While the world's jaws dropped at the news of Cecil the lion's death last week, hundreds of less famous exotic wild animals died a little closer to home: in Texas.
Texas is home to about 5,000 big-game hunting ranches that import exotic wildlife from across the sea, according to an estimate from Exotic Wildlife Association Executive Director Charly Seale. The ranches average about 500 acres each, Seale said, citing from a recent TEWA survey, and, among all 5,000 of them, they're home to roughly 125 exotic or endangered species.
The animals are bred in controlled environments — especially the endangered species — and are often auctioned off to a buyer from one of the big-game ranches, where they are eventually hunted, some from a helicopter. These are trips that can cost the hunter in the ballpark of $10,000. The most common species hunted include exotic deer like sika, fallow and axis, and exotic antelope, including the oryx, blackbuck and nilgai species.
“They may be endangered or extinct in their native land of Africa,” Seale said, “but over here, they're certainly not.”
That's a fact that matters very little to activists like Priscilla Feral, president of the nonprofit animal rights organization Friends of Animals, who doesn't care that the animals are thriving in a non-native habitat where their primary purpose is to be prey. “To breed them in Texas,” Feral says, “sell them in an auction, put them in a fenced estate, where they have some acres to move around and therefore it's a natural life? I mean, what they are in Texas are lawn ornaments, until somebody blows their head off.”
Feral, one of the most visible anti-hunting and anti-exotic-ranch proponents in the country, referred to this type of exotic hunting as “canned hunting,” in which the animals are defenseless and easy targets. She referred to these ranch-owned animals as “habituated” instead of wild, given their controlled environments. In describing her experience in visiting one of these ranches, Feral said, “The animal is used to people. They don't run for their life when they see somebody. We drove up in a truck; nobody moved. It was like they were cows. The animal doesn't perceive the person as a predator — not that they can get out of the place anyway.”
But these are all ideas that Seale staunchly disputed.
“This has been the biggest argument that we've had with the animal activists. They call it canned hunting, and there isn't anything that's canned hunting that we do,” Seale said. “It's all fair chase. The animal, through terrain and the environment, has the opportunity to detect the hunter, and once the hunter is detected, has the opportunity to escape. So we don't go into a controlled environment, a small pen, and shoot these animals. It's just not done.”
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In March, a federal judge ruled in favor of the hunters in a lawsuit filed by Friends of Animals. The animal-rights group had tried to ban hunting of three exotic species of antelope — and also lift an exemption to the Endangered Species Act that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granted the exotic hunting ranches a decade earlier. FOA has tried various times to overturn the exemption and has almost won. In 2009, arguing that the blanket exemption violated the ESA's case-by-case permitting process, the court ruled in the animal rights group's favor, and by 2012 Congress was on track with a final rule that would have removed the exemption to make all 5,000 Texas ranches apply for it individually. That glimmer of progress, though, disappeared when, in a bill to save the country from another government shutdown, Texas Congressman John Carter (R-Round Rock) threw in a little clause that brought the blanket exemption back to life.
Today, that ESA exemption still holds on the basis that, through breeding the animals, ranches are conserving them. “We are literally saving hundreds of animals from becoming extinct,” Seale said. He added that only 10 percent of the rancher's inventory, generally the mature animals past their breeding ages, are hunted each year.
Feral finds the idea that the hunting ranches are saving the animals “comical." But for Seale and the 5,000 ranches, it's strictly business. The way Seale explains it, the animals' livelihood depends on their value to the ranchers and hunters. If nobody wants them, then the ranch doesn't either, and they'll no longer be bred. Seale described hunting as a “management tool.”
“If they have no value to the rancher, he's not gonna keep 'em,” Seale said. “They're not museum pieces. They're not to be put out here and looked at. What would you do with all these animals if they keep getting bred and bred and bred? How else are you going to reduce those numbers and manage those herds?”