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.