Long before Tom Heberlein was old enough to hunt deer, he watched for his father’s blue, snow-encrusted 1952 Ford pickup to return home from northern Wisconsin each November. It would usually be loaded with dead whitetails tucked among the Christmas trees they’d sell at the family’s gas station.

Heberlein never thought someone could be shocked or offended by the stiff legs, glazed eyes, and slit carcasses of dead deer. After all, his dad wasn’t trying to hide anything among his bonus cargo of spruce and balsams. But, nearly 70 years later, Heberlein now uses a freshly-cut Christmas tree from his 40-acre parcel to obscure deer strapped atop a friend’s SUV for the 250-mile ride home from deer camp.

“I think it’s appropriate to celebrate the kill,” said Heberlein, a retired professor of rural sociology. “When we drag a deer into camp, we put it on the buck pole for everyone to see. Then we pose for pictures and tell our hunting stories to everyone who stops in. Blood isn’t a big deal to hunters, and our celebration is an appropriate part of hunting. But when it’s time to go home, I’d just as soon not offend those who don’t see bloody deer with tongues hanging out as a good thing. That image doesn’t capture the spirit of these animals.”

One of Heberlein’s hunting buddies, however, considers the issue old news and “a whole bunch of nothing.” Jim Tantillo, a professor at Cornell University who teaches about environmental ethics and history, and the philosophy and morality of hunting, thinks the issue peaked in the 1990s alongside the peak of Eastern deer herds, hunter numbers, and angst about hunting’s image.

“Everyone was worrying about appearances, and saying hunters shouldn’t wear hunting clothes into restaurants,” Tantillo said. “I see nothing to gain by driving hunting underground. Unless our hunting clothes are oozing lung tissue, why change them? Should we put on a suit and tie before driving anywhere with a deer?”

Even so, Tantillo doesn’t display his deer on the ride home. He slides them into the bed of his pickup truck and closes the tailgate. “It’s just more convenient,” he said. “I close the tailgate and I’m ready to go. But if it’s inconvenient for someone to cover it up, and they don’t need to protect it from road grime, why bother? I don’t think it hurts anyone to see a deer going down the road atop your roof rack or Hitch Haul.”

Bragging with Grace
A pickup’s open tailgate with a deer in the bed can be the ultimate bumper sticker for hunters. It draws attention on highways, inspiring thumbs-ups from passing hunters, and sparking conversations when stopping for gas or food.

“The question you’re asking is this: How can successful hunters brag with grace?” said Dr. Valerius Geist, a Canadian zoologist and retired professor at the University of Calgary. “How else can the lucky hunter make the point, ‘I got my buck and you did not!’?”

Geist thinks boasting is deeply rooted in human nature, and evolved into elaborate cultural flourishes similar to dominance displays in the animal kingdom.

“Hunters have always bragged of their prowess, usually by attaching parts of their quarry’s anatomy to their body where everybody could see it,” Geist said. “Native Americans made necklaces of grizzly bear claws. Austrian hunters bundled the long hairs of chamois bucks into a ‘brush’ on their head. I have a silver tie clip displaying a canine tooth from my first bull elk. Lucky hunters in Europe might display a red deer’s canine teeth in cuff links, and hang its antlers on the wall of the family mansion.”

But not every culture, or individual hunting group, boasts openly in camp, at home, or on public highways. Heberlein recalls hunting with a group of Swedish moose hunters in 1991. They killed seven moose in two weeks, and each was dragged in, hung up, butchered, and divided before he could organize a group photo around a moose. After living in Sweden the past 15 years, Heberlein is no longer surprised by his lack of photos.

“You don’t see bumper stickers in Sweden,” Heberlein said. “Swedes aren’t into making statements about themselves or calling attention to themselves. They value teamwork and individual modesty. The way Swedes hunt is so Swedish. Their hunts reflect many Swedish characteristics. They’re pleased when they get a moose, but their celebration doesn’t revolve around a guy smiling over a moose, and reveling in individual success.”

Situational Ethics?
Heberlein and Geist also note that some states require hunters to keep dead game visible until it’s registered with the wildlife agency. “Whether it’s appropriate or not, we’re often forced to brag and publicly celebrate our kills to comply with regulations designed to count every single deer, bear, or moose we shoot,” Heberlein said. “Science requires that we treat hunters like cheats who can’t be trusted to keep a dead deer out of sight until it’s registered.”

