Tampa Bay Times

EXOTIC PREY ROAMS IN TEXAS

- New York Times

At the safari-style Ox Ranch, there are animals to admire— and game to be hunted.

UVALDE, Texas — On a ranch at the southweste­rn edge of the Texas Hill Country, a hunting guide spotted her cooling off in the shade: an African reticulate­d giraffe. Such is the curious state of modern Texas ranching, that a giraffe among the oak and the mesquite is an everyday sort of thing.

“That’s Buttercup,” said the guide, Buck Watson, 54.

In a place of rare creatures, Buttercup is among the rarest; she is off limits to hunters at the Ox Ranch. Not so the African bongo antelope, one of the world’s heaviest and most striking spiral-horned antelopes, which roams the same countrysid­e as Buttercup. The price to kill a bongo at the Ox Ranch is $35,000.

Himalayan tahrs, wild goats with a bushy lion-style mane, are far cheaper. The trophy fee, or kill fee, to shoot one is $7,500. An Arabian oryx is $9,500; a sitatunga antelope, $12,000; and a black wildebeest, $15,000.

“We don’t hunt giraffes,” Watson said. “Buttercup will live out her days here, letting people take pictures of her. She can walk around and graze off the trees as if she was in Africa.”

The Ox Ranch near Uvalde, Texas, is not quite a zoo, and not quite an animal shooting range, but something in between.

The ranch’s hunting guides and managers walk a thin, controvers­ial line between caring for thousands of rare, threatened and endangered animals and helping to execute them. Some see the ranch as a place for sport and conservati­on. Some see it as a place for slaughter and hypocrisy.

The Ox Ranch provides a glimpse into the future of the mythic Texas range — equal parts exotic game-hunting retreat, upscale outdoor adventure, and breeding and killing ground for exotic species.

Ranchers in the nation’s top cattle-raising state have been transformi­ng pasture land into something out of an African safari, largely to lure trophy hunters who pay top-dollar kill fees to hunt exotics. Zebra mares forage here near African impala antelopes, and it is easy to forget that downtown San Antonio is only two hours to the east.

The ranch has about 30 bongo, the African antelopes with a trophy fee of $35,000. Last fall, a hunter shot one. “Taking one paid their feed bill for the entire year, for the rest of them,” said Jason Molitor, the chief executive of the Ox Ranch.

To many animal-protection groups, such management of rare and endangered species is not only repulsive, but puts hunting ranches in a legal and ethical gray area.

“Depending on what facility it is, there’s concern when animals are raised solely for profit purposes,” said Anna Frostic, a senior attorney with the Humane Society of the United States.

Hunting advocates disagree and say the breeding and hunting of exotic animals helps ensure species’ survival. Exotic-game ranches see themselves not as an enemy of wildlife conservati­on but as an ally, arguing that they contribute a percentage of their profits to conservati­on efforts.

“We love the animals, and that’s why we hunt them,” Molitor said. “Most hunters in general are more in line with conservati­on than the public believes that they are.”

Animal-rights activists are outraged by these ranches. They call what goes on there “canned hunting” or “captive hunting.’’

“Hunting has absolutely nothing to do with conservati­on,” said Ashley Byrne, the associate director of campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “What they’re doing is trying to put a better spin on a business that they know the average person finds despicable.”

A 2007 report from Texas A&M University called the exotic wildlife industry in America a billiondol­lar industry.

Part of the allure of exotic game-hunting is the so-called trophy at the end — the mounted and lifelike head of the animal that the hunter put down. The Ox Ranch is Graves Taxidermy’s biggest customer.

“My main business, of course, is white-tailed deer, but the exotics have kind of taken over,” said Browder Graves, the owner.

He said the animal mounts he makes for people were not so much a trophy on a wall as a symbol of the hunter’s memories of the entire experience. He has a mount of a Himalayan tahr he shot in New Zealand that he said he cannot look at without thinking of the time he spent with his son hunting up in the mountains.

“It’s God’s creature,” he said. “I’m trying to make it look as good as it can.”

 ?? Photos by New York Times ?? Buck Watson, a guide at the Ox Ranch in Uvalde, Texas, pets Buttercup, who is protected from the hunters that come to the ranch.
Photos by New York Times Buck Watson, a guide at the Ox Ranch in Uvalde, Texas, pets Buttercup, who is protected from the hunters that come to the ranch.
 ??  ?? Meg Rowland, a newly hired assistant, works on a customer’s order at Graves Taxidermy, where many trophy carcasses from the nearby Ox Ranch are taken for preservati­on.
Meg Rowland, a newly hired assistant, works on a customer’s order at Graves Taxidermy, where many trophy carcasses from the nearby Ox Ranch are taken for preservati­on.

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