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Flagstaff hunter feeds hungry

By Laurel Morales

Flagstaff, AZ – A Flagstaff butcher has donated thousands of pounds of elk, deer and buffalo meat to the Northern Arizona Food Bank. This Thanksgiving he'll give six deer and an elk to the hungry. That's about 14 hundred meals. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales says Dennis Champagne is not what you'd expect.

Dennis Champagne is a paradox. He's a butcher and a hunter and a sentimental animal lover.

CHAMPAGNE: I have three cats, three dogs, bird, couple fish, I love em.

Two of his dogs wag their tails fervently at his feet. They probably like what they smell. Champagne greets me with a fist bump because his hands are covered with blood. As we enter the shop the smell of raw meat is overwhelming.

Amby: grinder and meat saw

A huge skinless buffalo hangs from a hook. Champagne's been a hunter most of his life and processes meat for other hunters. Right now he and his crew are cutting the elk into T bones and porter houses and grinding up what's left to make buffalo burgers. (spike meat saw) One meat cutter amputates a leg from the purple beast. Champagne's crew wields carving knives, hand saws pretty much anything that's sharp.

What's that loud noise? That's the saw the ban saw meat saw. She makes little pieces out of big pieces (laughs).

Champagne introduces Sergio, a meat cutter who wears a serious face. He does a final inspection before he carves the meat.

CHAMPAGNE: What he's doing is he's portion cutting the rounds down which are the sirloin tips. And the other two gentlemen have one of the toughest jobs in the shop if I could invent a tool that would automatically take meat off the bone I'd be a multimillionaire.

SFX: door shuts

Outside where it's quieter he talks about how he got into hunting as a teenager. It seems to tap into his sentimental reserves.

CHAMPAGNE: My dad bought me a rifle for Christmas

Tears come to Champagne's eyes.

CHAMPAGNE: My 12 year old 10 years old his first animal was a 2800 pound buffalo and he dropped it with that same rifle my dad gave me. So if I get a little choked up it's because that's the why I enjoy hunting so much.

He says sharing that joy is what it's all about, whether it's helping a new hunter get his first kill or providing meat for other families less fortunate.
About five years ago the food bank asked him if he or his customers had any left over meat to donate.

CHAMPAGNE: Everyone is very proud of their success and their game meat. Sometimes there's no way I'm givin' that elk up.

But usually Champagne can talk them into donating at least 10 or 20 pounds of their kill especially when they realize they don't have freezer space for all of it.

Champagne and the Northern Arizona Food Bank are part of a national program called Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry. Josh Wilson directs the organization based in Maryland. Wilson's father came up with the idea about 10 years ago when he pulled over on a Virginia highway to help a woman who appeared to be having car trouble.

WILSON: She asked if he could follow her over to the edge of the road by the bushes. When he did he saw there was a small buck. And it appeared maybe she had hit the deer. So he asked if she was ok and she said, no, I didn't hit it but I saw it laying here and I need to take it home to feed my kids.'

Wilson says historically hunters provided for their communities. What evolved into sport has turned into an opportunity to provide once again. Today Hunters Feeding the Hungry has more than a hundred chapters in 27 different states.

AMBY: Bring back butcher shop sound

Back inside the shop the crew has finished the buffalo and is working on an elk. As Champagne watches their progress he recalls his last hunt.

CHAMPAGNE: This last animal we got I knelt down and said a prayer and petted her. Sometimes it just chokes you up. But once that part's over and you're enjoying a nice roast or nice gorgeous elk burger you can't beat it.

And when it comes time to sit down at the dinner table, he says he's always grateful.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.