When a dying kid's wish is to kill

A nonprofit helps terminally ill children with the unusual -- and to some, alarming -- dream of hunting an animal

Published June 26, 2011 6:01PM (EDT)

Tina Pattison is in the wish-granting business. As president and founder of the nonprofit organization Hunt of a Lifetime, Pattison helps kids with life-threatening illnesses fulfill their dreams of shooting their first elk, or moose or boar. If your son is dying and wants to visit Disneyworld, well, she can't do anything for you. But if your son wants to go out in the wilds of Maine with a high-powered rifle and bring down a really big bear, Pattison's the woman you want to see.

Pattison is telling me all sorts of stories about her group, her life and the crazy things she's seen running Hunt of a Lifetime for the past 11 years. We're at the Oak Tree Gun Club, a lovely shooting facility about a half hour drive north of Los Angeles, and her stories are being punctuated by the pop, pop, pop of handgun fire from the nearby pistol range. She's come here to Southern California for a celebrity sporting clays competition -- two of the group's longtime supporters are Ted Nugent and NASCAR champ Jeff Gordon -- in the hopes of finding some big-name stars to help her cause.

A part-time school bus driver and mother of six boys, Pattison is explaining the difference between trophy hunting -- killing an animal so that one can mount its head on one's wall -- and just plain hunting, where one kills to eat. Personally, Pattison's not a trophy hunter, never has been, but some of the sick kids she arranges hunts for are, or would like to be, and really, what's she going to say to them? What could anybody say? "I can't blame 'em," she says. "Before they die, they want to put that mount on the wall. One of the boys, he's 6 years old, and he's got Type 1 juvenile diabetes. He's been in three comas, and the last one, they didn't think they were pulling him out. And he said, ‘I want to have a bigger deer rack on the wall than my dad.' He's 6 years old! What do you say to him? You can't say, no, that's not what hunting's all about."

Pattison's odyssey with Hunt of a Lifetime began 12 years ago, when her son Matthew was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. When Pattison asked Matthew what he would like to do "in the future," he told her he wanted to hunt moose with Dad. Knowing that moose hunts could run northwards of $10,000, Pattison went to the Make-A-Wish Foundation for help. We're sorry, they told her, but we no longer do hunts; later, she learned that animal rights activists had put pressure on the group to stop. Pattison began contacting various outfitters for help. Finally, an outfitter in the tiny village of Nordegg, Alberta, called back and said, sure, we'll take your son. The townspeople of Nordegg sprang for everything: food, housing, feed for the horses, a helicopter ride up into the mountains. On the first day of his hunt, Matthew got a moose, a big one. Six months later, on April 28, 1999, he died.

Pattison started Hunt of a Lifetime later that year, dedicating the organization to her late son. Since then, the group has granted more than 630 "dreams." The majority of them have gone to boys, but dozens of girls have also been treated to hunts and fishing expeditions, courtesy of the group.

The organization is the focus of "The Harvest," a feature-length documentary directed by filmmaker and sometime hunter Gabriel DeLoach. Born and raised in Wantage, N.J., DeLoach learned about the group in 2000 when he saw an ad of theirs while leafing through one of his dad's old hunting magazines. "I was struck by the idea that a child facing death would want to take the life of another living being," he says. DeLoach was studying film and journalism at the prestigious Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and thought the organization might make a good story, so he gave Pattison a call. The two met up at a truck stop in northern Pennsylvania and talked for hours. Grad school and life intervened, though, and the project was shelved.

Seven years later, after getting injured while timber framing in Charlottesville, Va., DeLoach remembered the group and gave Pattison another call. She remembered him after all those years, and arranged to meet with him once again. For four years, he worked on the film, meeting kids and their families, going on hunts, spending thousands of dollars of his own money. Last winter, DeLoach solicited $10,000 on the funding platform Kickstarter to complete post-production on the film. "I'm totally broke," he says.

"The Harvest" focuses on the lives and families of three young hunters (and descriptions below contain some minor spoilers for the documentary). Tyler, 14, dreams of shooting a black bear in Maine so that he can hang its body alongside the raccoon and muskrat pelts that adorn his bedroom walls. Casey, 20, hopes to bag an elk in New Mexico, a dream complicated by the fact that a surgery to remove a brain tumor has left him legally blind. Fourteen-year-old Arianna, a sweet-looking, wheelchair-bound girl who suffers from spina bifida, travels to Custer, S.D., crossbow and rifles at the ready, to shoot her first turkey.

Without giving too much away about the film, the kids get their wishes, albeit in vastly different ways. Tyler's bear doesn't go down easy, which leads to a tense, late-night search for the dying beast through pitch-black woods. Casey shoots his elk with the help of a sighted guide, who lines up the shot for him and tells him when to squeeze the trigger. Arianna gets sick on her hunt and has to be rushed to the hospital; in the end, her dad ends up taking down an enormous gobbler for her.

Some of the most moving scenes in the film, though, aren't even remotely about hunting. DeLoach spends a lot of time with the families, and one learns a lot about the kids and their struggles through their fathers, awesome dads all.

