Catharina Zwerger feeding wild animals | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Photographer: Andre Tappe

05 Dec. 2018 · News | Winter Activities
Susa Schreiner

On the trail

Catherina Zwerger is a huntress, policewoman, cook and cowherd. A portrait about a down-to-earth Walser woman, who passionately likes to break new ground - even if she has to pave the way in red cut protection pants and a women's power saw.

Catharina Zwerger feeding wild animals | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Photographer: Andre Tappe

"Hunting is much more than sitting still", muses Catherina, known as Cathi, and her green eyes sparkle profoundly. She delves into her thoughts, searches for the right words for this difficult topic. Right at this moment, when things are taking almost a melancholy turn, her one-and-a-half-year-old son Josef roars at her like a rutting stag. Not a large stag, admittedly, but clearly a wild animal putting on a show for the ladies. We laugh. I return to the topic of hunting and suggest that it’s a pretty unusual hobby, even more so if you’re a woman ... Cathi considers this briefly and counters with another question: "You think so?"

Hobby: Hunting - A decision out of love

Once again, the lightheartedness is swept off the table and replaced by a more thoughtful tone. Cathi wants to frame the topic in the right context. It’s important to her to find right words. She knows that hunting does not have a good image. It's very important to her to represent the profession, or in her case her hobby, with all its facets. Far removed from the trigger-happy hunter, often portrayed in the media as nothing more than a killer. And also nothing to do with fanatical big game hunters who only care about trophies. I repeat my original question, and it turns out that her husband Martin introduced her to hunting. It was a decision that came out of love, so to speak. Love for her husband, wildlife and nature.

Catharina Zwerger feeding wild animals | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Photographer: Andre Tappe

Chef, cowherd, police officer, hunter

Cathi was always a restless, curious soul, yet at the same time carefree, down-to-earth, and close to her roots. She has trained as a chef, studied hotel management in Zillertal, and worked for a while in a restaurant in Mallorca. “It was lovely, I hardly needed any clothes”, because the Balearic island was always warm. One summer Cathi worked as a cowherd in Pettneu am Arlberg. One of her heart’s desires, as she explains: "I really wanted to do it. But in the end, for me the Alpine pastures were almost too far down.” But milking 70 cows twice a day, cleaning them and looking after them was enough work to be going on with. With the occasional snowfall in August, at times it was a truly mammoth task.

She also wanted to join the police. When she first tried, she was exactly one centimetre too short and her application was rejected. After this, she went to Munich, where for six months she studied forensic medicine – examining corpses. If she had liked it, and if it hadn’t worked out with the police, then she would probably have become a taxidermist. But for some reason the height restriction was lifted, Cathi was no longer too short, and began training to be a police officer. At this time, she also began her hunting education. Her police and hunting exams were just two days apart. Another mammoth project, but one which the Walser successfully mastered. Cathi passed both her police and hunting exams. Sharp tongues might claim that she has now chosen two professions with problematic images. Because, let's face it, cops are the butt of many jokes, and their work is quickly questioned. It happens slightly less to chefs – if the food is too heavily salted, well, the chef’s probably just in love. 

Feeding place in winter | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Photographer: Andre Tappe

Only going for a walk was too boring

But why train to be a hunter, just because she likes being outside? Because she finds just going for a walk or a hike too boring. She needs a task on top. So Cathi and her husband Martin leased a small hunting ground covering about 235 hectares in Kleinwalsertal. On equal terms, like her husband treats her. Cathi's eyes sparkle dark green when she describes how much she loves being a hunter, outdoors in nature, responsible for her territory. She doesn’t just walk through nature, she observes, counts, fosters, and nurtures wildlife and the forest. She loves taking her small chainsaw with her. She uses it to cut out paths so that she and her husband can go stalking. “I have red protective trousers, you know - my butt looks great in them!” she laughs.

Full hunting seminars, few exam candidates

There are not many other women in the valley who hunt, perhaps only two. The rest are all men. This begs the question, who is in the seminar room during the training? The answer: Lots of people! The seminars are always well attended. This surprises me. I want to know more. Cathi explains that many people are only interested in having more in-depth information about wildlife and the forest. To be able to read animal tracks properly, to explain the forest and its inhabitants to their children or grandchildren in detail, or out of pure personal interest. Hunting, that is to say the killing of animals, plays a subordinate role. When it comes to the hunting exam, the field thins out drastically. The exam is difficult, the failure rate is high, and the number of repeat candidates is low. This explains the well-balanced relationship between hunters and wildlife in the country.

