Al Cambronne

The website of photographer and author Al Cambronne

Helping Handicapped Kids Hunt: How Much Help is Too Much?

A few weeks ago I saw something at an outdoor expo that got me thinking.  Since then, I’ve participated in occasionally heated discussions about hunting ethics and fair chase over at A Mindful Carnivore, Starving Off the Land, NorCal Cazadora, and The Hog Blog.

Some discussions were about the difference between ethics and aesthetics, and about whether some of our finer distinctions really matter.  Different people can see the same situation differently, and sometimes there are no right or wrong answers.  (Other times, maybe there are.  But not always.)

Those discussions got me thinking more about what I’d seen at a booth sponsored by Special Youth Challenge, one of many organizations dedicated to helping physically challenged young people get out and experience deer hunting or turkey hunting just like the rest of us.  I applaud their work, and I support their mission. 

These volunteers give selflessly and generously of their time and money.  For them, it’s all worth it.  I’ve heard stories of big, burly, stubbly, camo-wearing manly men getting all teary-eyed and choked up when they’ve been able to help a young hunter achieve success in the field.  For the hunters themselves, it can be a life-changing experience and a huge boost to their self-esteem and feelings of empowerment.

In certain cases, however, there’s something about these hunts that begins to feel a little strange and artificial.  It leaves me with a vague uneasiness I can’t quite explain.  Maybe it’s just because this is new to me.  After all, if we can provide these young people with a meaninful hunting experience, then it’s a wonderful thing. 

Many of these hunters are in a wheelchair but still have full use of their upper body.  They can wheel up to a bench that’s been positioned in a ground blind, rest their gun on sandbags, and shoot just like anyone else would.  Other hunters, however, have much less mobility.  They’re not able to get into a shooting position, look through the scope, and pull the trigger.  They need a little more help.

In the photo below, you can see the ingenious solution.  A gun or crossbow is clamped into a special stand that holds it in position while still allowing limited movement for aiming.  The fixture also pivots vertically to absorb some of the recoil; the hunter’s shoulder doesn’t need to be firmly against the butt of the rifle, shotgun, or crossbow—or, for that matter, anywhere near it.


A tiny video camera is aimed at the scope reticle.  The resulting image is displayed on a small screen visible from almost anywhere in the blind.  Eye relief is no longer an issue.  Hunters’ assistants can help aim, and they can also help hunters decide when it’s time to activate the trigger.

This happens with the help of a solenoid controlled by two pushbutton switches wired in series.  It doesn’t matter which is held by the hunter and which by one of his or her assistants.  For the gun or crossbow to fire, both switches must be depressed simultaneously.  (In theory, for a hunter whose mobility is even more limited, one of these switches could be replaced with a device that’s actuated by biting or by blowing a puff of air.)  The entire system is powered by a motorcyle battery placed inside a water-resistant housing.

As I said, I have great respect for the people running these programs, and in principle I support their mission.  If I were an aspiring young hunter in a wheelchair, I might be eager to sign up. Still, after learning about the specifics, I’m left with many questions.  I have no answers, only questions:

At some point, if these hunters are given too much help, does it become a less meaningful hunting experience?  If so, how much help is too much?  If an assistant does most of the aiming?  If an assistant does all of the aiming?  Or not even then?

If one of the hunter’s assistants helps with aiming and with timing the trigger release, can we be reasonably confident the hunt will be ethical and humane?  And if something does go wrong, what then?

For me, one of the hardest parts of hunting is to sit all day without moving or making a sound.  Even in a ground blind, it’s a skill these young hunters will need to master like everyone else.  Is that alone something in which they should take pride?

How much physical connection to the act of hunting or shooting is required to make the experience meaningful?  Is physical presence even necessary?  If one of these young people were even more immobile, would it be time to overcome our distaste for remote-control hunting over the internet?

What would non-hunters make of all this?  What about anti-hunters?  Should we care?

How would the people running these programs feel about these questions?  Have they heard them all before?  Or, for whatever reason, are these questions rarely asked? 

How would these young hunters—or prospective, aspiring hunters—feel about me asking so many questions?  Is it wrong, even cruel, for me to initiate this discussion in a public place where they might stumble across it in tomorrow morning’s Google search?  Or should we encourage them to consider these questions before they go hunting?

If these programs provide young hunters with a positive, affirming experience, does it even matter how “meaningful” anyone else thinks it was?

And then there’s that larger question again.  How much help is too much?  Or is there no such thing?

