The Ethically Messy World of Texas Exotic Game Ranches

I was getting way too precious about “oh no I can’t post on unless it’s gold nuggets of wisdom,” and that was bullshit obviously, because first of all this is my damn site and we all need to get comfortable with my right to fill it with fart noises if I so please, and secondly you can’t ever produce gold nuggets of wisdom by telling yourself you’re not allowed to write anything until you’re 100% sure you have a gold nugget on deck. That was maybe a lot of metaphors in one sentence. I’m not fixing it. This is Trash Post Week and my challenge to myself is to post every day no matter how uninspired I feel, or how little time I have, or how much the finished post makes me go “I have no idea what I was going for here.”

A Pere David's deer

The Père David’s deer, or milu, is a large deer from China with uniquely forked antlers, a shaggy reddish coat, and a habit of grazing on aquatic plants in wetlands. It went extinct in the wild in the year 1900; the last remaining herd belonged to the Emperor, and during the Boxer Rebellion, German soldiers broke into the royal gardens and ate all the deer. RIP Père David’s deer.

Almost, but not quite. A few deer had been exported to Europe and still lived in zoos and parks there. Herbrand Russell, 11th Duke of Bedford, collected the remaining Père David’s deer on his estate and kept them alive and breeding through two World Wars. Every Père David’s deer alive today is descended from the Duke’s herd. Since the 80s there have been attempts to reintroduce the deer in the wild in China, and there’s now a couple thousand living in the wild, and a few thousand more semi-wild on nature reserves.

Also, if you want to go shoot a Père David’s deer, it’ll cost $9500, as part of an all-inclusive game ranch package featuring two nights lodging in a private cabin with jacuzzi tub and award-winning chef. Another ranch offers them for $8500, but the all-inclusive package is separate at $350/night. It’s worth it, though; not only are the amenities luxurious, but ranch staff will handle all the nasty parts of hunting for you. They find you the animal, you shoot, they skin and quarter it and deliver it to the taxidermist and butcher, you go to the bar to watch the game on their 70″ TV.

This is a thing. This is Texas Super Exotic Hunting.

Hunters posing with a dead zebra

Texas hunting regulations only apply to native animals; when it comes to exotic species on private property, you can use any weapon in any season and kill as many as you can afford. You do need a permit to breed and sell these animals, but if you can pony up the investment to buy a 10,000 acre ranch and stock it with zebras and wildebeest, you can afford the permit.

Père David’s deer aren’t the rarest species you can kill for fun. The scimitar oryx is a sturdily built antelope with long, elegantly curved horns, it’s native to North Africa, and it was declared extinct in the wild in 2000. There are also some projects to reintroduce the scimitar oryx, and there’s maybe a hundred oryxes back out in the wild. There’s 11,000 of them on Texas exotic game ranches. $7500 plus all-inclusive fee.

You can also hunt all sorts of non-extinct animals, from ostrich to kangaroo to Watusi… wait, seriously? Watusi cattle are domestic animals! You can walk up and pet them! They do have cool horns but for god’s sake you’re literally hunting a milk cow!

Well, you’re not literally hunting it, because it’s a tame animal kept on a fenced property, so when the “guide” “guides” you to an animal, it’s more of a farm tour than a battle of wits. These places have “no kill, no pay” policies and I’m guessing they absolutely never have to use them.

(Also purely speculation, but: a lot of these ranches have suspiciously long lists of species available. Is each of dozens of ranches keeping its own individual herd of 40 different kinds of antelope? Or do you book your hunt and then the antelope shows up in a truck a couple hours before your check-in time? I’m honestly not sure about this one, maybe they do just have absurdly large herds because they’re in the middle of nowhere and have ridiculous profit margins so they can afford to have a thousand animals running around. Maybe.)

Oh, and you can not only hunt buffalo, you can hunt white buffalo, which is extremely fucked up. I’m not trying to come for these guys’ businesses here, as long as they aren’t collecting wild-caught animals (and I think they’re mostly not) who gives a rip, but that’s fucked up. (They aren’t even “real” white buffalo, those are far too rare, they’re beefalo bred from white cows. Moo.)

I should probably expand on that “who gives a rip.”

The big ethical dilemma usually framed around these places is: are they saving species? Yes, they’re selling off individuals to become mancave décor, but because of those juicy profit margins, they’re able to breed far more animals than zoos or wildlife refuges can. Going from being the Emperor’s prized beasts to luxury venison for white-collar criminals* in Texas may not be a noble end for the Père David’s deer, but it’s better than oblivion.

*speculation! there are any number of extremely legitimate reasons why someone would have ten thousand dollars to spend on a fucking deer

Except, when the project was launched to reintroduce Père David’s deer in China, they got their deer from Robin Russell, 14th Duke of Bedford.

When the Arabian oryx was reintroduced to the wild, they used animals from the Phoenix Zoo and Saudi Arabia. The scimitar oryxes used for reintroduction were from a herd bred in Abu Dhabi. Most likely this isn’t even because Texas ranchers are uncharitably hoarding their animals; it’s because their genetics are traaaaash.

If you want to shoot something less ecologically, but more existentially, troubling than an oryx, there’s Monster Whitetails. Since these are just regular very-not-endangered Virginia whitetails, they’re available in states besides Texas, but the Texas ranches certainly stock them. They are not, however, regular whitetail bucks. A wild buck might have 8, 10 or exceptionally even 12 points to their antlers. Captive-bred monster whitetails have… this.

A whitetail deer with a massively overgrown rack of antlers

Why do people want a trophy that says “I bought this animal on the hoof like it was a goat at the 4-H auction?” I cannot answer this question.

I can, however, tell you that this is about as bad for the animals as it looks. The calcium demand on the deer’s body is massive and the weight can keep them from holding their heads upright. Being bred for antlers cuts a deer’s lifespan almost in half. Most of the pictures you see of monster whitetails show them in velvet, because by the time they’re done growing, these ridiculous things are likely going to get bashed up and look like hell or need to be sawn off because the animal can’t live a normal life with this mess on its head.

Obviously the exotic animals aren’t being bred for this, but I bet some of these ranchers would if they could. Point is, breeding to optimize an animal for hunting is very different from breeding to perpetuate the species.

So I don’t put a lot of stock in the “we’re preserving rare animals” argument. It’s kind of like saying a cattle ranch is keeping the mighty aurochs alive in captivity. Technically the animals continue to exist, but is any work being done on giving them a future beyond keeping the ranches stocked for next year’s hunts?

On the other hand, is this any worse than a cattle ranch? I think that’s a tougher question. As far as I can tell, the animals are bred in Texas, so the hunting isn’t a drain on wild populations. And sure, the hunts are a parody of “fair chase,” with corn-fed animals on fenced pastures, but has a deer ever appreciated being killed fairly? Apart from the ones with avant-garde sculptures for antlers, the individual animals seem to have pretty good lives on every day but their last.

So ultimately I can’t really passionately condemn this. It’s definitely a weird and creepy industry, from the luxury-asshole market segment to the breeding of hybrid oryxes that further reinforce that nobody means it about preserving species. But is it doing harm? Compared to much more conventionally accepted things like industrial chicken farming? Idk, man. It’s mostly just tacky.

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