CAGED ANIMALS, WILD HUNTERS : The ‘Canned Hunt’ Industry Has Made Bagging an Exotic Animal as Easy as Shooting Fish in a Barrel

<i> Michael Goodman is a former Times investigative reporter. His last story for this magazine was on Asian gambling. </i>

THE BLACK LEOPARD CROUCHES inside a small portable cage in a pasture on a central Texas ranch. He is a young male--barely full-grown. Men with guns peer and poke at him. The leopard weaves and bobs at each new movement. A pack of dogs howls and strains on its leads. The leopard hisses, bares his teeth and slowly blinks his eyes. He acts bewildered. * And why not? He’s been conditioned since birth not to fear humans or dogs. He was separated from his mother before his eyes opened. Then he was bottle-fed, hand-fed, declawed, treated like a kitten. Exotic-animal dealers call this process “gentling” a big cat, so that it can be sold as a pet. * A hunting guide and his helper check the cage door. The helper yells toward a row of trucks:”Get that hunter up here with that gun!” The helper jumps on the cage roof. The guide and others scramble for the safety of their pickup trucks. A woman climbs onto a truck roof. “Everybody ready!” the helper shouts. He jerks open the cage door. The leopard cringes in the corner. The helper whacks the cage. The leopard scoots into the pasture, tail tucked, body hugging the ground. Ahead are cedar brakes and mesquite. Behind are trucks and humans. It is assumed the leopard will dash for the brush, the hounds will be released--the hunt will be on. The leopard hesitates for an instant, then slinks under a pickup truck. A man curses. Another man whispers, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.” Nine dogs are released. They circle the truck, baying, tails wagging. The leopard is flushed. He lopes--awkwardly, clumsily--into the open. The dogs swarm around him, snapping and biting. The leopard tires quickly. He rolls on his back and swipes feebly at the dogs. Five armed men approach cautiously. One aims a pistol chambered to fire a big-game rifle cartridge. Dogs swirl around the leopard in a frenzy. They prevent a clear shot. The guide’s helper tries to scatter the dogs with a stick. * “Now!” someone yells. A bullet slams into the leopard’s back at point-blank range. He dies with the jowl of a yelping hound locked between his teeth. The dead leopard’s mouth is pried open to free the dog. Men and women congratulate the shooter, Ty Bourgeois, 29, a former oil-rig worker. They slap him on the back and shake his hand. He bares the leopard’s teeth and smiles for the cameras. Bourgeois figures to have the leopard mounted as if it were in Africa resting on a tree limb with a paw or two dangling from a branch. * A black leopard in the African wild is a genetic rarity produced by a whim of nature. It can be hunted legally there, and it is a prized trophy. In the United States, black leopards and endangered jungle cats such as tigers and jaguars are cheap and easily obtainable in the “big cat” marketplace--an unstructured wholesale market that teems with big cats supplied by an informal network of breeders, dealers, collectors and zoos scattered across the country. The cats are resold to the public, often for many times their original cost. As gentled cubs, they’re the rage as pets. Grown up, they’re in demand by trophy hunters who may shoot them--usually illegally--at close, even point-blank range in small enclosures.

This is commonly called a “canned hunt”--so named because it is like opening a can of sardines and saying you’re fishing. The term characterizes a growing practice once as rare and as secretive as a blood oath. Canned hunts are still low-profile. They usually occur on private property behind locked gates and involve people with little reason to brag.

TY BOURGEOIS GREW UP ON A TINY FARM. He became an oil-rig mechanic in the Gulf of Mexico, was badly burned in an offshore helicopter crash a few years ago and received a large insurance settlement. He bought exotic black Hawaiian sheep for his father’s farm, two Ford Broncos and a spacious $100,000 house in Lake Charles, La., a resort town. He also began hunting exotic animals in Texas. When he shot the black leopard, a threatened species, in September, 1990, he committed a federal crime.


Bourgeois’ lawyer, John DeRosier, of Lake Charles, says his client is simply a “meek, mild little farm boy just out of the woods (whose) only crime is he didn’t have the courage to walk away . . . the courage to say, ‘Stop this now!’ ” A Texas warden investigating Bourgeois calls him “a typical Louisiana ‘coon ass’ with more money than brains.”

