When Neville Handel was growing up in suburban Ohio, meat came wrapped in butcher paper or on shrink-wrapped Styrofoam from a supermarket. It wasn’t until he was in his early twenties doing field work in Kenya that he saw firsthand the connection between the meat he was eating and its origins. “I was exposed to real, local meat production there, with the slaughtering and processing of goats. I always knew that the meat I was eating came from animals, but I had never experienced this part of meat production,” he explains.
“Some people were turned off by seeing it, but it made me develop a greater appreciation for where meat comes from, and to want to ensure that the meat I was eating was coming from an animal that was raised humanely. This was a very powerful experience for me, and it was the first step in the process that led me to take up hunting.”
A decade later, Handel found himself the father of two young girls, living in Chatham County and working in the Conservancy’s Sandhills office. There, he met Sandhills Steward Mike Norris and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Pete Campbell, both hunters. “They became my mentors, answering many questions and providing real guidance. I did a lot of reading and research and learned enough about the process to be comfortable with going out and hunting,” he explains.
Helping to Curb Overpopulation
As an ecologist, Handel also recognized that North Carolina – and many other parts of the country – has a serious deer over-population issue. “We’ve gotten rid of their natural predators,” he says, “so their population is limited primarily by the availability of food and habitat, which leads to more collisions with vehicles, more hungry animals coming into our backyards, and more tick-borne illnesses in humans.”
All those hungry deer are causing real damage. “The ecological destruction of the deer population is well-documented and very visible,” he says.
Unlike many other species whose population numbers are much lower than they were in pre-settlement North America, white-tailed deer populations are estimated to be above pre-settlement numbers. Their predators are gone. They can readily adapt to a wide-range of habitats. They reproduce quickly.
According to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, North Carolina’s deer population increased from 670,000 in 1984 to 1.35 million today. Too many deer munching in the forest hurts tree regeneration. It can also have a negative effect on other animals, destroying the plants that provide ground cover for some birds and small mammals.
Putting on Camouflage and Heading out into the Woods
After years of thinking about becoming a hunter, Handel made his decision. “Chatham County has a lot of deer, so taking a couple of does each year would help with reducing the deer population in my very local environment, and would enable me to provide good, local, high-quality meat for my family.”
Although hunting is not allowed his neighborhood, it is allowed on a nearby friend’s property. So, every fall since 2010, Handel has walked through the forest, climbed into a tree stand, and brought home a few does.
“It doesn’t get more local than that,” he says. “My two little girls have seen daddy come out of the woods, dragging a deer. They have seen me process these animals, so they have an appreciation for the meat that they eat, and they know where it comes from. If they choose to continue to be meat eaters, then they will know it came from an animal that was once alive, and that it gave its life for us. I feel that we’ve lost this connection in this country with the supermarket world that we live in. There is a disconnect between hamburger or steak or chicken and the animal that it came from.”
And, who knows, growing up with an appreciation of hunting and knowing where their meat comes from, Neville’s girls might one day be joining their dad on one of his expeditions.July 16, 2013