ANIMALS WITH A PRICE ON THEIR HEADS
| Mountain Home, Texas
They are running. Up through the foliage on the ridge, you can see them. Patterns of light tan and dark, husky brown. Like the motion of autumn colors on a cold day, they move silently through the trees.
Black buck antelopes from the plains of India, mingled with dozens of other exotic species, run swiftly, glancing over their shoulders as they leap the high rocks and disappear into the woods.
They were brought here by the wealthy rancher who lives in the Spanish-style house on the ridge. From the veranda of his new mansion he can look out in the morning -- surrounded by expensive antiques, wronght-iron furniture, and an entire village fountain transported from Mexico -- and see sika deer from the mountains of Europe; ibex that used to hide in the high mountains of central Asia; aoudad sheep from northern Africa; mouflon from Corsica and Sardinia; and fallow deer native to southern Europe and Asia Minor.
Charles Schreiner III, a broad, taciturn man who looks a lot like Papa Hemingway, collects bandit guns, and lives in a house of architectural splendor, owns all of it -- the land, the antiques, and the antelopes -- all of the Y.O. Ranch, which calls itself the world's largest exotic hunting ranch.
Today, as he stands in the doorway of the "chuck wagon" on the Y.O. Ranch, directing a small group of Mexicans performing some chores for him, he speaks infrequently in faultless Spanish to the laborers, impatiently snapping his fingers at one to get moving. Otherwise, he leaves the talking to his son, Charles Schreiner IV.
The younger Charles Schreiner is manager of this ranch and part-heir to the Schreiner fortune, most of which is tied up in a 56,000-acre spread (that's about one-fifth the size of Houston), 10,000 cloven-hoofed animals -- 80 percent of which are hunted -- and the various other enterprises the rocky land has been put to.
He has convinced his father that it would be a good idea to let a reporter come to the ranch, on the premise that this would give them a chance to tell their side of the animal shooting ranch story.
So far, he feels, the story of these ranches (places where businessmen and others can come and pay a high price to hunt animals generally found only on faraway continents) has been only half told by journalists and animal protectionists, who simply do not understand the ranchers' position.
He resents the picture painted of shooting ranches in the television special "The Guns of Autumn," which showed almost-domesticated animals being "hunted" and painfully slaughtered by bungling amateurs who did not know how to give the animals quick, merciful slayings. Nor does he particularly appreciate articles by people like Charles Gaines, who wrote in "Old Dance on the Killing Ground" that hunting "has been judged, both by those who hunt and those who don't, against this very good reason for not doing it: It hurts and kills to be hunted, and no creature should have the right to impose suffering and death on another creature for pleasure."
This view is misguided, in the eyes of Charles Schreiner, who sees hunting from an entirely different perspective.
"It's about time conservationists and hunters got together and saw there are a whole lot of issues that are important to them both," he says, as he gulps down a snack at a picnic-style table in the chuck wagon, adding that animal conservation is what the Y.O. Ranch and the entire exotic-wildlife business in Texas are all about.
Today, there are about 210 Texans who won over 50,000 exotic animals and have come to be regarded as a boon to animal conservation by many respected conservationists around the world, as exotic wildlife concentrations in Texas have reached astounding proportions.
Exotic animals were first introduced into Texas as a novelty in the early 1930s, on the King ranch. Over the ensuing years, the practice of importing cloven-hoofed animals became more popular, because the ample grazing land provides conditions suitable for a multitude of species. Soon, vast stretches of Texas landscape became populated with over 57,000 animals from 37 exotic species, some of them more plentiful here than in their native habitats.
The Y.O., which began to import exotics in the early '50s, eventually became the largest such preserve in the country. In the process, it also won the hearts and minds of many zoo administrators, who see places like the Y.O. as wildlife refuges for endangered species that zoos themselves cannot accommodate.
As one zoo administrator told me, "charlie Schreiner has more land than all the zoos in the world put together."