The Bourgeois incident was national news. He is cursed and wished a miserable death by many who hear of his deed. Back home, he and the black leopard will be mentioned in the same breath until the day he dies. Bourgeois is aware of all this.

During an interview, he reacts with a nod, a sigh and a shrug and waits stoically, politely, for the next question. He is asked how he got involved with the leopard. He stares at the floor of his den. He is short with bandy legs, a thick chest, trim brown hair, sheepish eyes, thin pursed lips, a pert nose and a pasty complexion. He speaks slowly, carefully, just above a whisper. It began with a telephone call from Daniel Lee Moody, a Texas hunting guide and outfitter.

“Dan was all excited,” Bourgeois recalls. “Dan was saying, ‘Man, you can’t believe what I’ve got.’ He said it was a black panther . . a black cougar . . . a bad one. He needed to get it off a ranch . . . use dogs. It would be a great hunt. He asked if I ever heard of an albino deer--this was the same thing: just like a white deer.”

It sounded plausible to Bourgeois, and his faith in Moody is stated in print on the Texan’s conventional-hunting brochure:

“I’ve enjoyed hunting with Dan (Moody). In the past years I’ve killed many trophy white-tailed deer and trophy exotics. I believe he has the finest selection of trophy exotics in the business. His hospitality and accommodations are second to none.”

Bourgeois shrugs. “I really trusted him. We’d talked about hunting cougars . . . this was a black one.” The hunt was set. Then Moody telephoned that the “cougar” had been caught in a trap for wild hogs. He had a new plan: Give the cougar a few minutes’ head start, corner it with dogs, then shoot it.

The story changed again upon Bourgeois’ arrival at Moody’s Texas hunting ranch. Bourgeois recalls: “Dan said we were hunting a black leopard instead of a cougar. The leopard had gotten away from a man who owned it. . . . This was a bad cat. . . . If he gets loose . . . jumps that fence . . . we’re going to shoot it in the morning. Everything was legal.” The next morning, Bourgeois says, he was so nervous: “I was shaking. I didn’t even go around the cat.”

Then, Bourgeois says, came the blur of snarling dogs tearing at the leopard, and voices shouting orders. “I had to use Dan’s pistol ‘cause mine had a scope. I was too close to focus it.” He clearly remembers examining the carcass. “The first thing I did was reach for the claws--to see a leopard’s claws.” He reddens. “But there weren’t any claws. He’d been declawed.”

The leopard was loaded into Bourgeois’ Bronco for the six-hour drive to Louisiana. With Bourgeois were several friends, including Kurt Courville, a Lake Charles taxidermist who was on the hunt. “I was nauseated by what happened,” Courville remembers. “Nobody brought up the cat on the drive back. But I sure did some thinking if we were doing something illegal. Ty was worried, too.”

They telephoned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and discovered that leopards are a protected species, and that Bourgeois had committed a federal felony when he shot the cat and took it across the state line. Bourgeois hired an attorney and agreed to testify against Moody and another outfitter, Ronald Terrell McCloud, who had bought the leopard at an exotic-animal auction.

Bourgeois also gave federal authorities a videotape recorded by a friend. The tape showed the leopard running under the truck, being mauled by dogs and then, dead, being photographed with Bourgeois.

“I didn’t really realize what kind of hunt it was until I sat down and saw that tape,” Bourgeois says. He pleaded guilty to violation of the U.S. Endangered Species Act and was sentenced July 21 to three years’ probation and fined $2,000. Moody and McCloud pleaded guilty to conspiring to transport illegally taken wildlife. Moody was sentenced to six months in prison, three years’ probation and a $2,000 fine. McCloud also pleaded guilty to failing to disclose on a gun application that he was an ex-felon. His combined sentence was 27 months in prison and three years’ probation.

The leopard will be mounted and donated to a San Antonio-area high school, whose insignia is a panther. Bourgeois is bitter about losing the trophy. “Ty’d love to have that mount,” Courville says. “The coloring was something. In the shade, he’s coal black. In the sun, chocolate brown with light rosette spots. A beautiful animal.”