Christine Thomas has no problem with such requirements, even though she voted to abolish in-person deer registration in Wisconsin when serving on the state’s policy-setting natural resources board. Since that recent change, Wisconsin hunters aren’t required to keep deer visible during transport.

Thomas–founder of the Becoming an Outdoorswoman program, and dean of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point–said her vote had nothing to do with encouraging hunters to hide deer for the ride home. She said she misses the socializing and camaraderie of deer-registration stations, but said the manual, paper-based system was too expensive, labor-intensive, and slow to deliver scientific data for management decisions.

Still, the new system didn’t persuade Thomas and her husband to stop strapping deer atop their SUVs. “I err on the side of not offending others, and my personality is to not create an issue when I can help it, but we live in a semirural area and hunt only 18 miles from home,” she said. “We don’t want dead deer inside our vehicles, and I don’t think anyone in our household wants to figure out how to put a canvas over a deer for a 15-minute drive home. Others might not like to see our deer, but as a hunter, I’m always curious to see what everyone else got.”

Satisfying that curiosity is proving more difficult, however. Thomas thinks fewer Wisconsin hunters now drive around with deer in plain view. Keith Warnke, the state’s Learn to Hunt Program coordinator, agrees, and thinks more hunters are quartering or packaging their deer before heading home.

“Our classes just advise hunters to do what’s most efficient to get the venison home in good shape,” Warnke said. “It used to be more common to see hunters parading around town for a week with a buck in the back of their truck. Maybe we’ve had enough interaction with nonhunters to change hunters’ attitudes, and find more respectful ways to bring deer home. Why annoy your neighbors and rub it into other people’s noses?”

Striking a Balance
Charlie Killmaster, the state deer biologist for Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, sees things much the same. Hunters living in Georgia’s rural areas usually hunt near home, and those in or near Atlanta and other cities likely package deer into coolers for long drives, especially in warm weather. Killmaster also thinks hunters don’t want to risk hunting’s 85% approval rating among nonhunters.

“Half of Georgia’s hunters live in counties around Atlanta, and they know they’re only 6% of the population,” Killmaster said. “Driving around large metro areas with a bloody deer hanging from your vehicle just might not look respectful to some people living there.”

Even so, Killmaster said dead deer on trucks, SUVs, and trailers aren’t rarities in Georgia. In fact, they’re common enough that folks see humor in the artwork on tailgate wraps showing big bucks, bears, or elk lying in truck beds. These vinyl decals aren’t expensive, and they adhere permanently to tailgates.

“It might be a Southern thing, but a tailgate wrap lets you ride around with a buck in your truck 365 days a year,” Killmaster said with a laugh.

Lindsay Thomas (no relation to Christine) is the editor of Quality Whitetails Magazine and communications director for the Quality Deer Management Association in Bogart, Georgia. He doesn’t think transporting deer in public view is an issue for most people.

“I might wince sometimes when seeing a dead deer going down the highway, but research shows 80% of Americans support hunting for food,” Thomas said. “They make the connection when seeing a hunter hauling home a deer. If it really bothered them, you wouldn’t see such strong public support for hunting.

“Most nonhunters know the difference between hauling a deer and disrespecting a deer,” Thomas continued. “My dad saw a guy trailering an ATV with a doe strapped to the seat to look like it was driving. That shows disregard for wildlife. It harms hunting’s image, but does it devastate someone emotionally? Hunters might debate how it affects another driver’s opinion of us, but most people probably don’t think about it. They’re also seeing bloated deer in ditches, and road-killed deer smeared across two lanes of traffic, so this probably isn’t an issue for most people.”

Harmful or Just Offensive?
Tantillo agreed. “People in nearby cars or SUVs might not like seeing your dead deer, but does that constitute a long-term harm, or is it merely offensive?” Tantillo asked. “Part of the American tradition is tolerating other viewpoints, and distinguishing between minor and profound offenses.

“You would hope the person who’s offended would get off their outrage horse, cut other people some slack, and try looking at reality from another perspective,” Tantillo continued. “I think the greater risk of harm is to hunters and their way of life. We see more urban kids today wanting to learn how to hunt. We need to encourage them, and not drive hunting so far underground with false outrage that it just isn’t worth their effort to go.”

Feature image via Wisconsin Historical Society.