According to Bill Conway, director of the prestigious Bronx Zoo in New York City, an influential member of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA), this is important because the available land area for many exotic creatures in the world is quickly dwindling away; and those animal species that provide no clear economic benefit to mankind are destined to vanish without reuges like the Y.O. (The black buck antelope, once on the verge of extinction in its native India, has now been reintroduced to neighboring Pakistan, after its numbers had been replenished on Texas game preserves.)
Seeding these animals into the landscape of Texas ranches seems to be a perfect solution to a drastic problem. But there is one catch, as Mr. Schreiner readily explains:
"We have eliminated the predators [by introducing the animals into a heavily controlled environment], and so we must become predators ourselves." These exotic breeds fare so well here in central Texas, he maintains, that they must be selectively "harvested" to prevent a crisis of overpopulation.
Paid hunting provides the dual benefit to the ranchers of thinning out the population and offering an economic incentive for maintaining the herds. About 1951, David Rickenbacker, son of the World War I ace, Capt. Eddie Rickenbaker, got the idea of making these "texotics" (as they came to be known) available to hunters; and a new sideline was born for over 300 land-rich Texans who turned their property into profitable shooting ranges.
The economic incentive can be quite attractive. Hunters pay from $400 to $1, 200 to shoot a single animal, and also spend money on their room, board, and other incidentals while they are here. A substantial portion of the Y.O.'s $1 million-plus annual revenues comes from such hunters.
Brochures for the Y.O. show a couple of dozen paying customers kneeling over their kills that collectively cost them over $17,000 to shoot, holding them by the antlers and smiling for the cameras. The variety of these customers is apparent from the photographs, which include one disabled Vietnam vet who had to be strapped into the back of a truck to bag his "fine Corsican ram" and a 13 -year-old boy who had just taken "a magnificent fallow deer." Other hunters are shown with fallen sika bucks, grizzled Russian boars, and numerous other animals.
While he argues that the ranch also offers opportunity for firsthand observation of species in the wild by schoolchildren, nature lovers, and just plain tourists, Mr. Schreiner acknowledges that hunting is the main industry of this place.
And, to understand the Y.O. he says, you must hunt on it.
So he and I set out one afternoon on a simulated hunt, going by truck (because the animals runs sooner from a man on foot), a high-power rifle resting on the seat between us, barrel down and the chamber empty.
As the truck jostles over the rocks and ridges that pepper this rugged country, dodging between trees and skirting large fallen logs, a stand of sika deer, motionless and erect, their eyes transfixed, studies us. They are too young to make good trophies, he explains; besides we are stalking the black buck antelope of India, a much warier and more elusive prey. And we have to spend a while jostling in the truck before we even see any.
The first black bucks we do see are in a distant stand of trees -- a few soft does and one mature buck, his antlers just big enough to qualify him as a good trophy animal. He and his brood spot us instantly from their hiding place 200 yards away; and, as we slide out of the truck making our way, crouching and scurrying across the ground, they suddenly take flight, running into the far trees, and soon disappearing among the branches.
During the next hour or so, the black bucks are always either too far away or too young to shoot at. Usually, they are only a flicker of white and tan (although they are called black buck, these antelopes are really a soft tan and beige color, except for the mature males) through distant trees. Sometimes you will catch a clear vision of one for an instant, and then he is gone.
I am aware of the fact, as we jostle over this roadless terrain, that almost 100 percent of the hunters who come here leave with a trophy, and that I am probably being shown the Y.O.'s most difficult animal hunt. But I also realize that the hunting here is in no way comparable to places like the Kissimmee game shooting ranch in Florida, where a couple of brothers bought aged lions and other cats, concealed them in cages, and after a phony, "hunt" prodded the animals out of their cages to be shot by a "hunter" a few yards away.
The Kissimmee cat-shooting operation was probably the worst in the country, before it was closed down by Florida gaming officials because of complaints from local residents. But it was by no means alone in its tactics or its sources of animals.
There are dozens of shooting preserves listed in hunting magazines, many of them with only a few acres of land and little sporting chance for the animals, where the prey has constant contact with preserve owners, who feed them and care for them daily. Thus the animals barely run when stalked. And many of these preserves get animals that have come from municipally supported zoos.