THE DEMAND FOR EXOTIC TROPHIES HAS become a big business. Last fall, federal and state officers raided the 160-acre Texoma Hunting Wilderness preserve in Bennington, Okla. Records seized indicated that 300 to 400 native and exotic animals had been shot there during the past three or four years. The animals included grizzly bears, black bears, deer, elk and cougars, all protected under federal or state laws. Trophy hunters from across the country paid $1,000 to $4,000 to pick animals from a row of cages, have them released one at a time onto a killing field about the size of a football gridiron, and then shoot them from a perch in a big oak tree. The operator was sentenced to six months in jail and forfeited his 160 acres.

California authorities were tipped off last April about canned hunts for big cats in the Monterey County, Calif., community of Lockwood. Trophy hunters had paid thousands of dollars per animal to shoot them inside their cages, or as they walked out. Authorities know of three Bengal tigers, three cougars and two leopards that were killed. Floyd Lester Patterson III and his wife, Dawn, were arrested and convicted. They have appealed.

“We know canned hunts are widespread, but to say how widespread is incalculable,” says Wayne Pacelle, national director of the Fund for Animals, headquartered in New York City. Pacelle’s organization, which now includes 26 animal-protection groups, formed a coalition in July in Texas to ask the state Legislature to ban canned hunts there. Texas was not picked from a hat. The state is considered the hub of canned hunting in America.

Today more than 1,000 Texas ranches offer trophy hunting, says Chick Rivas, executive director of the 450-member Exotic Wildlife Assn. But none of the association’s members, according to Rivas, offer canned hunts. The most in-demand trophies include imported exotics such as blackbuck antelope from Pakistan, axis deer from India, aoudad sheep from North Africa, sika deer from Japan and fallow deer from Europe. Exotics are hunted within fenced enclosures, often by placing the shooter near “corn feeders” that the animals depend on for food. It is not illegal in Texas: Exotic hoofed animals are not covered by state game laws. They are considered livestock.

They were first introduced on a broad scale in the 1950s as an option to raising beef. Many are still raised commercially for meat, but the real money comes in charging hunters to shoot them. A three-day hunt for blackbuck antelope, which are plentiful and popular, costs about $1,200. A three-day hunt for the prized addax antelope of North Africa starts at about $3,700. The most expensive trophies are the big cats: lions, tigers, leopards, cougars, jaguars. They can cost up to $10,000 each to shoot, and there’s no pretense of a fair chase. These are canned hunts.

“There’s really no practical way to have a fair chase in this country for big cats,” says James Stinebaugh, a senior agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Nobody would dare take a chance of a big cat--a tiger, an African lion, a jaguar--getting away.” Stinebaugh, based in San Antonio, oversees south Texas. He says that canned cat hunts in Texas “just seem to have gotten worse” in the last decade, particularly for African lions and native American mountain lions, also known as cougars, which are not federally protected.

Federal law protects only animals that are “vulnerable,” “threatened” or “endangered” worldwide , such as leopards, tigers and jaguars. American cougars and African lions are too plentiful to qualify. These two species must depend on state protection. Under Texas law, lions and cougars are considered livestock or varmints and can be killed at will. “Canned hunts for these lions are happening down here all the time, and we can’t do anything about it,” Stinebaugh says.

By contrast, California and many other states protect all big cats. Yet, canned hunts continue with regularity. The money must be worth the risk. Ty Bourgeois paid $3,000 to kill his black leopard. McCloud, the outfitter, bought the leopard at an exotic-animal auction three weeks earlier for $500--cheaper than many breeds of dogs and house cats.

“There’s no end to how many hundreds and hundreds of big cats are out there multiplying, and with nowhere for them to go,” Stinebaugh says. “Zoos don’t want ‘em. They’re a danger to everybody . . . can’t be well cared for . . . can’t be released. From the day they’re born, nothing good will ever happen to them. There never should be another one born in (private) captivity.”

Most zoos have stopped breeding big cats because of their abundance and longevity in captivity. They live 15 to 18 years. “There’s no need to breed them,” says Michael Dee, curator of mammals of the Los Angeles Zoo. “There’s plenty around.”

