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At high-fence preserves, game hunters pay big bucks to kill exotic animals over a weekend. But has it taken the sport out of sport hunting?
By LEONORA LaPETER
Published November 7, 2004
[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
|A kill menu|
|Game preserves offer hunters a menu of exotic animals. If the hunter scores an animal, he pays a set fee for the kill. Here’s a sampling of the charges. Prices vary from one preserve to another.|
[Times illustrations: Rossie Newson]
|Scimitar Horned Oryx
|Source: Various ranches|
EAST PALATKA - The mud-caked gold Jeep disappeared down the dirt lane, leaving just Antonio S. Muguiro and the woods.
Muguiro sparked a Marlboro with a red Bic lighter. A rifle slung over his shoulder, he wore Timberland loafers, camouflage pants and an olive-colored Ralph Lauren polo shirt. His thin hips were heavy with a belt of ammunition.
Thunder cracked in the distance. Crickets chirped. A breeze whipped the trees; they whistled and settled again.
From down the road came Muguiro's guide, Keith Hanna, fresh from parking the Jeep. He whipped his arms in a choreography of movement that spoke volumes without a sound.
Come on. Get over here. NOW. Stay low. Low. LOW.
Muguiro quick-stepped down the dirt lane toward Hanna, who pointed him through an opening in the vine-covered trees on his left.
Five minutes into Muguiro's hunt, the biggest Axis deer on the Cracker Swamp Preserve stood front and center, broadside, feeding in the clearing not 50 yards away. Originally from India, the reddish brown deer with white spots is now common in Florida on fenced game ranches.
Hanna whispered in Muguiro's ear: "If you want him, this is your chance."
Florida is not exactly known for its African impala or Asian water buffalo. But these exotic animals can be hunted here. So can the Manchurian sika deer, the Indian blackbuck antelope, the South African Gemsbok, the African wildebeest and scimitar horned oryx.
The hunts take place behind 8-foot fences at safari-like game preserves throughout Florida. Hunters pay if they kill - as much as $7,000 per animal. They also pay a daily fee, typically $175 to $250, to stay at a lodge with meals.
Animal rights activists call them "canned hunts" because the animals are confined and can't get away. About a dozen states ban the practice; even some hunters say they violate the spirit of fair chase.
But in Florida the past decade, this high-priced hunting quietly has evolved into a growing business. With nearly two dozen ranches, the Sunshine State ranks as one of the top destinations for exotic animal hunters.
Whether a few hundred acres or 5,000, the preserves offer a buffet of exotic animals out of place in Florida's wild flatwoods and hardwood hammocks.
Peering through the scope on the Remington .30-06 bolt-action rifle, Muguiro searched for the deer's shoulder. Hanna, wearing a woods-pattern outfit with a charcoal filter that masked his smell, grabbed Muguiro by the collar and pulled him back a step. He looked into the scope himself and lifted the rifle up a hair for Muguiro.
The deer, now on alert, turned his head in their direction.
"He's looking right at you," Hanna whispered.
Muguiro paused, his legs crossed.
The herd of deer scurried off in the opposite direction, leaving the clearing quiet save for the humming crickets.
"How'd you miss him, Antonio?" said Hanna, annoyed.
Muguiro shrugged sheepishly. A 40-year-old polo player and horse trainer from Palm Beach, he had arrived at the preserve just a few hours before and it had all happened so fast - not five minutes into the hunt.
"Are you sure you missed?" Hanna asked. "Let's go look."
Growing up in a military family, Chris Beard learned to hunt on publicly managed hunting grounds, mostly in Jacksonville. When he turned 18 he started hunting on private land instead.
"I found a lot people would be drinking and doing things like that (on public lands) and it's dangerous," said Beard, 31, a sergeant in the infantry injured in Iraq. He is on medical leave.
Finding a trophy-size native white-tailed deer on Florida's 5-million acres of public hunting grounds can be tough.
On game ranches, a single hunter sometimes has the entire preserve to himself. The properties tend to be more dense with animals, giving hunters more opportunity, and they offer variety, sometimes a dozen or more species.
Game preserve hunts also take less time. A guide typically tracks the animals for days before the hunter arrives and is taken right to the action. Most hunters who can afford to pay $1,000 to $7,000 per animal don't have time to track for days on end. They want to swoop in for a weekend.
"People are cram-packing leisure time in two or three days," said Harold Ross, a former CEO of a public software company in Tampa who gave up corporate life four years ago to open an exotic game ranch in Inglis. "They want to pay someone else for scouting and preparation for hunting. As a result, what used to be a seven-day hunt can now be successful in three days. I have a lot of clients, professional athletes, doctors, lawyers, who are back at their job four or five days sooner."
Ross said exotic animal hunting also is popular with hunters who don't want to travel abroad or don't want to get hassled on an airplane trip to Africa because of the gun they're carrying.
Of the 25 states that offer exotic animal hunts, Texas is the most popular, with at least 62 ranches and likely more that operate below the radar, according to the Fund for Animals, a nonprofit organization that opposes the practice. The group estimates there are between 500 and 1,000 exotic animal ranches in the United States.
