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Having a reputation for not being very tasty and difficult to hunt, Aoudads are derided as “trash” game meat. I learned on my first hunt that this description couldn’t be further from the truth.
An animal somewhere between an antelope and a goat, Aoudads are native to North Africa but have made themselves right at home in Texas. Also known as Barbary Sheep, they are in direct competition with the native Mule Deer and Bighorn Sheep for both resources and habitat. Hunting provides the necessary population management that allows for smaller population numbers and comfortable co-existence.
The sun is beginning to rise over Mason, Texas as I arrive at the hunt camp. My whole being is in knots as my guide leads the way to the blind. He understands this and soothes my nerves with friendly conversation. I notice the sun is starting to touch the trees, flooding them with light. The brush is thick, the land wild. The Aoudads are rousing for the day. They start convening, moving to a clearing about 60 yards from our blind. There are so many of them, that it’s hard to find a shot. I focus on enjoying the cool morning air and the beauty of nature around me, reflecting on the journey that has brought me to this moment.
Growing up in Chicago, we didn’t eat food from wild places except when my parents wanted chicken soup. Chicken soup in our El Salvadoran household is the cure-all for what ails you. Filled to the brim with vegetables like chayote, zucchini, cabbage, and carrots, plus a whole fresh chicken, gizzards, liver, and all. Cook forever and serve with lime, salt, hot sauce and corn tortillas.
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For fresh chicken, we would drive to a nondescript neighborhood to find a nondescript house. Walking inside, a wall of smells and noise would hit us; a great cacophony of clucking. An illegal chicken processor. Other people were there, immigrants like us. Folks who raised chickens back in their home country and had come to big city America, where it was not allowed.
You’d select your poultry and the butcher would take it to a hidden room, where death was delivered in order to be transformed into sustenance. We would be handed the chicken, still warm, in a bag, ready for the soup. I hated going there. I despised the smell, the noise, the violence. I could not and did not want to make sense of it. But by the time we got home, the chicken’s death was far from my mind, and I would be hungry for sopa de pollo. Many years later, much to my surprise, I would find my purpose in wild game butchery. That path had led me to this very hunting blind, where I readied myself to take a life.
I set up to take the shot. My guide has warned me that Aoudads are hearty creatures and that they may run off into the brush after being shot. Tracking would be difficult in the dense brush. I lift my rifle and peer through the scope, getting my first glimpse of the morning behavior of the Aoudads. They are beautiful creatures, with curved horns, long beards, and their fur a soft sand color. I’ve spent time studying and reading up on them in preparation for this morning.
The one thing I’m sure of at this point is that no one loves a game animal more than the person hunting them. The love turns into a stewardship of purpose. I take a deep breath; I’m not getting the right shot opportunity. There are too many, dancing in and out of range, and in and out of ideal shot placement. I’m terrified of a bad shot, a gut shot, a suffering death. I’m not looking forward to the moment I pull the trigger and make a decision I can’t take back. I’m patient, because what else is there to do but to wait?
I watch a ewe go off by herself, she’s almost in the clear from the herd. My guide quietly tells me to get myself ready. My safety is off, my breathing is steady, and my heart is pounding as I watch her through the scope. She’s looking up, her elegant neck extended, waiting for the warmth of the day. The sun finishes coming up over the trees, its light hits her face, and at that moment, I pull the trigger. It’s a direct hit to her heart and lungs and she goes down immediately. I’m overwhelmed with the gratitude of delivering a good death. Now the work begins.
Aoudads range from 90-300 pounds and my ewe fell somewhere in the middle. The butchering of her carcass was second nature to me. With a skill that I had honed over many years, I turned her into sustenance. Yielding a plethora of products like sausages, charcuterie, and burger grind, the ewe kept my family fed well for quite a while.
I came to hunting through butchery and I came to butchery through my curious nature. Butchery gave me stewardship of the animals we eat and hunting gave me an appreciation for the conservation of natural resources. Both give me the opportunity to connect with myself and others, in the places where the wild things are.