Catharina Zwerger with child feeding wild animals | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Photographer: Andre Tappe

Tracking – a hunter in her element

The next morning I am greeted by Josef in a dark green snowsuit the colour of a fir tree. Cathi is also in her best hunter’s togs, including her camouflage fleece with pink accents. And so, in varying shades of green, we drive to the meeting point in Schwende. A sign indicates that the wildlife protection zone begins behind the barrier. Andi Fritz is waiting for us. He is a professional hunter responsible for managing a large territory covering more than 2000 hectares. This includes a wildlife feeding area in winter, which is where we're heading now.

Josef, the small roaring fir tree, is delighted to be outside and claps his hands cheerfully. When we arrive at the feeding area, Andi and his assistant set to work immediately. They begin to fill the mangers with deliciously fragrant hay. Meanwhile Cathi and I chat. Cathi draws my attention to the tracks in the snow. "Look, that’s the track of a stag", she explains. To me, it just looked like a hole in the snow. It must have been a large beast to make such a deep hole. Cathi also shows me some hare tracks, and points out the elegant track line of a fox. I'm impressed. Trudging happily through the snow tracks, Josef roars; he has discovered a deer antler.

Hunters raised hide | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Photographer: Andre Tappe

You get the best sleep in a raised hide

I feel like I’m on a presentation plate here. I imagine that behind every tree lurks a doe, a stag, a fox, or a hare, possibly flanked by a black grouse or a badger. All eyes, so I imagine, are focused on me. Wildlife TV so to speak, only that instead of eating popcorn, the spectators are chewing grass and amusing themselves by watching the bustle of the bipeds. "No, that's not true," says Andi. They would be too shy, and will wait higher up for us to leave before coming down to nibble on the hay in peace.

Cathi agrees with me, however, and says when it gets dark, she always has the feeling that the wildlife is watching her. She feels relieved when she is once more sitting in the safety of her car. What captivating honesty. We share a quiet yet heartfelt laugh. She tells me that she often falls asleep in the raised hide. She would rather not think about what passes by as she sleeps, and asks herself if any of the animals find the sleeping hunter amusing.

Wild foraging in winter | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Photographer: Andre Tappe

An act of respect

But of course Cathi does not sleep every sitting. After all, she and her husband have to stick to a shooting plan. Because the natural enemies of wild game have been eliminated, and because quiet areas for wildlife are becoming increasingly scarce, especially in winter hunters have to follow shooting plans to stop animals eating all the fresh shoots on young trees as feed replacement. Meticulously. If hunters don’t follow their plans, they can be fined or even have their hunting licence withdrawn. And thus we reach the inevitable topic: we talk about culling. Cathi only shoots if she is absolutely sure that she has the animal perfectly in her sights and that it will die instantly. No suffering. She would rather have to sit more often than have something go wrong.

I ask if she can remember the first animal she killed. Of course she remembers. It was a doe goat. For a long time she had the animal in her sights. She waited for the perfect line of fire before shooting. The goat died instantly. Cathi cried. She sometimes still does after shooting an animal. Because she knows that she has just snuffed out a life. And because the animal is still warm and looks alive. She shows them all the respect they deserve, and never just steps over a dead animal. She goes around. Also, she gives Death the necessary time to spread through the animal, allowing its life and its soul to escape. I understand what she means. It is the act of respecting a living being that these days is so often lost, pushed to the periphery as a taboo topic.

Wild foraging in winter | © Kleinwalsertal Tourismus eGen | Photographer: Andre Tappe

Nor would she drag the hunted animal carelessly across the ground on her way down to the valley. She carries it on her shoulder. If she can’t carry it on her own, her husband Martin helps. This often requires bodily strength and plenty of sure-footedness, especially because part of Cathi and Martin’s hunting grounds is located high in the Alps. Just at the right moment, before the melancholy takes hold of us too deeply, Josef roars. He's standing in front of an antler at the hunting lodge, doing an impression of a lovesick stag. Josef will probably grow up to be a fantastic hunter and if he carries on like this, he won’t need a hunting horn to make the right sounds. We grab our little wildling and retreat, leaving the wildlife to enjoy their fragrant hay in peace.