"When you get to be older and you get cancer, well, then, you can say you lived your life," says Tyler's perpetually red-eyed dad, in one of the interviews. "Kids shouldn't have to go through that. Children should get to live their life." Later in the film, Tyler wonders about the life of the bear he just brought down. "I think it's been wandering around the woods for about 12 years before I actually got up here," he says. "So he's had plenty of time to get ready to get hung on the wall. He's enjoyed his time."

It's an eerie moment, given that Tyler, when he went out for his hunt, was just two years older than that bear. Has he had plenty of time? Does the boy even think about that in those terms?

"Tyler believed that by having a successful hunt, by taking the life of the big bear, that he would defeat his cancer, that it would not come back," says DeLoach. "I think it's easy to assign the symbol to the act of what these kids were doing, but for him, he really believed it. At the end of the film, he pretty much says that, that the bear's the sacrifice for his life. That kind of blew our minds."

While Tyler's hunt was relatively easy -- an accomplished hunter and trapper, Tyler got his bear on the very first day -- others are much less so, and it's remarkable to see the extraordinary lengths the group will go to just to fulfill a single wish. On one hunt, the boy couldn't get out of his hospital bed, so the guides placed boy and bed into the back of a pickup truck and drove him out to his hunt. Specially designed equipment allows kids with limited upper body mobility to fire their rifles by blowing through a tube, and aim at targets using a joystick.

DeLoach struggled with what to show of the hunts, and how much. "I've seen a lot of animals die," he says. "It just seemed rather gratuitous to show that over and over." Even so, there's plenty in the film to give nonhunters pause. Like the scene where they haul Casey's elk out of the back of a pickup and half of the animal's innards spill out. Or the scenes with Tyler's wounded, fleeing bear, who gushes blood through the woods of Maine before finally curling up to die.

"I don't want something to get shot," says DeLoach. "Just like you don't want a kid to die. It makes really good drama, but you don't want it to happen. It's awful that I picked a subject where I needed things to die in order to tell the story."

Hunts aside, there are often issues and problems before a kid even picks up a rifle. Some parents try to game the system, requesting multiple "last wishes" from a variety of organizations (if a hunter has had wishes granted from other groups, they immediately go to the bottom of Hunt of a Lifetime's list). Some kids will want to shoot an animal way beyond their abilities. Some hosts of TV hunting shows, says Pattison, just take the kids out to promote their series.

Kids will sometimes want to shoot an animal that's out of season, too -- not such a big deal for most children, who can afford to wait, but a big deal for these. "They want to hunt a caribou in the middle of winter," says David McHugh, ambassador of the organization's Minnesota chapter. "Well, the season is closed, so they can't do it this year. But you talk to the doctors or the parents, and they say, he's not going to make it another year."

And then there are the people who are simply against all forms of hunting, even more so when kids are involved. "I have a letter from a man who said he will personally fly out from California, come to Pennsylvania, find me, and kill me," says Pattison. Her voice is flat, as if she's giving me a recipe for pie. "When I started the foundation, I figured I was going to piss off some people, so I took out a quarter million dollar life insurance policy. There are people that will follow right after me with the same heart and drive, so the only thing you're gonna do by getting rid of me is make the foundation richer. So go for it. That's the way I feel about it. I've lived a good life."

If Pattison sometimes sounds like an evangelist, it's because she's absolutely certain of the goodness of her cause. "Ninety-nine percent of these kids aren't thinking about a trophy hunt," she says. "These kids are thinking, I want to go out and shoot that and bring the meat home to my family because I might not grow up to have my own family. They feel like men because they're coming home with game. Or they're thinking, I want to hunt a moose because I've always wondered what moose meat was like, and I might never get another chance to try it."

DeLoach is proud of his film, and rightfully so: The documentary is powerful and disturbing, and its images and characters stay with one well after the film's chilling epilogue. He's happy that "The Harvest" was recently accepted into this year's Camden International Film Festival, and he is currently submitting it to other festivals (to view the trailer, click here.) But hunting? After four years working on the film, DeLoach still wrestles with the same question he started with: Why would a dying kid want to do this?

"My hope is that people who hunt will think about their actions, and the gravity of them," he says. "That's all I want. When I started doing research on this film, I YouTubed "child hunter," and the videos of these kids just aimlessly slaughtering animals made me sick to my stomach. It was a total game. Not that the Hunt of a Lifetime kids are doing that at all, but I was worried that that still existed. Take a few minutes on YouTube, and you'll vomit."

"So I hope that people will think about that a little bit more. It's hard for kids. When I was a little kid with a BB gun, I killed birds and stuff. And then one day I just realized what that meant, and I never did it again. It would be nice if parents kind of instilled that in their kids, but you know kids. They're gonna be ruthless. I just hope they're not too ruthless."

By Robert Ito

Robert Ito has written for the Village Voice, The Believer and the New York Times. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Hyunu, and his son, Ezekiel.

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