In the rolling expanse of rural west Texas, a southern white rhinoceros named Killian has learned to come when he’s called. Killian stands there like a big fat puppy, hoping someone will dare to pet him. He and his rhino companion, Sebastian, like rubdowns far better than treats.
We are standing on Ox Ranch, a more than 18,000-acre property in Texas crawling with exotic animals. Some are gunned down by paying guests for trophies. Others, like Killian and Sebastian, live here just for show. There are an estimated 8,000 animals on the land – but if chief executive Jason Molitor has to pick his favorites, it’s the two rhinos.
“That’s a good boy,” Molitor says to Killian. “I know I didn’t bring you no food, but you eat too much.”
Owned by tech entrepreneur Brent Oxley, the remote hunting ranch is a spectacle of contradictions, a wonder of nature that at times feels eerily unnatural. Just like in much of Texas, white-tailed and axis deer roam. But so do zebras. Kangaroos laze about, thousands of miles from Australia. And there are dozens of Eld’s deer, endangered and endemic to south-east Asia.
They’re all mostly healthy, pampered and loved – until the day someone eyes them from behind the barrel of a gun. It costs $6,500 to shoot one of Ox Ranch’s zebras, slightly more for a kangaroo. An Eld’s deer is listed for $12,000, while bongos and cape buffalo go for $40,000 and $80,000 a head.
These are what critics call “canned” hunts, where animals inside enclosures are shot for meat and trophies. Even the pro-hunting Boone and Crockett Club strongly opposes them, critical of the “artificial or bogus hunting situation” that arises when a target is in captivity and can’t get away.
At Ox Ranch, Molitor likes to think of the facility’s high fences as a management tool. He suggests that the area’s sweeping acreage blunts any advantage to hunters – and yet unlike in the wild, it’s rare for someone to leave without making a kill.
“These animals are literally being bred for the bullet, and then they’re stocked and shot within these fenced enclosures, where they have no chance of escape,” explains Samantha Hagio, director of wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States.
“So these ranches bear zero resemblance to traditional hunting, and there’s just nothing ethical about shooting a captive animal.”
Amid a complex tapestry of state laws around exotic animals and canned hunts, Texas sits along the more lenient end of the spectrum. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, exotic animals can be harvested “by any means or methods at any time of year”.
But Molitor and Oxley have both said they’d end the hunting portion of their operations if anyone was willing to send them the millions a year it takes to maintain their ranch. It’s a promise with low stakes, since they’re convinced it will never happen.
Theirs is far from the only enterprise of its kind in Texas, a state where more than 95% of the land is privately owned and property taxes are high. Ranchers need to make money – and exotic animals offer a steady revenue stream.
So instead of sheep or goats, landowners are turning to bongos and kudus. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that there are around 500 captive hunting operations in Texas, and more than a thousand nationwide.
“Literally just Google Texas exotic hunting ranch, and you will get pages, and pages, and pages of results,” Hagio says.
Exotic ranches are a universe unto themselves, self-controlled and largely self-sustaining. The industry doesn’t deplete or destroy a naturally occurring population; instead, it creates its own populations to use for breeding and gun fodder. All of Ox Ranch’s exotics, for instance, came from inside the US. Owners sell to other owners, sometimes through auctions where animals are shocked and prodded into compliance.
Then, hunters go out with guides who make sure that – outside of the target – their expensive livestock stay safe. Any kills will most likely be clean, inflicting little to no suffering or psychological trauma, explained Perry Barboza, a professor in the college of agriculture and life sciences at Texas A&M University.
Asked about the animals’ welfare and the way they meet their end, Barboza likened targets for canned hunts to cattle at slaughter plants. The way they’re dispatched “might actually be quite humane”, he said. “Now, is it something that makes us comfortable? No. All of us are going to be very uncomfortable … These are violent deaths.”
At Ox Ranch, about 1,500 animals were shot last year. Whether a creature lives or dies usually boils down to its economic and practical value. Generally, the kills are “excess males” who aren’t needed for breeding. Female zebras, for example, will roam unperturbed. They’ll breed over and over, and they won’t be hunted when they could just be sold instead. Males, on the other hand, are worth thousands as wall mounts, and hunting them keeps their populations low enough so they don’t slaughter one another while vying for mates.