“Big cats are a cheap commodity in the exotic-animal world. They’re often given away. If you were a legitimate dealer, I could bury you in freebie big cats,” says Pat Hoctor of Indiana, a nationally known breeder. “You could amass 100 to 150 big cats in a year for free.” Hoctor publishes the Animal Finders’ Guide, the main trade publication for exotics. Hoctor says legitimate cat owners accumulate surplus animals because they won’t sell them for canned hunts or for their hides.

“The truth is they’re worth more dead than alive. But people like me have cats because we like cats. We let them die of old age or we give them away. The problem is there are bad people out there. Illicit traders. They go to auctions. They lie. They promise to give it a wonderful home. . . .” Hoctor says he has reduced his big-cat collection from 50 to a dozen, which include five ligers (a cross between a lion and tiger). Hoctor and others estimate there are, conservatively, about 10,000 big cats in private ownership in this country--with about 15% concentrated in California and Texas.

“I’ve seen African lions go for $50 at the San Antonio flea market,” says Cynthia Burgin, the Bexar County animal-cruelty officer. “Oh, they’re cute when they’re little cubs, but they’re not cute anymore when they’ve eaten your dog, gone after the neighbors’ child, destroyed the inside of your house, wiped out sheet rock with one swipe. . . . Darn near break your neck just playing.”

SPIKE THE COUGAR IS only 18 months old, and he has been sold on the auction block four times by the same owner, Larry Armer, the operator of an exotic-animal farm near Tulsa, Okla. Armer is offering Spike again this afternoon at the Arkansas National Exotic Auction in Conway, north of Little Rock. Armer says buyers return Spike because they can’t get permits, or they can’t handle him.

“He’s a great cat,” Armer says. “You can pet him. He’s been declawed. Been gentled. Can’t figure it. Should have named him Boomerang.” Spike is the only big cat registered. He’ll probably be auctioned last, a main event of sorts. “Auctions are a good place to get rid of something, but you don’t always know who’s getting it,” Armer says. He is also auctioning two African pygmy hedgehogs, three arctic foxes, a button quail, a myna bird, two cape doves, three bobcats, three great jerobas (kangaroo mice) and a South American kinkajou, which looks like a cross between a monkey and a raccoon.

The auction is supposed to start at 12:30 p.m. It’s almost 1:30 p.m., and many exhibitors are still waiting to register and unload their animals. A line of trucks, vans, station wagons and horse trailers meanders across the dirt parking lot outside the auction barn. The vehicles are modest. These people generally are “mom-and-pop” animal dealers--entrepreneurs with a few extra acres, or big back yards. They have driven in from Oklahoma, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois and Kansas.

It is late June--the temperature is 100 degrees--not the best time to transport and display animals. But this group can’t miss an opportunity to sell surplus animals. Heads turn to watch a beefy man in his 50s herd two spindly legged baby zebras into a horse trailer. The man mops his face and neck. “When’s it gonna get hot?” he asks loudly, with the hint of a grin. Nobody responds in kind. Nobody smiles. The man scowls, mumbles and disappears behind the tinted glass of an air-conditioned truck cab.

A few minutes later he unloads the zebras into livestock pens in a holding area about the size of a football field. Prospective bidders and the curious wander among the stalls.

Spike is a favorite attraction. He is in a small cage of heavy-gauge wire. Armer leaves to bid for animals. He instructs a young helper, Chuck Atwell, to watch Spike and answer questions.

Atwell respects Spike the Cougar. Earlier, before the public arrived, Atwell reached into Spike’s cage. Spike grabbed Atwell’s right forearm between his teeth. “He didn’t break the skin,” Atwell says. “He just wouldn’t let go. Must have took me 20 minutes to get my arm free.” Another animal handler says it was closer to 45 minutes. Atwell finally managed to pinch the cougar’s nostrils shut long enough so that it had to open its mouth to breath.

A woman wants to take a picture holding a hamster cage with Spike as the backdrop. “Don’t get too close,” Atwell mumbles. Too late. In a blur, Spike’s paw bats the hamster cage through the air. It lands about 20 feet away.

