Eagle Hunting. When I first read that on our itinerary, I thought, damn, we’re going to hunt eagles?! Turns out nomads used eagles for a long time to hunt bunnies and other edibles. Today was no different. Vladimir, whose purple Kazak jacket I coveted more than the requisite skill to play my new dombra, met us on the central Asian steppe, donned in great boots and a stiff leather sleeve that is claw proof. He was slim and knew his eagle and spoke no English.
The drama with the eagle and its prey is staged. Most people in Kazakhstan these days go to the supermarket to get their food rather than depend on narcissistic eagles for their protein and thus eagle hunting is a sport, not a necessity. Vladimir and his crew transported the eagle and its soon-to-be snack in a truck while our group traveled close behind as we both climbed a modest hill overlooking the steppe. We watched with a little trepidation as Vladimir opened the plywood crate to retrieve the big bird. I was a little apprehensive that the eagle would misidentify me as a white meat protein source and head my way hungry. Turns out the bird is far more disciplined than that. Free of its wooden constraint, the bird, aka. Sharp Shooter, took flight immediately.
Once airborne, it banked and glided in and out of our view. I’m guessing the creature is pretty used to audiences by now and it gave us a good show, sometimes swooping down and flying just a few feet above the tall grass. It appeared and disappeared in and around the several slight draws of the hill we stood upon. As the bird flew, the assistant eagle master hustled down the ravine with a large, grey bag. He then hooked up a tether to something furry and resembling a fox. Then the man came back up the hill and pulled the strings to summon the star of the show.
The eagle, a consummate performer, took the foxy cue, offered a few wide pirouettes to the crowd, and then dropped below a berm where I presume he landed close enough to the fox skin to satisfy Vladimir that he was ready for his afternoon performance. The fox skin was just a teaser. Necessary perhaps, to get the eagle focused.
Something else was in the bag, the supporting actor. I didn’t see the bunny release, nor did I see much of the pre-mortem hare. But I imagine the rabbit found it not a little disconcerting that it traveled in the same containment system as a fox skin. This realization probably didn’t prove very helpful for the rabbit.
I imagine that Vladimir is probably in the rabbit-raising business or connected to a good supplier. Either way, the bunny collective recognizes both the grey bag and wooden crate and what they represent. I don’t know how smart Kazakhstani hares are, but I’m guessing they’ve seen their friends and family member get placed into the grey bag but never see them come back. And then, to confirm their worst fear, they find themselves traveling in the grey bag with only the fluffy carcass of one of their mortal enemies. Doubtless, they say to themselves–the bunnies finding themselves in the bag–if the fox, who is my predator, can’t come back in the bag alive, but ends up dry-cleaned, what are the chances of me getting back to my peeps?
Emergencies and self-defense often engage our basic instincts. Dangerous situations present us with fight or flee choices. The fox hide must have paralyzed the hare and given it PTSD (pre-traumatic stress disorder) because it neither fought nor fled when released. In the tall grass, I couldn’t see the future victim, but I can assure you, had I been let out of that bag, panic-stricken from the undeniable scent of the former fox, and uninterested in advancing Vladimir and the eagle-diva’s careers, I would have gotten the hell out dodge PDQ or made tracks for a rock or a rabbit hole. Problem is, says the bunny to the blogger from bunny heaven: there are no rocks on the steppe, dumbass. Moreover, most of the year, there are usually about 16 metric tons of snow per square meter of steppe during the long, harsh winter. This extraordinary weight compresses the black soil into itself, compacting the earth, making it suitable for holding up an atom bomb or gulag or cosmonaut rocket. But,but not so much for emergency burrowing when one is trying to both avoid and come to terms with one’s mortality.
So, to make the story even longer, the rabbit ventures out of the bag, stays put for a while, but not for a very long one. All my Fulbright colleagues are well-educated, strong teachers, and pretty sharp on the uptake. Several have Ph.Ds. and master’s degrees. They are superb teachers, committed to the study of two difficult languages- Kazak and Russian-and well-read and informed. When the bunny comes out of the bag and the eagle is flying around not so far above it-and it’s about lunch time- well, we have a good idea what is coming next.
I will say this much with respect to the actual landing. I was somewhat disappointed. I expected the eagle to reenter the earth’s atmosphere, much like one of those Soviet transcontinental missiles I worried about as a child, descend quickly and dramatically from the sky, like the falcon that hunts at warp speed, and render Armageddon onto its victim. It wasn’t that big a deal. Sharp Shooter saunters in casually from over the hill, offers a slight decline in angle and picks up speed, you know just to appease the crowd enough, so they’ll tell their friends (marketing, really), and pops down on the pour soul whose four lucky rabbit’s feet didn’t do jack shit to help it. I wanted the HALS (High Altitude Low Swoop) to accompany the grab-and-go.
I’ve seen a bald eagle glide across a fjord, extend its formidable claws into cold glacial sea, and snap a witless carp or halibut or ice trout right out of the ocean and then fly away with a week’s supply of sushi. Rather than that dramatic and glamorous scene, Sharpshooter pulls up just short of the bunny- a hard landing of sorts- bounces along the ground a bit, and pounces on the depressed hare. It reminded me of how that super-boxer, the genetically engineered Russian who fights Rocky Balboa in Rocky 18, plods up to the Philadelphia southpaw and drops Sly with his titanium rocks. Difference is, the rabbit doesn’t pull an upset, but succumbs immediately to the golden’s humongous claws.