About a year after Kissimmee was shut down, a Florida gaming official read me invoices from the place with showed that the brothers had purchased many of their animals from zoo directors around the country who were anxious to relive themselves of the burden of housing and feeding these animals after they had outlived their usefulness.
According to a number of sources in zoos themselves, this practice still continues, although documenting the actual transactions is almost impossible, because they involve freelance operatives working in large vans visiting zoos, especially smaller roadside zoos, collecting unwanted bears, cats, and other creatures, paying cash, and moving on, with no one being any wiser.
One official at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that just such an operative was involved in the Kissimmee hunting ground, "acting as their agent, finding animals for them, and making independent sales that eventually got him into trouble. But he's hard to find."
That particular agent may be hard to find, but the practice of selling animals to preserves is not hard to run across in conversations with knowledgeable people in the animal business.
Steve Graham, director of the Baltimore zoo, says, "I got into the zoo business in a small roadside zoo that regularly sold to preserves. The owner had spare animals that were of no use to him, and he was eager to sell them to preserves for a good price. After all, you can sell a male elk to a zoo for $ 100, or you can get $1,000 from a preserve."
Mr. Graham says this practice is especially disconcerting, because "we are supposed to be the protectors of wildlife, the last refuge for these creatures."
A committee of the AAZPA that studied the shooting ranches reported that the better ones provide an interesting opportunity for species preservation, but worried that "the disposal of zoo animals to shooting ranches raises the specter of inhumane slaughter of unsuspecting zoo 'pets' in an atmosphere of stress and trauma." And, in 1978, the committee recommended "blanket condemnations" of zoos that sell to preserves; but this recommendation was withdrawn in light of the potential some preserves offer for species preservation -- a move likely to arouse suspicions among animal protectionists who see shooting preserves as a lucrative market for zoo animal surplus.
The Y.O. Ranch, generally considered the most reputable shooting preserve in the country, openly purchases animals from zoos, but only its breeding stock. The progeny can be hunted, but the original zoo donations cannot. So, presumably, the sikas, axes, and mouflon we see rustling through the brush are second-, third-, and fourth-generation species naturalized to the Y.O.
Many animal protectionists i spoke to question the use of even these later generations for open-season hunting. They acknowledge that a certain amount of population control is necessary; but they allege that population control is not the only motive behind the paid hunting that goes on at places like the Y.O. And Irv Drasnin, producer of "The Guns of Autumn," advised me to "be wary of the nomenclature of hunting clubs" -- including words like "management" and "harvesting," which he believes are euphemisms for open hunting and easy killing.
While there are numerous close encounters with several species on my simulated hunt through the Y.O., there is certainly no "easy killing" of our selected prey. We only come across a clean shot at an axis deer, one that Mr. Schreiner says is more tame because it is just inside a nonhunting compound.
When I first spot him, he is looking at me, frozen. Whatever it is that suddenly enters an animal's mind to make it run has not yet come to him.
So I slip quietly out of the truck and to the ground, where I crouch and aim. His large antlers fill the top of my telescopic field. Statuesque, beautiful, he stares right at me, arrested, motionles, alert. And, incongruously, during that suspended moment we are looking at each other, I feel a breathless sense of impending danger.
When I squeeze the trigger, there is only a harmless click. But somehow, as I do, the memory of first shooting this gun races back into my mind: the expanse of woods around me suddenly being filled with a solid, explosive reports; a clay bird 250 yards away disintegrating into powder; and the un deniable conviction of the power that lies in this gun -- coiled, dangerous, and ready to use.
After I have given myself a chance to fire several times, I rise and walk within 75 yards of the buck. The dry leaves crunch under my feet, and the wind blows gently against my face. Finally, I come too close; he spins in one deft movement, flexing his muscles and racing across the stony ground, until he disappears among the trees on a nearby ridge, becoming only a blur of color in a whispering forest of leaves.
Had my gun been loaded, I would have "harvested" an impressive trophy for my living room wall; Charles Schreiner III would have made $950; and the texotic population of the Y.O. Ranch would have been "managed" and reduced ny one magnificent axis deer.