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Why Wear Gloves When Field Dressing Game?

If you’ve recently taken a hunter safety course, you were probably told that when you field dress a game animal you should wear some sort of glove as protection against cuts and possible infection. Seems logical, right? I mean, today everybody wears gloves, from the lady who cleans your teeth to those doing janitorial work. It’s just the way it is.

Back when I was growing up, though, nobody except maybe surgeons wore disposable gloves. We never gave infection and disease transmission a second thought, mostly because we simply didn’t know better. And then when we did know better and went out hunting, it seemed like such a hassle to glove up when field dressing a deer, elk or other big game animal. What’s the big deal anyway?

I Almost Lost My Finger

In a classic case of closing the barn door after the cows had gotten out, in the mid-1990s, while on a self-guided brown bear hunt on the Alaska Peninsula, I slashed the index finger of my left hand almost to the bone while skinning out my bear. “No biggie,” I remember thinking. I got the bleeding stopped, and my buddy Bo and I flew back to Anchorage that afternoon and dropped the hide off at the taxidermist. The next morning we flew to Kodiak Island, where we spent a week hunting Sitka blacktail out of a backpack camp two hours by float plane from civilization.

It was glorious! We shot several deer, and I butchered them as usual. But about three days into the trip, my cut finger started swelling. It enlarged so much it became increasingly painful, so much so that when we landed back in the town of Kodiak I went straight to the hospital. They gave me some pills and sent me home to Valdez, but the pain and swelling wouldn’t subside.

Fortunately, there was an old-timer living across the street who had been a doctor along the Bering Sea for decades. He recognized the problem instantly, having seen the same thing many times with native Alaskans who had been skinning seals.

“If we don’t get that infection stopped immediately, we will have to take that finger off,” he told me. “And if that doesn’t stop it, the hand is next.” And so, after three weeks of massive antibiotics, the infection was killed, but not before it ate away part of the bone. To this day, when the weather turns cold that finger turns white and throbs as if it were on fire.

Mine is not an isolated incident. For example, in 2012, a Pennsylvania hunter contracted rabies after killing and field-dressing a deer.

This is not the way to do it, two Idaho guides (“tough guys”) who never wear gloves when skinning bears. They may not have cut themselves yet, and they might never, but the small scratches that are on everyone’s hands from daily life in the outdoors is an open invitation for infection.

This is not the way to do it, two Idaho guides (“tough guys”) who never wear gloves when skinning bears. They may not have cut themselves yet, and they might never, but the small scratches that are on everyone’s hands from daily life in the outdoors is an open invitation for infection.

“Because the hunter had scratches on his hands and arms and was not wearing gloves when he field-dressed the animal, we considered this a human exposure and urged him to contact his doctor about post-exposure rabies shots,” said John Veylupek, a Pennsylvania conservation officer.

You can find more horror stories with any quick internet search.

Lesson Learned

Today I wouldn’t even think about field-dressing game without wearing latex or rubber gloves.

There are lots of “gotchas” that can be contracted when field-dressing deer and other big game. Veterinarians at Oklahoma State University have identified 28 internal and external parasites on whitetails in Oklahoma alone.

Ticks are easy to identify, but most parasites are invisible to the human eye. Others, like nematodes, are small worms that are not only visible, but downright creepy. They can measure up to three inches long and live on or in various internal organs. They might turn your stomach, but none of these pose any threat to humans, according to Dr. Mike Dunbar, a wildlife research biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center in Colorado—but plenty of other things will. There’s Lyme disease, something nobody wants. And how about Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, or EHD, a virus spread by biting midges, tiny flies that serve as the disease’s host. EHD is prevalent in the South and Southeast and has responsible for large-scale deer die-offs at times. It’s also been detected in whitetails in Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania, but also scattered other locations. Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), though not known to species jump to humans, is a concern for other reasons and continues to spread among U.S. cervids, especially deer.

Glove Tips

Today, I never head afield without gloves in my pack. Many people like the type of latex gloves medical personnel use, but I prefer thicker rubber gloves like those used for washing dishes.

Smart sportsmen always glove up before field dressing their game to help prevent disease transmission.

Smart sportsmen always glove up before field dressing their game to help prevent disease transmission.

Two quick tips on gloves. First, I buy gloves that are too large—not large enough to be sloppy on my hands, but large enough to get on and off without massive effort after my hands have gotten sweaty. Second, a little sprinkle of talcum powder on your hands makes getting tight-fitting gloves off and on a snap. Don’t have talc handy? Then squirt a puff from your wind tester onto your hands. It works just as well.

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Bob Robb is one of the most well-respected voices in outdoor media, with more than 40 years of columns and essays in print recounting his exploits in the field. A renowned archery expert, Robb has hunted on five continents and also lived 15 years in Alaska, where he held an assistant hunting guide’s license. His work has appeared in titles small and large, from American Hunter and American Rifleman to Whitetail Journal, Field & Stream, Petersen’s Hunting, Deer & Deer Hunting, and many others. He recently retired as Editorial Director from Grand View Media Group, where he oversaw the content for eight publications, including Bowhunting World, Predator Xtreme and Waterfowl & Retriever. Still, retirement is rather an ugly word to Robb, and so he continues to contribute to a variety of publications, just as he continues to hunt around the world. 

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