The Last Conqueror

Cecil Hopper subdues the wilderness -- then enshrines it in his museum

Unless it is a gunshot, there is nothing sweeter to the ears of Cecil M. Hopper than the sound of a bulldozer in the morning. Pistons surging, great trees cracking and falling, the proud earth crumbling and giving way -- "I just love the woods," said Cecil, and in truth, he loves them because he believes he can make them better.

He keeps his machinery in a clearing in southeast Houston, not far from the petrochemical plants, across the road from a gurgling sewer plant. Plants of all kinds thrive in Cecil's neighborhood, except the green kind. You can't see the wildlife unless you ask Cecil.

"I love animals," he said, grinning honestly. "I like all kinds of animals."
Behind the office of his land-clearing business, he opened the door of a metal warehouse, and the smell of wild things rushed out. In the light, there they were, craning their necks forward as though from stalls. Cecil had built them a refuge, it seemed, his own Noah's Ark. But how strange these creatures were -- so docile and unflinching, never roaring nor grunting nor squeaking nor making a sound or movement of any kind. They only stared. They stared down on man, little Cecil Hopper with his hands in his pockets, who gazed up at all of creation -- or at least 140 species of it. This was his world. Cecil was the destroyer and the creator, the founder of the Cecil M. Hopper Wildlife Museum. It was he who improved the animals.

"I'd like to have them all alive up there," he said, "if I didn't have to feed them and clean up their shit. What I like is a dead zoo. That's what this is -- a dead zoo."

He wears over his white hair the old wool safari hat he bought in Alaska. His belly hangs between camouflage suspenders. And Cecil is smiling. He is always smiling. If he were captured and mounted and his head became his tombstone, Cecil would forever wear a grin and a one-eyed leer, as though squinting down the barrel of a rifle.

"It's a thrill to hunt," he said. "Hell, it's a thrill to hunt cockroaches, you get 30 or 40 of them. You were successful! You outsmarted them."

In the Houston Safari Club, of which Cecil is founding member and past president, there are about 450 people like him. They are an old-fashioned bunch who believe in frontiers and conquest and that the one who dies with the most heads, wins. Living in a conquered land, they often find it necessary to pack up their guns and rack up frequent-flier miles going where guns and bulldozers are more rare. Most of those who hunt the world with frequency are the idle rich, but Cecil is different. As one of the idle rich said, "He represents what every man can accomplish through hard work."

He is the hunter of the American Dream: Work and you shall bring home the bacon -- and the hide and warthog tusks, too. Cecil calls himself the "working hunter," because it is only through working that he can afford to hunt. He figures he spends at least half his income going on safari. Over the years, he thinks he's invested more than a million dollars. If not for hunting, Cecil could drive a newer car -- but the old Silverado, with the sticker that reads "Spotted owls taste like chicken," is Cecil's kind of ride. He could probably buy a bigger house -- but he's comfortable with his little ranch house in South Houston. He might get $85,000 for it, he said, "if I cleaned up the grass and found the right drunk Mexican."

Cecil has never had anything to spend his money on, except for hunting and his wife, Mary Lee. If it meant more hunting, he would gladly live in a ditch and survive on muddy water, he said. But he has to keep Mary Lee happy. She prefers to live in a house, which has forced them over the years to a compromise. Mary Lee stays home; Cecil stays out, traveling the world and "collecting."

That hippo came up for air one day in Zimbabwe, said Cecil in the museum, "and we just happened to be in the right place at the right time." And that's "probably the last legal rhino taken in Kenya." And that's the walrus who sat, unlike the others, so peacefully on that Alaskan ice floe. Oh, that was a beautiful place! "No garbage anywhere," said Cecil, and the water so blue and clear. He shot the walrus in the brain so it wouldn't run into the water. He left the skinned carcass on the ice and brought home the souvenir.

Seeing it on the wall, Cecil thought, "I was there."
"Everywhere I been is beautiful," he said. "There's beauty in everything. You just have to see it."

Cecil has a theory about Americans: Our ancestors were hunters at heart, brave enough to take a chance on an unknown land. Several centuries later, their blood still runs in us. We are pioneers and predators, natural-born. Some of us have had our stalking instincts subdued by "all them people who want you to knit on Saturdays and Sundays," said Cecil, but many others remain untamed. Emerging from the womb, Cecil swears he told his mother he had hunting to do, and she had better cut him loose from that "biblical cord."

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