all. Oddly, nowhere in the article was there mention of whether or not it was safe to eat the rest of the cow.
In my quest for more knowledge on this topic I learned there is a restaurant in Guangdong, China famous for its delectable serving of chicken killed by snake-bite. Customers apparently love the dish and the restaurant owner claims it keeps the human body warm and clears blood vessels. There’s even a video out there of a cook, grasping a snake firmly behind the head, forcing it to bite a live chicken in his kitchen.
There was one report from South Africa in which 50 people developed gastrointestinal issues after consuming meat from a cow initially thought to have been snake-bitten. Later investigation suggested the more likely cause was simply rotten meat.
When one falls into an internet worm hole such as this, all sorts of things pop up. Apparently there are very few documented encounters of snake-deer interactions. Some claim deer are simply immune to snake-bite, a claim which I doubt but of which I am uncertain. After all, opossums are known to harbor a protein in their blood which protects them from rattlesnake, cottonmouth, and copperhead venom. Most who claim to have seen encounters between deer and snakes report that the deer usually come out on top by stomping the snake to death. As one fellow, calling himself “Longhunter” put it, deer will stomp the living doo-doo out of a snake.
One of the most interesting reports of snake-deer interactions can be found in the on-line manuscripts of Silas Claiborne Turnbo, a farmer and newspaperman who lived in Ozark county, Missouri during the latter half of the 19th century and into the early 1900s. Turnbo reports that “Old Jim Barnette”, while hunting on the West side of Little North Fork saw four deer kill a rattlesnake by leaping into the air and closing their legs together just before landing on the snake one at a time and then bounding away. In this manner, Uncle Jim claimed, the deer cut the snake to pieces with their hooves.
My friend, Matthew, also has another friend who retired as one of the world’s leading whitetail deer biologists. Dr. Larry Marchinton founded the University of Georgia Deer Lab, and among other things, was the first person to put a radio-tracking collar on a deer. He was also instrumental in the discovery that deer have only two cones in their eyes (as opposed to three in humans). This is significant because cones allow us to see in color. Deer lack the cone which is sensitive to long wavelengths of light, such as red and orange. This essentially makes them red-green color-blind. The discovery led to the widespread use of the famous hunter orange which protects hunters in the woods from their own kind.
Seeking further advice, I had Matthew ask Dr. Marchinton if it would be safe to eat the deer. A practical man, Dr. Marchinton replied, “Is he going hungry?” “No”, Matthew answered. “Can he shoot more deer?” “Yes”, said Matthew. “Well, tell him if he’s worried about it, don’t eat that one. Just shoot another.” “That sort of worried me”, Matthew told me later. “He’ll usually eat anything.”
So, finding no definitive answers to satisfy my curiosity, I turned to good, old-fashioned logic. Snake venom is a slurry of enzymes and proteins. One of the first things you learn about the building blocks of life in Biology 101 is that heat denatures (destroys or changes) proteins. When you get this specific, there are answers to be found.
Because the components of various forms of venom have been investigated for their pharmaceutical properties, there have been studies that examine the effects of heat on venom. Though we won’t delve too deeply into chemistry here, high molecular weight proteins tend to be more affected by heating than low molecular weight proteins. The venom of some cobra species are of a low molecular weight and are relatively heat stable as are the venoms of certain species of Asian vipers. However, most snake venoms, including that of many rattlesnake and North American viper species lose their hemmorhagic activity when heated to about 212 degrees F for as little as 5 minutes.
To be clear, I’m not 100 percent sure the deer was snake-bitten. It appeared so, superficially, but there’s no way to know for certain. The doe could have snagged her leg on a barb-wire fence, or who knows what other mischief deer can get into. Still, since it was a possibility, I felt much better considering the denaturing effect involved in the cooking of the meat. In the end, my freezer is full again. We have consumed the meat from the deer in question, this venomosin, in the form of ground deer-burger, deer sausage, and those wonderful grilled deer poppers with no ill effects.
Oddly, I found an issue of even greater concern in this whole experience. It got me pondering our reliance on the internet for answers and where that leads us today. There’s no mistake it can be a wonderful thing to have so much information at our fingertips. The problem is that there is too much information from too many places. In such a system, misinformation can easily overwhelm fact. I also fear we are losing our ability to filter out the good from the bad. It distorts our thinking. It makes minds lazy and weak so that we are hesitant to use the sense we’ve got. As Annie Dillard put it, “I could be connected to the outer world by reason, if I chose, or I could yield to what amounted to a narrative fiction.” My own reliance on google for the answer took away a part of my experience as a thinking human being. It felt good to reclaim that. Just as it feels good to sit in a tree from time to time and melt into the world without us.
2 thoughts on “Venomosin”
Good storytelling. I would have assumed that if you drained the deer and then cooked the meat, you’d be safe (now what if they were bite by a coral snake?).
Thanks for your thoughtful words. Hunting seems necessary to me; as we have usurped the role of apex predator, we need to usurp their functions, as well. Doing this with heart and mind is our best method. And snake venom! No poisonous snakes here. (U.P. Michigan.) Yay!