“If you take some of those males out, then you don’t have as much competition for the females, and then you [have] a lot less natural death loss,” Molitor says. To him, the whole operation fits within a free market version of conservation. Shoot a few Arabian oryx, and the profits will feed their brothers, sisters and cousins on the ranch.
“If an animal ceases to have a monetary value, it’s gonna cease to exist,” Molitor says candidly. “I just believe that in the end, it actually works better, you know, to give people some incentive to conserve these animals.”
Yet even in this laissez-faire economy, not every creature has a price tag. Just outside the ranch’s central lodge, where taxidermied trophies abound, an eclectic mix of orphans have been hand- or bottle-raised. No one will ever hunt them, now that they’ve lost all fear of humanity. It wouldn’t be fair.
Molitor points out a kudu bull who’s getting to be trophy-sized, but who will nevertheless live out his days as eye candy. And then there’s Scarlett, the castrated red kangaroo who swings by the lodge each morning for peanuts, popcorn, biscuits or bananas. The rhinos can be petted and admired, but never hunted.
Somewhere deep in the complex, Molitor spots who he’s been looking for: a tall, majestic giraffe. “Hey Buttercup!” She’s living large and carefree: no one’s going to shoot the giraffes – not when a single living female is worth $150,000 or more.
Buttercup is the “star of the ranch”, Molitor says. Bottle-raised, she happily takes selfies with strangers if they offer her a cupful of corn. She’s gentle, un-spooked, like an animal at a petting zoo.
“Dad can come go hunt his axis deer, and then mom and the kids can have fun feeding Buttercup or the turtles, or petting the rhinos,” Molitor says.
Ox Ranch’s customers travel from across the country – other parts of Texas, the deep south and even the coasts. Many come to shoot an affordable and familiar species, like an axis deer or blackbuck. But then there’s a more niche clientele loaded with disposable income, who go to exotic hunting ranches in the US to save themselves a trip to Africa.
Maybe they don’t want to reup their passport, deal with permits, or get immunized; or they already went abroad but couldn’t bag the species they wanted. So they come to Texas, where those animals are stocked and waiting.
“They’re basically just pay-to-play operations, right?” Hagio says. “For wealthy, somewhat lazy shooters who basically don’t want to get their boots scuffed by putting in the time, skill and effort that fair chase hunting requires.”
She’s not wrong, at least not always. Some clients prefer to sit inside hunting blinds and set off corn feeders that lure animals directly to them. If that’s what they want, it’s what they do. Ox Ranch even hosts bachelor parties where guys can hang out in big blinds decked out with a poker table, refrigerator and satellite TV. And, if a feral pig shows up, the bachelor gets to shoot at it.
But given a choice, Ox Ranch’s staff prefers hunting safari-style, where they drive jeeps along Hill country roads until they spot an animal. Molitor likens these hunts to his experiences in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana, though he believes they may be even harder. In Africa, he says, animals aren’t conditioned to distrust humans. On the ranch, he says, they know it’s time to leave when a jeep approaches.
And yet Ox Ranch’s animals have also grown to rely on people, for the $1.5m in hay and feed that supplements their diet each year, the antibiotics that nurse them back to health, and even the water troughs from which they drink. Across the world from their native continents, these species must adapt to a version of humanity that is both guardian angel and executioner, friend and foe.
During unwontedly harsh winter weather last February, the ranch’s hunting guides set up heat lamps, busted ice off of water troughs twice a day and cared for the animals as best they could. “They love the animals but yet they hunt the animals,” Molitor says, a relationship that’s nearly impossible for outsiders to understand.
In this tamed wilderness, a fragile ecosystem emerges: some die violently to pay for the rest. The most vulnerable and beloved animals are almost never in danger, and the land feels like a transcontinental experiment, complicated but beautiful.
At times, it all seems very sensible. Until a gunshot rings out.
This article by Alexandra Villarreal was first published by The Guardian on 27 September 2021. Lead Image: A taxidermy Alaskan brown bear and other animals at the Ox Ranch near Uvalde, Texas. Photograph: Tamir Kalifa/The Guardian.
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