The spotlight cut through the night and caught the silhouette and shining eyes of the deer in the distance. Glen Wampler rested his Styr Mannlicher rifle on the half-opened window of the pickup truck. He was a dead shot from this range and he sighted through the high-powered scope.
Seconds passed as Wampler waited for the deer to turn. Then he squeezed the trigger. The deer fell with a bullet to the head.
"My daddy never liked me to waste ammunition," said Wampler, in the manner of a man who has hunted for food rather than sport. "And he always wanted me to shoot for the neck or above."
Food for Restaurants
In the course of the night, Wampler would fire the silencer-equipped rifle 21 times and hit 18 deer. This is what he does, sometimes six nights a week. He shoots deer--exotic deer--for meat that eventually finds its way to restaurants from California to Florida.
Were he to shoot the indigenous white-tailed deer like this--by spotlight and out of season-- Wampler would soon find himself knee-deep in game wardens. But because he hunts exotics on private land, the deer fall into the same category as farm animals, which is to say they aren't considered game at all.
On this particular night, Wampler concentrated on does because ranch owner Don Otting said they were fast outpacing the number of bucks on his land.
"I thought I was a pretty good shot until these boys came along," said Otting, who was driving the pickup.
Giraffes and Ostriches
Exotics are animals that are not native to a particular region. Here in the Hill Country of Central Texas, hundreds of ranches are teeming with exotics and more ranches are getting into the business all the time. Sika deer from the Far East graze alongside European fallow deer and India's axis deer. And on places such as the YO Ranch near here, the likes of giraffes, ostriches and zebras, which are not hunted, share space with Texas longhorns.
The most recent survey, done in 1984, put the number of exotics at more than 120,000 on 370 Texas ranches. But Max Traweek, a Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist charged with making a new count this year, is sure those figures have increased. In fact, exotic game has proliferated so much in the Hill Country over the years that it has its own name--Texotics.
Although many ranches now raise exotic game that is systematically harvested for food, the most lucrative part of the exotics business has been accommodating trophy hunters who can't afford the trip to Africa or India, and who come to Texas instead.
That kind of hunting isn't popular in all quarters, and critics charge that fenced-in animals lose a good deal of the edge they might have if they were stalked in the wild. Even most Texotics ranchers cringe at recent stories of "canned hunts," in which lions are released from cages so they can be killed by hunters.
"It's not real common," said Jim Stinebaugh, an enforcement agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in San Antonio. "But there is no protection for an African lion in Texas. I'd bet there are no more than 100 big cats killed in that manner each year, but one is too many.
"I get calls from people because a neighbor across the fence has a Bengal tiger. They're worried to death."
And there are those who object to the shooting of any exotics.
"It's a cheap way to go on safari," said Bill Mead of the Gulf States office of the Humane Society. "It's really just getting a trophy to hang on the wall. Everybody and his brother seems to be getting into it now."
Bought Animals From Zoos
Exotic animals of all stripes have been in Texas for decades and at last count there were 94 different species. The famous King Ranch in South Texas was the first to introduce exotics to the state when its owners bought a few Indian nilgai antelope in 1924 and released them on the open range. Over the years, other ranch owners, including World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker, bought surplus animals from zoos, keeping them more as curiosities than as a source of income.
But when a seven-year drought hit Texas in the '50s, ranch owners started thinking that the exotic animals on their land might be used to help make the mortgage payments. After the drought, the Schreiner family, owners of the legendary YO Ranch, began stocking more exotics as a hedge against the vagaries of ranching.
As the story goes, a man once came to the ranch and saw a black buck antelope, an animal that he had once hunted unsuccessfully in India. He asked rancher Charles Schreiner III how much he would charge to hunt the antelope, a descendant of surplus stock from the San Antonio zoo. Faced with a huge debt from the drought, Schreiner suggested $125 as a fair price. That was the first time an exotic was hunted for a fee on the YO. Now, such hunting is the principal source of income for the 50,000-acre ranch.
"It's vital," said Louis Schreiner, the youngest of the Schreiner sons. "If (the exotic animals) were all to die tonight, it would probably ruin us. We do everything we can that's ethical to make money off the exotics."
He hopped into an open Jeep and headed for the pasture where giraffes nibbled on oak trees and an ostrich looked on menacingly from afar. Zebras munched hay in another part of the field. These animals are commonly known as "superexotics." They are off limits to hunters but fair game for camera-laden tourists who also contribute to the ranch's economy. Other animals, however, whether a North African aoudad or an Indian barasingha deer or a black buck antelope, are there for the taking.
