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The deer dropped at the crack of the rifle, anchored by an expertly placed bullet through the vital organs.
The hunter knew he was lucky; there would be no tracking this time.
A great deal of work lead to this moment; the months of pre-season scouting; the long, dawn to dusk days perched motionless in the deer stand, seemingly impervious to the chill of the November air.
Still, the hunter knew there was more work to come if he wanted only the highest quality venison to reach his dinner table and that proper field dressing of his was essential to both the flavor and edibility of the meat.
While there are variations in the amount of time and labor that will be required to properly field dress various game species, regardless of whether the quarry is a gray squirrel or an Alaskan moose, the underlying goal is the same: increase meat quality and safety by quickly and carefully removing the animal’s internal organs.
There are many reasons why proper field dressing practices are important (for example, in the case of big game, removing the inedible organs will significantly reduce the amount of weight a hunter will have to drag out of the woods) but the primary purpose of field dressing is to curtail the growth of potentially harmful bacteria.
According to the Penn State Extension, bacteria reproduce fastest when temperatures are between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and in some cases can double in population every 20 minutes.
Given that the internal temperature of a recently harvested game animal falls well with the above bacterial Goldilocks temperature zone, it follows that fresh meat can turn into a microbiological science fair project in short order.
The fight against bacterial growth is compounded by the fact that all warm-blooded organisms are teeming with bacteria inside and out.
Bacteria on the fur and hide of an animal can be injected into the muscle tissue by a bullet or arrow passing through, and can be introduced from the digestive organs (which naturally contain all manner of bacteria) if they are perforated during harvest or processing.
Even a perfect shot through an animal’s heart and lungs can potentially open the stomach or intestines if a fragment of bone or bullet takes the wrong trajectory through the body cavity.
This is a problem.
Although thoroughly cooking wild game meat will undoubtedly kill the bacteria themselves, it might not be sufficient to neutralize dangerous toxins that can be produced by the bacteria.
Prompt removal of a game animal’s internal organs combats the bacteria problem on two fronts in that doing so facilitates cooling of the carcass (thus slowing bacterial growth) and by separating the meat from the ecosystem of bacteria contained within the digestive tract.
It goes without saying that extreme care should be taken to avoid puncturing any digestive organs while field dressing an animal.
Most game can be sufficiently field dressed with a very minimalistic tool kit, but there are a few crucial items in addition to a good sharp knife that will make the process easier and less messy:
Wild animals can carry diseases that can be contracted by humans via exposure to blood and tissue. Carrying a few inexpensive pairs of latex gloves will not only greatly reduce the risk of coming down with something very unpleasant, but they will also spare you the unpleasant sensation of blood drying onto your hands and caking under the fingernails. Be sure to always pack out used gloves and all other trash.
Expanding upon the practicality of rubber gloves, a few paper towels and wet wipes will be a welcome addition to a field dressing kit, especially if there is no nearby water source.
When field dressing deer or other large game it’s a good idea to tie off the open end of the intestines to prevent fecal matter from leaking onto the meat. Additionally, paracord can be used to “sew” the body cavity shut after the carcass has cooled to prevent debris from getting inside the animal during the drag out process.
Some hunters prefer to split and spread the sternum of large game to facilitate more rapid cooling. This task is not easily accomplished with a standard hunting knife.
Birds and small mammals are orders of magnitude faster and easier to field dress than deer and other large animals.
Small game birds can sometimes be fully processed without even using a knife.
But rapid meat spoilage can be a concern.
As anyone who has left a package of raw chicken on the kitchen counter for a little too long knows, poultry goes bad in a hurry.
Exacerbating the issue is the fact that many bird seasons start in late summer or early, which are oppressively hot times of the year in a lot of areas.
When conditions are hot, it may be crucial to keep an ice filled cooler within striking distance of the hunting grounds (in a vehicle or at camp).
Extra caution should be taken when hunting and processing small mammals as they can be carriers of dangerous pathogens that can infect humans.
Rabbits, for example, are known carries of tularemia, a disease so virulent that it has been considered for use as biological weapon.
Always wear gloves when handling small game mammals and if an animal looks mangy, emaciated, and has no apparent fear of humans, don’t eat it.
The videos below provide detailed step by step instructions on how to field dress game birds and small mammals. Please be advised that the videos are unavoidably graphic.
As mentioned earlier, the principals of field dressing large game are the same as small game (get the guts out) but on a scale that makes the job inevitably messier and more difficult.
Large game taken during hot weather should be rushed to the butcher as soon as humanly possibly as the carcass won’t be able to cool to temperature that inhibits bacterial growth.
The video below provides detailed step by step instructions on the field dressing of deer.
Although cleaning and processing game animals is considered enjoyable by almost no one, it is perhaps a more important part of hunting than making the shot that brings the animal down.
Game that is promptly dressed, cooled, and cared for will not only be safer to eat, it will make for far better tasting fare than game left unattended for hours in a hot car trunk.
If you apply the tips in this article and videos, you’ll be well on your way to properly dressing your next hunting-trip harvest.
By the way, if you're brand new to hunting, check out our Beginner's Guide to Hunting for a getting-started guide.