The roar of jets taking off from Philadelphia International Airport occasionally over-powered the drone of I-95’s eight lanes of traffic. Seated on a comfortable swivel chair inside a camouflaged ground blind, the hunters try to block out the noise and concentrate their attention on the forest in front of them. Willows and maples stand amidst a carpet of invasive Japanese stilt grass and a wall of Phragmites grass twenty yards away, creating a funnel for deer activity at the edge of the wetland behind them.
The hunters are set up with a crossbow balanced on a tripod, waiting quietly and patiently for the approach of their quarry. With deer abundant here, it’s very reasonable to expect a deer to appear. Where are they that makes this experience possible? The John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), a thousand acre oasis of habitat amidst the urban sprawl of Philadelphia, a bustling metropolitan area that is home to almost 6 million humans.
In 2019, refuge managers acted on a federal mandate to offer expanded recreational opportunities at properties within the National Refuge System. John Heinz NWR, known as “America’s First Urban Refuge” and named for a former Pennsylvania senator, was considered an ideal location for a mentored bowhunt that would trim the abundant deer herd, provide local venison to the community, and teach new people about the importance of hunting as a tool for conservation.
Philadelphia community residents applied for the mentored hunt opportunity, were selected through a lottery drawing, and then given a full day of training to build their skills. A wide variety of first-time hunters, from youth to adults over the age of fifty, took part in the hunt and brought their own unique perspective on interacting with the outdoors.
Nile and his roommate Dominique (pictured together at the beginning of this story) came to the Refuge with no hunting experience and left with coolers full of fresh venison that they carried home in their Uber ride. Over the course of the hunt, they practiced shooting Chester County-made Kodabow crossbows with accuracy, shot necessary to harvest a deer, listened carefully to their mentors’ instructions, and waited patiently for a shot opportunity. Both made excellent shots and had short tracking jobs to retrieve their quarry.
Elena, an elementary school teacher in Philadelphia, is a first-generation hunter who emigrated from Russia in her 20’s and took part in the hunt along with her friend Natalia. Both represent a key demographic of the expanding ranks of adult female hunters. Until a few years ago, female hunters comprised less than 10% of all licensed hunters but have now have improved to at least 15% of the nationwide population of hunters.
A strong sense of community grew amongst the hunt participants during their time together, with hunters who harvested deer sharing their venison with the ones who did not. The stories of the healthy meals prepared with meat obtained through the hunt is a reminder that hunting is one of the most rewarding and satisfying outdoor activities available. Through the mentored hunt, new hunters, including those from systematically excluded groups, experienced the satisfaction and connection with nature that hunting provides. That’s exactly what the mentored hunting program is all about.