When Gabriel DeLoach encountered an ad in a hunting magazine for the Hunt of a Lifetime Foundation in 2000, he wasn’t sure what to think. Like the Make-A-Wish Foundation, this Pennsylvania-based nonprofit makes wishes come true for kids with life threatening illnesses. But these kids don’t want to be a pop star for a day or meet a real ballerina or go to Hawaii. They want to go hunting.
“It struck me as a little odd, that that would be a child’s last wish,” said DeLoach. DeLoach, 33, grew up in Wantage, NJ, and has nothing against hunting. “I hunt. I grew up hunting. I just thought that wouldn’t be my last wish and it’s not a wish of a lot of people.”
Hunt of a Lifetime was started by Tina Pattison, who lost her son to cancer. Her son’s last wish was to hunt moose in Canada with his dad. After being turned down by Make-A-Wish, whose policies preclude the use of firearms, Pattison – who couldn’t foot the $10,000 bill for that kind of trip – started calling outfitters to ask for help and found one in Alberta, where the townspeople even paid for a helicopter ride into the mountains. Later that year, after her son died, she started Hunt of a Lifetime. In its decade of existence, the foundation has helped 650 sick kids go hunting. It’s controversial enough that Pattison has taken out life insurance in response to death threats.
“They want to go out, they want to provide their family with meat on the table and say I did it,” said Pattison in the film. “And they know… they probably won’t have a chance” other than this one.
A contractor by trade and a filmmaker by passion, DeLoach decided to make Hunt of a Lifetime the subject of his first documentary, “The Harvest: A Story about Giving.” For four years, DeLoach followed three young people from their living rooms to the shooting range to the moment of the kill.
Wheelchair-bound Arianna Evans, 14, diagnosed with spina bifida and kidney disease, gets up at 5:30 every morning for dialysis. Her wish is to hunt a Merriam turkey with her dad in South Dakota. “Being born in a wheelchair she understands struggles,” said Arianna’s father in the film. “And she probably understands life better than all of us.” After getting sick on the trip, Arianna doesn’t pull the trigger, but asks her dad to take the shot for her. On each of these three journeys, the bonding that takes place between child and father is as much the point as the memento that comes back from the taxidermist.
Casey Bahn, 20, wants to hunt an elk with his dad in New Mexico – a quest made difficult, and momentous, by the fact that a brain tumor has left him legally blind.
Tyler Devoe, 14, who suffers from Hodgkins Lymphoma, is an avid naturalist who gives voice to the difficult questions the film brings up. “I really don’t know why I hunt,” he said. “I just like to do it. My whole family’s hunted. And ever since I was little I’ve loved the woods, loved to be out, be in a crick, be sittin’ up against a tree in the morning listening to a gobbler, just be out in the woods. It’s not so much the kill, it’s just being out there. That’s just like adding somethin’. It’s just like sprinkles on top of the icing on your cake.”
Devoe takes down a black bear in in Maine. “Every time I kill something I feel a little bad for it, a little bit of remorse. But when you work that hard to take something and if you do it ethically there is always a good feeling behind it knowing that you have done a good job and worked hard to get it.”
“I think the film is successful,” said DeLoach in a phone interview, “in that it inspires people to ask questions, whether they’re into hunting or not. Having to think about children taking the life of another animal when they themselves are facing death... I think death for all of us, for many of us is a very difficult reality. And I am hoping that people will in some way learn from or try to relate to the situation that these families are in.”
DeLoach’s debut feature film, The Harvest has been shown at film festivals across the country, and won the 25th Virginia Film Festival’s Programmer’s Choice Award for Documentary Feature. It was also featured locally at the Black Bear Film Festival in Milford, PA.
“For the most part a lot of people walked into the theater uneasy and unsure whether or not they wanted to see the movie,” said DeLoach. “But by the end during the Q&A, it was clear from their response that the film had won the audience over.”
Will that uneasiness increase in the wake of the heartbreaking Sandy Hook shooting? “I think that trying to relate incidents of mass murder to The Harvest is a waste of time,” DeLoach said, in response to an inquiry about whether the shooting changes his movie. “The film is not about mental health or psychotic behavior or social illness.”
And yet, judging from the reaction at Dirt’s office, the movie will be received differently for awhile. After the shooting, the image on this page of Casey Bahn and his dad looking down the barrel of a Savage .300 short mag – which before had seemed dramatic – was suddenly so jarring that Dirt staff voted to recall the magazine from the printer to replace the above photo.
Editor’s note: We decided to re-print this page at a hefty cost because the image, looking up the barrel of a gun, struck us as insensitive in the wake of the Newtown massacre. That’s why your magazine is late, and why the middle section may look different than the rest. It was printed on different paper.