© 2011 Al Cambronne


  1. Al — I’m glad you posted about this. It’s very easy, when we see well-meaning people volunteering to help kids like this, to applaud it without asking the questions.

    As you know, I’ve got plenty of opinions about hunting, but on this one I will defer to the kids. I have no idea what it’s like to be in a wheelchair, or to be disabled in any way, but I gotta figure that it’s a good feeling to be outside, learning something, having an experienced hunter talk to you about an activity he cares about. As long as the kill is humane (and the safeguards seem reasonable to me), I don’t think I care whether it qualifies as hunting. I want a kid who’s gotten a bum deal to be able to go out and do *something*, whether it’s hunting or it isn’t.

    I say bravo to those hunters, and I wish the very best for those kids.

    • Fair enough, Tamar. That’s a good way to look at it. Still, when I imagine how all this would work in practice, certain aspects feel a little strange to me—maybe just a little too “virtual.” I’ll be curious to see what others think.

  2. Hmmmmm. When I see programs like this, the first thought that pops into my head is this: What if I were to become seriously disabled and couldn’t hunt as I have done up until now? Would I want to do this? Would it be enough for me?

    And I just don’t know the answer.

    I do think it’s dicey to define hunting’s worth by the degree of authenticity, first and foremost because I think precious few modern hunters do anything close to hunting that could be considered authentic. I think the question of whether this is a sufficient and authentic experience can be answered only by the individual hunter.

    • Yes, authenticity is a relative thing. My distant ancestors might not see my own hunting as being very authentic. I don’t use a spear, or even a bow. Instead, I use a modern rifle with a telescopic sight. There’s a lot more distance between me and my quarry, both literally and figuratively.

      These programs seem geared primarily toward young people–mostly early teens, apparently–who have never hunted. For me, at least, some of my questions might have different answers in other circumstances. Somehow it would feel different if we were asking the same questions about, say, one of those programs that takes disabled veterans out hunting. That’s not rational, but…

      And it does change things when I ask myself “What if it happened to me?”

      Just this morning I talked with a guy recovering from a traumatic brain injury. A couple years ago he was riding his motorcycle and hit a deer. He was going at a pretty good speed, and he wasn’t wearing a helmet. It changed his life in an instant.

      He wants to do everything he did before, and he’s making good progress. But things are different now. It gave me a lot to think about.

  3. Hi, Al. I think it’s precarious for me, a non-hunter and verified bleeding heart, to comment fairly on this issue. My compassion goes both ways, for the humans and the non-humans who endure similar and arduous trials in this life. In my ideal world, the killing of animals would be reduced regardless — from the wasteful killing we do today across all endeavors (farming, hunting, ancillary kills of modern living). So, hunting for enjoyment, as Holly (above) knows, is tough for me to reconcile, irrespective of the circumstances. I don’t begrudge any genuinely hungry animal or person a necessary meal. I’ve been in the position myself of having very little to eat. Beyond that, how much we kill or inflict suffering on others seems to be entirely up to our own discretion as a species. And in general terms, I wish we would choose to kill less.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Ingrid. I’ve read with interest your comments at other blogs, and I very much admire your willingness to engage with people whose beliefs are different from yours. It’s good to see civil discussions that end in mutual respect, if not in total agreement.

      Please swing by again now and then. I’ll be writing more about hunting topics, but sometimes I’ll also be writing about environmental issues that are totally unrelated to hunting. Or, if there is a connection, then hunting will just be one part of a larger story. So please stop by again.

  4. Reading this, I wonder about how we define “hunting.”

    If I was physically incapable of firing a rifle, I might very well choose to spend time in the woods with a friend who was hunting. I, personally, probably wouldn’t have much interest in assisted-shooting; I don’t particularly like killing fellow creatures anyway. Some might say I was just “watching.” But I would be having much of the experience I call “hunting.”

    For a kid who has never had a chance to move in certain ways — to do certain things — this might all look and feel different, of course.

    • Thanks for your comment, Tovar. It’s a very insightful one. I had many questions about the details of this specific situation, and you’ve distilled them all into one larger question: What is “hunting?”

      As you noted, however, the answer to that question might look different to some of the young hunters participating in these programs. Whatever uncertainties I may have…. I wish them and their mentors a good hunt.

