McKean Minute: Feeding ‘Demetri’

My family and I have a hunting-season tradition. After we’ve butchered an animal—whitetail, mule deer, antelope, or even elk—we drive the meatless carcass out in a pasture on our place where there’s a giant willow tree along a creek bank.

We unload the carcass—the rattling white cages of ribs with ledges where backstraps once rippled, the unjointed hips and naked femurs, the pelvic bones with rump roasts carefully carved off their convex curvature—and we toss them down the creek bank underneath the spreading branches of the willow.

Long ago, when my kids were apprentice butchers and not yet trigger-pulling hunters, we made a game of dumping the carcasses here. “We’re feeding the meat tree,” I’d tell them as we pulled bones and gristle out of my pickup. But somehow, in their youthful incomprehension, my kids thought I was saying, “We’re feeding Demetri.” And that’s how the willow got its name.

Over the years, we normalized the malapropism, and “Feeding Demetri,” became shorthand for dumping a game carcass in the lonely pasture.

Many of my friends took their butchered carcasses to the dump, but I always frowned on that. Our role as hunters should be to convert the biomass of a game animal into calories for humans (and in my case, my growing family), but to return any remnant parts back to the wild. It felt right to put the bones of a mule deer that I killed within sight of “Demetri” back to the earth to grow grass and brush that might feed the progeny of the deer I killed. We’re completing the circle of life, I’d tell my kids.

Besides, I managed to kill at least one bone-scavenging coyote every year under Demetri’s spreading branches.

Then chronic wasting disease arrived in my neighborhood.

Well, I can’t say that we have CWD just yet, but my area of northeastern Montana is the focus of the state’s CWD surveillance effort, and there’s a pretty good chance that the awful brain-wasting disease will be found here; after all, it’s endemic just north of the international border in southern Saskatchewan.

One of the best practices to limit the spread of CWD, which can contaminate soils and plants for years, is to dispose of deer carcasses in a sanitary landfill. That means the county dump. It seems wrong to me to commit the remains of an animal that spent its entire life as a wild, human-avoiding organism to decay among our pop cans, dirty diapers, and decrepit televisions. But if by containing CWD to places where our trash is managed means that I’m limiting its spread to the wild deer I love, then it’s a small price to pay.

Demetri will be fine without his seasonal feedings. And by starving him, I hope I can contribute to a wild world that doesn’t have to worry about CWD. I hope my kids won’t have to worry about it, either, so that someday their kids can once again take up providing Demetri with his regular rations of meager protein.

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