Want to hunt exotic African animals? Just go to Texas.
If American dentist Walter Palmer — who may face poaching charges for killing Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe — was so inclined, he could have saved himself time and money and trouble by killing an exotic African animal right here at home.
Talk about convenience! American hunters can legally kill threatened — and even endangered — animals such as zebras, giraffes and rare African antelope, without ever leaving the United States.
Dozens of ranches in Texas and Florida offer hunting of exotic and threatened animals, and they’re easy to find on the Internet. For a so-called “trophy fee” of $4,750 you can kill a zebra. For $5,000 you can kill an addax antelope and for $2,500 you can kill a blackbuck. Ranch owners buy these animals from zoos or circuses, then breed them with the purpose of being killed by game hunters.
“If you would like to hunt African Game, but do not want to endure the long plane ride, you can do so at RHR in Florida,” the Ross Hammock Ranch’s website reads. Many of the sites include images of fathers and young sons next to the animals they’ve killed.
Hunters have different reasons for visiting these ranches. Some are looking to kill a mature male animal, cut its head off and hang it on a wall as a trophy. Others look for young female animals because their meat is more delicious.
Hunting associations say these ranches help to conserve endangered animals that would otherwise become extinct — because as long as ranch owners are making money on these threatened animals, they will keep breeding them. Animal rights advocates challenge this logic on the basis that the animals are bred to be killed — and view these hunters as cruel, lazy and cowardly.
One thing is certain: Hunting exotic animals on ranches in Texas and Florida is legal, according to both state and federal law. If the species is protected by the Endangered Species Act, it falls under the mandate of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But many exotic animals such as the threatened African lion are not protected by the Act. That means that it is legal to hunt lions, Grant’s zebras, giraffes and a large number of other exotic animals on ranches in the United States. Furthermore, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has given some ranches permission to breed and hold captive exotic animals that are registered in the Act. So on some ranches hunters can legally hunt dama gazelles, scimitar-horned oryxes, Arabian oryxes, red lechwes, barasinghas and addax antelopes, even though they are all considered endangered.
If an animal isn’t included on the Endangered Species list, states determine whether or not they can be hunted. The state of Texas, for example, only lists animals as endangered or threatened if they are native to Texas, according to Steve Lightfoot, spokesperson for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Florida allows exotic hunting, but requires a Game Farm License for captive rearing of both native and nonnative game birds and game mammals.
“We follow the game rules. We don’t do anything unethical,” said Christopher Clark, owner of the Circle Double C Ranch in Texas, which offers hunting of exotic animals like the endangered scimitar-horned oryx. Most of the exotic animals were born on the ranch, Clark said. He said he believed that the ancestors of the animals on his ranch may have come from the San Diego Zoo.
A spokeswoman for the zoo denied that, saying unscrupulous animal breeders sometimes falsely use the organization’s name.
“San Diego Zoo Global diligently tracks all animals that it has been responsible for, keeping an eye on them and their offspring for generations,” Christine Simmons said.
At Clark’s ranch, men, women, families and kids are welcome to hunt zebras or other exotic animals, simply by choosing a weekend. A guide will accompany guests on the hunt and help them track down the animal they desire. If a guest kills or wounds the animal, the guest pays. Otherwise, the visit is free, said Clark. Guests can hunt with a high power rifle or use a bow and arrow. It’s a personal preference.
“Hunters who do this are very lazy and have a lot of money,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, a nonprofit animal advocacy group. “They want a trophy so it looks as though they have been on an African safari, but without having to pay the price of going to Africa. They think that stealing the life of an exotic animal makes them feel powerful. It’s a degrading, violent activity that offers nothing to the well-being of animals and nothing to conservation.”
But if you ask Ben Carter, executive director of the Dallas Safari Club, hunting is just a natural human instinct.
“We are hunters from the time man evolved on the planet,” he said. “It’s in our genes.”
He said that people sometimes forget that grocery stores are filled with dead animals.
“People look at wildlife as having a higher life value than a chicken and a cow,” he said. “At least wild animals on ranches usually get to live a life that is very similar to what they would anywhere else.”
Hunting is all about the experience, even when you don’t actually shoot an animal — just like climbing a mountain, even if you don’t reach the top, Carter said. And hunting helps keep some threatened species around for future generations, he argued.
“The only place that some of those species are thriving are these ranches and they are thriving because of hunting,” he said. “If it were not for exotic game ranches, they would be completely gone.”
Ashley Byrne, campaign specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, calls that argument “absurd.”
“Because we know that on these ranches the animals are bred to be killed,” she said. “The ranch owners are doing nothing to help the animals’ native populations or their proper ecosystems.”
Breeding exotic animals only serves the purpose of making money for the ranch owners and the animals have no chance of escape, she said.
“People who kill them are cowardly and cruel,” she said. “To get a thrill from shooting down a canned animal is just repulsive. Many of the animals are so tame that people can walk right up to them. They have absolutely no chance.”
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to include comment from the San Diego Zoo.