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Turn to Exotic Species : Ranchers in Texas Hear Call of Wild

October 26, 1988|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writer

MOUNTAIN HOME, Tex. — 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.

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