February 28, 2005

Canned Safari, Made in USA

WASHINGTON (AFP) -- Rick Parsons crawled on his belly toward his prey, stopped at 150 yards (140 meters), and fired a single lethal shot at an unsuspecting blackbuck antelope from India -- on Texas land.

Indeed, Americans need look no further than the expansive southern US state to find antelope or zebra trophies, as ranchers raise and import Asian and African animals for hunters who crave a safari hunt but have no time to travel abroad.

Hunters pay thousands of dollars to legally bag animals such as Nepalese water buffalo or African gazelles roaming in huge American estates surrounded by high fences.

Many such facilities' websites feature pictures of grinning clients posing with their kills.

Rancho La Rama Del Mezquite in Texas, for instance, offers a long list of animals from Europe, Africa and Asia pictured at www.texas-exotics.com. It charges 3,000 dollars for a zebra, 3,200 dollars for a Chinese yak and 1,500 dollars for a blackbuck.

Hunting in fenced estates is legal in many US states, but a movement wants to limit the practice.

Animal rights groups say some estates commit abuses by releasing animals into small fenced areas with no chance of escaping their hunters -- something opponents call "canned hunting."

A US senator has introduced a bill to ban the transport and possession of exotic animals kept for so-called canned hunting facilities smaller than 1,000 acres (405 hectares).

The legislation says there are more than 1,000 canned hunting operations in more than 25 US states. In some cases, African lions and giraffes can be killed, the bill says.

"Canned hunts make a mockery of the sport of hunting," Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, said in a statement earlier this month after he introduced the bill. "There is nothing sportsmanlike or skillful about shooting an animal that cannot escape."

Parsons, director of governmental affairs and conservation at Safari Club International (SCI), an Arizona-based hunting organization, agrees with that last statement.

SCI does not support canned hunting, he told AFP, adding: "It doesn't have any element of fair chase. That's not hunting and we don't support it."

However, his organization will likely oppose Lautenberg's bill, which it already rejected last year, he said, adding that SCI differentiates "canned hunting" from the large estate hunting in which animals have room to roam and escape.

"You can have a very challenging hunt where you never see the animal or get a shot at it in less than 1,000 acres, depending on the nature of the terrain and the animal," said Parsons, who works in Washington.

The exotic animals are thriving in the United States, he said.

"Some of those animals have virtually disappeared from the wild, and if they weren't being bred in captivity on these ranches they might disappear forever," Parsons said.

Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, based in Washington, said wild animals often become tamed in estates due to repeated contact with humans who feed them, making them easy prey and less likely to dart away when a hunter approaches.

The Humane Society, he said, is going after the most "egregious" canned hunting abusers: cases in which hunters can pick an animal that is released in a pen where it can easily be shot down.

"This is a cruel and inhumane and unfair type of drive-through killing where people can pick a zebra or a giraffe or a gazelle off a menu and shoot these animals at point blank range," Markarian said.

"It's like shooting fish in a barrel."