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Hunting made easy

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Shooting captive animals to mount their heads on a wall is a booming sport. Should Congress step in?

The exotic corsican ram trotting about the 100-yard-long pen in central Pennsylvania paid little mind to the men approaching across the field. People were always walking in and out of the pen, as often as not with food for the flock. So the ram didn't resist when the men drove all the animals toward one end of the enclosure. It was only when the first arrow--fired from just yards away--struck it in the haunch that it realized something was up. The ram hobbled off and was struck by a second arrow, then a third. It stood for a moment staring beyond the fence line and then settled onto its haunches, bleeding. A gunshot to the abdomen finished it off--preserving its head as a trophy.

It has never been easy being an animal at the business end of a hunt, but these days it's hard being the hunter too. Dwindling ranges and herds make the ancient business of stalking prey an increasingly difficult proposition. The answer for many Americans is to shift their shooting grounds from the wild to one of the country's growing number of hunting preserves.

By almost any measure, hunting preserves are enjoying a boom. Up to 2,000 may exist in the U.S., with 500 in Texas alone. Many advertise on the Internet and in hunting magazines, and all offer the same thing: the chance to bag a trophy, with none of the uncertainty of hunting in the wild. "No kill, no pay" is the promise many make.

Of course, making good on that guarantee requires bending the prey-and-predator rules. Animals at some preserves are so accustomed to humans that they wander into range at the sound of a rattling feed bucket. Elsewhere they're confined to small patches of woods where they can't elude hunters for long. At others they may never even make it out of their cages before being shot.

Most troubling, it's not just prolific-as-rabbits deer and other common prey that are being killed in such canned hunts, as they're sometimes called; it's rarer creatures too. All manner of exotics--including the Arabian oryx, the Nubian ibex, yaks, impalas and even the odd rhino, zebra or tiger--are being conscripted into the canned-hunt game and offered to sportsmen for "trophy fees" of up to $20,000.

Not surprisingly, these hunts have their critics. A handful of states ban or restrict the practice, and a pair of bills are pending in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to prohibit the interstate sale of exotic animals for hunts. Supporters of the hunts object, arguing that exotics are bred in sufficient numbers to support the industry and that many surplus zoo animals could not survive in the wild anyway. Even to some outdoorsmen, however, canned hunts are beginning to look like no hunt at all. "I started hunting when I was 7 and didn't kill my first deer until I was 16," says Perry Arnold, 52, of Lake City, Fla. "What they got going on now, that ain't hunting. That's a slaughter."

A slaughter is precisely the way canned-hunt foes frame the practice, and the killing of the Corsican ram is not the only horror they point to. The Humane Society of the United States tells stories of its own: the declawed black leopard that was released from a crate, chased by dogs and shot as it hid under a truck; the domesticated tiger that lounged under a tree and watched a hunter approach, only to be shot as it sat. "Canned hunts are an embarrassment," says California Representative Sam Farr, sponsor of the House bill.

What makes the problem hard to police is the sheer number of exotic animals for sale. There are about 2,500 licensed animal exhibitors in the U.S., and only 200 of them belong to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which condemns the sale of exotics to hunting ranches. Even unaffiliated zoos might be reluctant to wade into the canned-hunt market, but many do so unknowingly, selling overflow animals--often products of too successful captive-breeding programs--to middlemen, who pass them into less legitimate hands. The crowding that can result on the ranches leads to animals' being killed not just by hunters but also by diseases that occur in dense populations.

If zoos have trouble keeping track of exotic animals, Washington doesn't even try. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can intervene only if animals are federally protected or if the hunt violates a state law and interstate commerce is involved. Since many cases don't meet those criteria, the animals are essentially orphaned by the feds.

Still, not all hunts on preserves provoke an outcry. Many ranch owners keep exotic animals out of their collections or conduct hunts on grounds that give prey a sporting chance. The Selah Ranch in Austin, Texas, is a 5,500-acre spread covered by Spanish dagger and prickly pear, often with no sign of the elusive animals that live there. "There are a lot of exotic animals on this place that die of old age," says Mike Gardner, owner of San Miguel Hunting Ranches, which runs Selah.

Here too, however, the odds can be stacked in the hunters' favor. Deer are often lured to feeding stations, where they are serenely unaware of the men in the stilt-mounted tin shack 75 yards away. Such lying in wait--or "shooting over bait"--is legal in Texas and defended by hunters. "It promotes a clean kill," says Gardner. Other sportsmen are troubled by the practice. Stan Rauch of the Montana Bowhunters Association believes that fed animals are tame animals and should thus be off limits. "Animals become habituated to people when they depend on us for food," he says.

Even preserves with no baited killings and lots of room to roam may be less of a square deal than they seem. "If a ranch advertises itself as having 3,500 acres, you need to know if that space is open or broken down into pens and whether there's protective cover or the ground is clear," says Richard Farinato, director of the Humane Society's captive-wildlife protection program.

Concerns such as these are prompting governments to act. More states are being pressed to ban or restrict hunting in enclosures. The House bill, which parallels one introduced in the Senate by Delaware's Joseph Biden, would not drop the hammer on the hunts but would give Washington a way to control the animal traffic.

But the new laws could come at a price. In Texas alone, the hunt industry brings in $1 billion a year; a crackdown could hurt both good ranches and bad. "Cattle prices have stayed the same for 40 years," says Gardner. "To hold on to acreage, you've got to have other sources of income." Safari Club International is worried that since hunting areas are so different, it may be impossible to pass a law that covers them all. "There's no standard to say what is and what isn't fair," says club spokesman Jim Brown. "You know it when you see it."

But there may be a deeper standard than that. If the hunting impulse is as old as humanity, so is the sense of what it truly means to chase and bag an animal. Nature may have intended humans to hunt, but whether it meant to toss ranches, pens and feeding stations into the mix is a question hunters must ask themselves.


Cover Date: March 11, 2002


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