  5. I know it’s been awhile since you posted this and asked the questions(s), but I think I may have some insight to add. My 11 year old son has cerebral palsy and got his first deer this weekend thanks to He is very proud of himself as are his father and I. Here’s where I answer your question… Jacob went on his first hunt two years ago, sat in the blind all day with his father and Mr. Barlow from CMoKids, and never saw one deer. Was he depressed? No! As I helped him remove his layers of camo and rubbed his cold little hands he told me “now I’m a hunter”! It really wasn’t about getting a deer, it was about doing something other kids do, something his father does. He has even had us camo his crutches so when someone asks about them he can tell them it’s “Mossy Oak” and that even though his Dad likes Real Tree, He’ll “always be a Mossy Oak hunter.”
    Jacob also plays baseball on a Miracle League team for special needs children. I volunteer as the Umpire at the games. As the children come accross home plate their smiles are no less proud than any little league player, regardless if they are pushed accross that plate in a wheelchair or are able to run accross on their own. It’s not about running the bases, it’s about the opportunity to play the game.

    • Thanks for commenting, Merry. I appreciate your insights. And please pass along my congratulations to Jacob on his first deer!

      Back when I wrote this post, I wondered if there might sometimes be a little too much technology between the hunter and the trigger. In certain cases, it almost seemed as if the hunters’ role might be too passive, and that they might not be fully involved and engaged. At what point, I wondered, would that make the whole experience less meaningful?

      After thinking more about it, I’ve decided that it’s not for me to decide where that line might be, or even if it should be drawn at all.

      And it sounds as though Jacob, at least, was VERY involved and very engaged—even when no deer showed up. As you wrote, for him it wasn’t just about getting a deer. But now that he has, that’s something he can feel positive about, too. Sometime soon, when you serve the first venison dinner that’s from HIS deer, that’s going to be a very special occasion.

      I hope Jacob sticks with it. On a more recent blog post I described the orientation night at Arrowhead Bowhunters Alliance, an organization that coordinates an urban bowhunt to help control the excessive deer numbers in Duluth, Minnesota. Most participants hunt from treestands, but a few hunt from ground blinds. Most hunt with bows, but many of them hunt with crossbows.

      After the meeting I was talking with a couple guys when a friend of theirs rolled up in his wheelchair. I could already see the chair, so it didn’t really need to be mentioned. One of the guys made the best, simplest, and most neutral introduction of a hunter in a chair that I’ve ever heard: “Al, this is Russ. He’s one of our crossbow hunters.” I hope someday that’ll be Jacob.

  6. After meeting older disabled people who hunt, seeing these hunting booths dedicated to the devices,which assist the disabled and organizations for hunting with disabled children I cannot help but wonder if the compassion for handicapped kids may lay somewhere deeper with the emerging Baby Boomer becoming one of the silver generations. It seems like with many older hunters, they are consciously aware the younger generations may not replace them and many of these hunters feel obligated to carry on the self-bestowed responsibility of wildlife management even if they are disabled themselves.

    It is an interesting question whether or not the devices used by disabled children for hunting violate fair chase ethics, but on the other hand, we have to ask ourselves if the desire to help others has a deeper and more personal reason.

    • alcambronne

      February 11, 2013 at 12:14 pm

      Dave — Thanks for stopping by. And I think you’re right. As we age and slow down, maybe it’s easier to have empathy with those who are less mobile. Lately my right knee has taught me a lot.

      My original reaction to this whole thing was probably less about fair chase and more about these kids somehow being less connected to the realities of the experience. But I suppose the same could be said about telescopic sights–or much earlier, about the transitions from rock to spear to bow. I guess after seeing some good commments in response to the question I’d posed, I decided that it just wasn’t for me to judge.

      • It is important to bring up subjects like this as it makes for an interesting discourse.

        As a Canadian, I never thought twice about the actions of disabled hunters since many older hunters are requesting special permits and are purchasing assistive technology. Everywhere around me in my community, there is an older person who has special permission from the government for exemptions. I have only started thinking about the ethics of government-granted exemptions and the progress of technology when a Lithuanian who immigrated to Finland started questioning why Americans and Canadians allow disabled people to hunt. Aside from the biases leftover from the Soviet-era institutionalization, to her, when people retire from the sport, young people take over. In a country where the active hunting participation rate is higher than 5%, her opinion is valid and adds to the discussion– regardless if the opinion is right or wrong.

        However, we have a very different reality in North America. Most of us are brought up to believe in the North American Model of Conservation. Whenever I speak with older hunters, most of them feel it is their responsibility to manage wildlife regardless of other people questioning the ethics.

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