“My Lord!” the woman gasps. The rodent--a Russian pygmy hamster--is alive but wobbly.

Suddenly, Spike freezes. Muscles knot along his back and neck. His eyes are riveted on a toddler--a girl--walking toward him. The girl draws closer. She points at Spike and laughs. Spike rocks the cage furiously, slowly working it closer. Atwell is alerted. He shoos the child to her mother and blocks Spike’s view until he calms down. “Big cats go after children,” Atwell explains. “Cats think they’re food because of the way kids move--those jerky motions. That’s one reason why Spike comes back. The people had kids. Cougars and kids don’t mix.”

A couple approaches. Sam, 25, and April, 24. He’s a welder. She’s a hairdresser. They live on seven acres bordering nearby Conway Lake. A baby-sitter is watching Macey, their 5-year-old daughter. April’s intrigued with Spike. “Isn’t he beautiful, hon?” she asks. Sam grunts.

“This here’s a lady’s cat,” Atwell says. “Strictly for a woman. Only a woman can pet him.” He shows April how to reach in behind Spike’s head and scratch the back of his neck, avoiding his mouth. Spike blinks sleepily.

“Pretty baby likes that, don’t ya?” April coos. “Can he go in the house?” she asks.

“Yep,” Atwell says. “Hop right up on the sofa with ya. Course he might not let your husband sit down if you don’t want him to.” (Atwell explains later: “Women go for big cats. Gives them a feeling of power over hubby.”)

April strokes Spike’s neck and back. “He’s really a sweetheart, isn’t he?”

Atwell nods. “Like I said, that there’s a woman’s cat.”

April giggles and looks at her husband. “Whaddaya think, hon?”

Sam’s eyes narrow. “I didn’t think we came here to buy a pet mountain lion.”

April scowls. “We have plenty of room. How much?” she asks Atwell.

“Six hundred and seventy-five dollars,” he replies without hesitation. “You can take him right now. No checks. Cash is all we take.”

“That’s not expensive,” April says. “Is it, Sam?” Her husband shrugs. April frowns and snaps: “Well, it’s my money.” Sam reddens. He is currently in between jobs. Four of April’s friends arrive. She announces she’s buying Spike. Her friends are impressed. They giggle about how April’s going to drive around town with Spike, take Spike on a leash for walks, bring Spike to parties.

April stops in mid-sentence. She looks worried and turns to Atwell with concern. “We have a 5-year-old daughter.”

He shrugs. “Lots of families have cats. You just learn how to head off situations before they happen. Like anything else.”

April nods. “That makes sense, huh, Sam?”

He mutters: “Not really. We’ll take it real slow-like when it comes to Macey.”

Someone pipes up: “What about all them neighbors’ dogs that come around your place, Sam?”

Atwell grins. “Won’t be any dogs coming around or burglars neither.” Everybody laughs. Atwell explains that Spike needs a roofed cage the size of a large shed, and eats three or four pounds of meat daily. “My boss buys chicken by the truckload for 29 cents a pound. I’ll get you the address.” He leaves to find the auctioneer.

April kneels by Spike’s cage. She reaches inside apparently to let Spike sniff her hand. Spike promptly clamps his teeth around her wrist. April turns ashen. She tries to pull free. She can’t. Her eyes widen in horror. She pulls harder. Spike blinks sleepily and hangs on. She’s wearing her watch with a metal expansion band. The watch slides over her wrist and grates Spike’s teeth. He spits her hand out, shakes his head, sneezes and rubs his mouth.

April stumbles backward. Her wrist is wet but unharmed. It’s over in seconds. Only a few people notice. One whispers to Sam. He hurries to April. She shrugs it off. Atwell returns and says the auctioneer is on his way with the paperwork. “I’ve got to call my father first,” April announces abruptly. She explains that it’s Saturday, and the banks are closed. Only her father has $675 in cash.

April returns in 15 minutes. Her eyes are red. Her father doesn’t think she needs a mountain lion. She’s defiant. She and Sam will get the money from automatic bank tellers and friends. They’ll be back for Spike in an hour. They leave. They don’t return.