And therein lies a paradox of Texotics.
Endangered in Pakistan
The black buck, for instance, is endangered in its native Pakistan. But there are thousands of them in Texas and they are hunted regularly. The YO even flew 45 of the animals to Pakistan in an attempt to help replenish the species there.
The barasingha is on the endangered species list, but it is hunted in Texas because there is an overabundance of bucks on the ranches that have nurtured such herds.
The aoudad sheep, with their curved horns and shy ways, are becoming so plentiful that many ranchers think of them more as pests than as exotics.
Humane Society members complain of the lack of fair chase. The American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums has a policy against member zoos supplying ranches where exotics are hunted. But Palmer Krantz, the president of the AAZPA, concedes that the contributions of the ranches cannot be overlooked.
"The ranches have done a tremendous job with some of the species," he said. "You cannot ignore that. But you also cannot ignore the fact that hunting is a very emotional issue, especially in urban areas."
'Nut for Something Pure'
Rancher Dale Priour is one of those who has worked to improve the quality of his exotic animals, including the barasingha deer and the red lechwe antelope of South Africa. "I am a nut for something pure," he explained.
But he also believes that the U.S. government meddles far too much with its regulations about endangered animals, and that older bucks should be shot as trophies so that ranchers can support themselves raising exotics. In the case of the barasingha, he said, it took a full three years to convince the U.S. Department of Agriculture that he should be able to cull aging bucks for trophy stock.
"If they would back off and not hobble us with rules and regulations, (exotics) would multiply until they are no longer endangered," Priour said.
One of the oddities about Texas exotics is that the state would rather not see them--endangered species or otherwise--on Texas ranches. The parks and wildlife department's primary responsibility is ensuring the continued survival of native game--in particular the white-tailed deer. According to tests the department has conducted, exotic deer are hardier than the white tail.
"We would rather there not be any exotics around because they are such tough competition with the white tail," said parks and wildlife biologist Mike Reagan.
Number of Native Deer
The white-tailed deer population is hardly in danger, what with an estimated 4.5 million of them in Texas. But it is that protective stance by state officials that keeps Mike Hughes in business. He is the owner of the Texas Wild Game Cooperative, which operates out of the tiny town of Ingram in the Hill Country.
Hughes is marksman Glen Wampler's boss and makes his living in the exotic game harvesting business.
Six years ago, Hughes hit upon the idea of using exotic animals as a commercial source of venison, which he markets as a healthier alternative to beef. He financed the construction of a portable slaughterhouse, complete with a refrigerator that can hold up to 50 carcasses, that is taken to all the ranches where exotics are hunted. And he has agreed to pay for a state meat inspector, who goes on every hunt.
Now, with business booming, Hughes estimates that his hunters take about 3,000 exotic deer a year from 150 or so Hill Country ranches. The deer are then processed and sold for everything from prime cuts to sausage. To those who object to his line of work, Hughes points to Europe and New Zealand, where venison farms flourish.
Hughes does not agree with research findings that exotics encroach on the white tail's habitat. But he depends on that attitude from the state, lest some kind of restrictions be placed on exotic hunting. The last thing he needs, for instance, is a hunting season on exotics.
"Virtually every animal we depend on for food is an exotic," said Hughes, eating barbecue in an Ingram cafe. "There were no cows or goats or chickens or horses here at one time. There is a tremendous tendency for people to put a strong division between conventional livestock and an axis deer. It leads to an attitude that they should be treated so much differently and I don't buy that.
"Right now is a particularly sensitive period where people are becoming more aware of exotics," he said. "The danger is that unless people have an objective perspective, we could have some adverse regulations."
Though Hughes pays at most $2 a pound for a dressed-out deer, ranchers see the increased interest in venison as a boon to a ranch economy that has had its share of troubles--among them a slackening in the number of trophy hunters because of the depressed Texas economy.
"The demand is there," said the YO's Schreiner. "It's perfect timing."
Meanwhile, the concept of raising exotics for venison seems to be spreading. There are several deer farms in Upstate New York and Priour, the rancher, said he has received an order for 70 exotic deer from a Seattle man who plans to raise them there. Schreiner said he recently attended an exotic game auction in Missouri and what he saw convinced him that raising exotics would eventually be common everywhere.
"It was the damnedest thing I'd ever seen," he said. "It was Middle America. It wasn't a bunch of people from hunting ranches. It was 95% farmers from Minnesota and Iowa and Missouri. They aren't doing it for fun. It's an alternative cash crop for their farms."