The Y.O. Ranch is a Texas legend. It began with a young immigrant from Alsace-Lorraine named Charles Schreiner, who single-handedly “fought outlaws, Indians, and Mother Nature.” Schreiner’s descendants still run the cattle ranch, talking up their role in what they call the conservation of Texas Longhorn cattle.
The ranch’s Web site — which visitors navigate by moving crosshairs over the screen — says the family’s interest in conservation led the ranch to start “providing a home to exotic wildlife.” Home is a strange word for it.
Through a connection forged in the early 1960s with Fred Stark, curator of the San Antonio Zoo, the Y.O. Ranch released some of the zoo’s surplus antelopes and Aoudad sheep as “an experiment in adaptation.” Thus began the Schreiner family’s start in the exotic wildlife business, a business that other Texas ranchers later entered.
Today, the Y.O. boasts more than 60 exotic species, and advertises many of them to hunters. Confinement makes these animals especially easy to shoot and gives this tourist attraction its popular name: the canned hunt.
For this purpose, the Y.O. offers zoo-bred Scimitar-horned oryx antelopes, yours for the taking for $3,750. For $5,250, you can go home with the head of a Dama gazelle; for about $500 more, you can shoot an Addax antelope. Free-living oryx have been hunted to extinction in Africa. Indeed, all three of these North African antelope species have an “endangered” classification pending with the U.S. government. But that just makes them all the more attractive to Texas tourists.
Through the years, these animals have lived and died at the whim of the Schreiners. The family’s string of money-making schemes has included photo safaris, a Y.O. Adventure Camp for children, corporate retreats, and the Y.O. Ranch Restaurant in Dallas. In 1986, the Schreiner family set aside 11,000 acres to sell as home sites.
One couple, seeking a retirement home, ran across an advertisement for the Y.O. Ranchlands and called on a whim. “It was a fun adventure just driving through the countryside to get there, but when I pulled up to the main entrance of the Y.O. Ranch, I knew this place was something special,” recalls buyer Claudia Leon. “[T]here was a herd of zebra in the meadow.”
“In addition to owning a ranch,” exclaim the Y.O. Ranchlands promotional materials, residents also have “exotic and native wildlife literally in their backyards” — animals whom owners can kill to their hearts’ content.
Many people have asked me how such things could be allowed. Does the federal Fish and Wildlife Service have anything to say about ranchers who push holiday packages and land sales through the use of exotic animals?
In fact, the federal government knows what is going on, but is willing to allow it under the guise of conservation. The Fish and Wildlife Service has dragged its feet for years over the publication of a final rule to list the three antelope species as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. That listing would prevent zoos from selling these antelopes to hunting ranches — a practice the Service euphemistically calls “absorbing the surplus specimens produced in zoos,” and “reducing [the] threat of extinction.”
By failing to take the legally mandated actions to list the three antelopes under the federal law, Gale Norton, as Secretary of the Interior, is responsible for the deaths of thousands of zoo-bred animals each year in canned hunts.
Friends of Animals’ first exposé on the zoo-hunting connection followed a 60 Minutes Television broadcast in January 1990 about the sale of surplus zoo animals to hunting ranches. Our segment infuriated the zoo people, who claimed we lacked evidence to support our allegations. Of course, we have ample documentation of the commerce in zoo-bred animals to animal dealers, exotic animal auctions, and hunting ranches.
The curator of mammals at San Diego’s Zoo obtained a permit from California’s Department of Fish and Game to export two male Dybowski’s Sika deer to Dale Priour’s Hunting Ranch in Ingram, Texas, where a Sika deer hunt was priced at $1,500. Today, the ranch charges $1,250 to shoot a Sika deer. When I visited the Priour Ranch near San Antonio, 15 species of 2,000 animals were fenced within 6,000 acres. Antelopes and deer stared at me when I approached the iron fence. I watched ranch operators drive up in pick-up trucks to ring a bell for these docile animals to come and eat buck corn.
More than 40 states allow canned hunts. Hunting ranches in Texas now operate as a profitable extension of zoos looking to dispose of last year’s exotic animal babies. Each new zoo baby sends a surplus adult animal out the back door, often to a hunting ranch. And of course, the zoos are also fond of trumpeting their conservation work — especially where rare animals are concerned. They have reason to agree, then, that businesses such as the Schreiner family ranch are supporting conservation of rare antelopes and other animals.
Six years ago, Friends of Animals coordinated a reintroduction for oryx to enable their survival on their native lands. Although they are not yet able to live in complete freedom, their numbers are on the rise in Senegal. Our efforts to assist them have also helped the Dama gazelles in the same region.
And in September 2004, Friends of Animals and The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in the federal courts to compel the Secretary of the Interior to list the three North African antelope species as endangered — with no exceptions, and no relaxed rules, for antelopes who are captive-bred. We’re represented in the case by a team of lawyers who refuse to settle or compromise with ranchers, as the government would like to do. These fine professionals are Jay Tutchton, of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Environmental Clinical Partnership with the University of Denver, and Matt Kenna, of the firm Kenna and Hickcox in Durango, Colorado.