Still, all of us teachers marveled at what ensued after the less than dramatic first round of the bout. While Sharpshooter had its prey under claw, Vlad held forth about what we were witnessing. I honestly didn’t know what was going to happen next. Vlad spoke Russian through a translator, with good but not great English skills. I honestly thought, for a while, that the handler was going to grant a stay of reprieve to the rabbit and put it back into its grey bag. We stood there on the steppe while the eagle, the hare firmly subdued and all but concealed by the tall grass, signaled his conquest by extending his fuzzy golden neck and head. Sharp Shooter thrust open his great mouth as if to say, “Say something, now, bitches!”
The reprieve did not come. A good twenty minutes after the eagle had landed, the bird decided to get to it. Like good academics, appreciating the complexity before us, both marveled and deplored what we witnessed. The bird, having assured itself that we had sufficiently recorded the hunt, then transitioned quickly to the feed. Sharpshooter thrust his great beak down into the hare in a semi-automatic, rapid-fire plunge and plunk. Before too long, small clusters of bunny fur covered the surrounding steppe like a blizzard-plague from the East. No one could see anything. Hare hair darkened the land. The sun disappeared. The vegetarians cried out, “No!” Only the small, stifled voice of a Russian eagle hunter and his good-enough translator reminded us that this was not the End Times (well, with one exception), but just a small reminder of the Circle of Life and how things get done in Kazakhstan.
The sky cleared. The sun’s light and warmth returned, and we beheld one another and more digital recording devices than a group of Japanese tourists at Sea World. Once Sharpshooter had broken through the hare’s pelt, we began to hear a disturbing, but, alas, natural series of cracks and disturbing-natural of course tears. (Don’t forget Circle of Life friends. You can’t get through this part unless you do. Put on Elton John and the Lion King if need be.) I comforted myself at this point, thinking the rabbit was probably pretty much dead and had endured the worst. Sharpshooter began to pull at the exposed rabbit flesh, as his claws held its prey in their vice. This was not the easiest thing to see, but we are scholars and understand the value of real data. He plunged, wriggled, and then pulled. The flesh separated from skin and bone, and right there on the central Asian steppe, with about twenty onlookers, Sharp Shooter fed.
Do you know what happened during this phase? Do you? Vladimir, as he spoke to us about the life-expectancy of the bird, how they were trained, his own falconry travels to Brazil and other places, and how Kazakhstan intends to continue to develop falconry and eagle hunting to promote tourism. Hand to God, the Kazakhstani, extended his warm hand and petted the eagle on its golden head. I shit you not.
Extraordinary. Now to the denouement. Vladimir, who is probably one of the most attractive men I have ever met, then reaches down, scoops his protected arm under the eagle and lifts him to should length. The bird did not mind this process, because Sharp Shooter was still eating! I think they had an arrangement. Vladimir says to the bird, at some point in their long history, “Look SS, these people are crazy bad about their photos. We need to give them a better vantage point. I’m going to interrupt your meal, so they can get better photos.” I imagine the rest of the conversation went something like this. Sharp Shooter responds, “Let me tell you something, Mo Fo. That’s not going to happen. I’m all for the photo op, because I understand we both need to eat. But if you think I’m abandoning my lunch for their obsession with documentation, well, just remember who the star of our little arrangement is.”
They apparently worked things out well before our turn on the steppe. Vladimir lifts the bird while the bird is still eating the bunny. Moreover, Vladimir, while he is talking to us, is pulling at the defrocked hare, helping the eagle to get at what’s left of the rabbit. The process seemed about as natural as, well, a human being feeding a rabbit to a golden eagle on the Central Asian steppe while a bunch of teachers from Arizona and New Mexico made videos, took photos, and lost their appetites.
When Sharp Shooter finished, we knew that we’d witnessed something rare. The vegetarians slowly recovered and the rest of us had to self-administer pressure point massage to get our eyes to close again. Vladimir and his crew then set to the task of corralling Sharp Shooter. The bird only needs to eat once a week and so he went for a little fly following his meal, much like people used to have cigarettes following love-making. We Fulbrighters thanked our new friends, asked them to join us for lunch, were reminded that Ramadan fasting was still in effect (Sharp Shooter has some kind of exemption to the fast. Vladimir tried to explain this provision. I don’t really get it. Sounds a little like Soviet sophistry, but that’s between the eagle and his imam) and watched them as they drove all over creation trying to get the bird back into the damn box.
None of us ever experienced anything like this and I doubt we ever will again. It was a gift to see how things roll and have done so in this particular part of the world for a very long time. I’ve noticed far more eagles in artistic representation in this country since our afternoon with Sharp Shooter, Vladimir, and his crew in their white Tacoma with the big wooden crate. He was a proud man and I was delighted to make his acquaintance. He told us that in some countries it is illegal to have a bird of prey living in the home. Not so in Kazakhstan. Sharp Shooter and Vladimir even sleep together at times. He told us about how he has awoken to find the bird sleeping beside him, his golden head nestled in the Kazak’s neck.
I wrote my daughter to tell her of this experience and told her she probably wouldn’t have like it. She simply texted back: “Circle of Life.” Circle of life, indeed. Thanks, Sharp Shooter and Vladimir for an amazing experience. I’m glad we shared time, wisdom, and the steppe one afternoon. And to you, my friend the hare: you came up short that day and remind us, that we too, however it happens, will come up short ourselves and then join you, as we return to that from which we came. Amen.