"It's growing all over the continent, not only in Florida," said Danny SantAngelo, who offers hunts at Brady Ranch, a preserve near Okeechobee that boasts one of the largest populations of Axis deer, with more than 7,000 head.
"It's what people want. . . . If it wasn't for people out there hunting and paying a fee for it, I couldn't raise an Asian water buffalo for fun. It wouldn't be here."
The demand has bred interest from large landowners who want to convert failing businesses.
"I know two guys (in Florida) right now who want to change their ranches from a beef operation to raising deer," said George Hogan, owner of Double H Exotics in Fort Drum, near Okeechobee. "I haven't talked to a man running beef yet who's making a profit, and there's profit in deer."
Many hunters won't set foot in a fenced preserve.
"I adhere very strongly to the ethic of fair chase," said Rob Hoskins, president of the Tampa chapter of Safari Club International.
"If the animal can't get away, I'm not hunting it. . . . I'm passionately against high-fence hunting."
Hoskins, a 53-year-old criminal defense lawyer from Clearwater, said he once paid for a New Zealand hunt at an auction only to turn it down after finding out it was 100,000 acres behind high fences.
"I've bow-hunted elk no fewer than 12 times in Montana, Colorado and Idaho, and I've never taken an elk with my bow," he said. "I've chased them, climbed mountains for 10 days at a time. I've done it with guides and by myself. To me, it would be utterly absurd to walk around a palmetto bush and draw on an elk just standing there in a 1,000-acre enclosure in Florida."
Hunters in Montana pushed through a ballot initiative four years ago that banned the shooting of captive wildlife, said Jim Posewitz, executive director of Orion the Hunter's Institute, a Montana-based nonprofit organization that teaches ethical hunting.
"There are 159 years of judicial history supporting the idea that wildlife belongs to the people and it is allocated in a democratic fashion," said Posewitz, author of Beyond Fair Chase - The Ethic and Tradition of Hunting and two other books on hunting. "You put up a high fence and either buy or capture this resource, you're taking possession of something that once was and should be a public resource."
Game ranch owners counter that without their high fences, many animals they offer might be extinct. Some of the exotic animals inside their fences, including the Pere David deer, originally from China, were virtually extinct in their native countries.
Heidi Prescott, national director of the Fund for Animals, said animal rights groups consider hunting exotic animals behind high fences so cruel that stopping the practice is one of their top priorities. They have dubbed Florida among the top three states with the "cruelest canned hunts."
Each of the past five years, the Fund for Animals has prompted congressmen to introduce bills that would ban the transport of exotic animals across state lines for the purpose of shooting them on ranches smaller than 1,000 acres. The bills have never been considered. This year's version was introduced a few weeks ago in the House and Senate.
Florida allows game hunting of exotic animals behind 8-foot fences, as long as the property is 100 to 300 acres or more, depending on the type of animals. Lions, tigers and other carnivores cannot be hunted, nor can animals in cages or from zoos.
Prescott and other animal rights activists say some ranches around the country illegally keep endangered animals and species from zoos or offer the animals to novice hunters in small enclosures.
All the hunting ranch owners interviewed for this story say they have hundreds of acres, sometimes thousands, and their animals have plenty of space to hide from hunters.
Muguiro and Hanna spent the next two hours waiting in blinds, one in a massive oak tree, another on a small hill overlooking an open field. Most of the 42 blinds on the 838-acre preserve are covered with a camouflage cloth so the animals can't see or smell the hunter.
Key Scales owns the Cracker Swamp Preserve. A one-time car dealership owner who has been in the trucking, citrus and cattle businesses, Scales has run the hunting preserve for a decade but only brought in the exotic animals about six years ago.
Cracker Swamp features boars, mallard ducks and the native white-tailed deer, in addition to the exotic Indian blackbuck antelope and Axis deer. This is the first year Scales has allowed the exotics to be hunted because the animals are mature enough to sport trophy racks that make record books.
The next evening, Hanna and Muguiro came upon a blackbuck, a black and white antelope known for its corkscrew antlers. Muguiro missed, again.
They encountered more Axis deer, including the one Muguiro had missed before, the one they call No. 1 because of his sizable rack. Instead, Muguiro scored a buck that was closer, with a broadside angle.
He left the meat for others at the preserve to enjoy; he's having the antlers mounted. At no additional cost to the hunter, most game preserves, including Cracker Swamp, will skin and quarter the animal and remove the head for mounting.
Originally from Spain, Muguiro said hunting is a family tradition. He enjoys the thrill, the adrenaline before the kill.
"I don't know how to explain it, it's like a challenge."
He has made five hunting trips since June, four at Cracker Swamp Preserve and a fifth in Indiantown. His 12 kills include an Axis deer, a blackbuck antelope, a fallow deer, a white-tailed deer, a Hawaiian ram, a painted desert sheep, a water buck, a sika deer and a wild boar.
"Basically you don't have to go to Africa anymore to get them, you can get them here, all around the country," he said. "Somebody imported them a long time ago, bred them here and that was that."
Muguiro says family money makes his hunting affordable, though he does keep a hunting budget. He's out $18,000 for the animals he's taken this year.
Staff writer Leonora LaPeter can be reached at 727-893-8640 or firstname.lastname@example.org
[Last modified November 7, 2004, 07:42:12]