Act’ionLine Autumn 2009
by Priscilla Feral
The Y.O. Ranch is a Texas legend. It began with a young immigrant from Alsace-Lorraine named Charles Schreiner, who, according to its promotional materials, 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 Y.O. cattle brand was first used on the Texas Gulf Coast in the 1840s, by the Fulton family ranching empire. In 1880, Charles – who by then was called “Captain Schreiner” – bought the ranch, its brand and cattle with profits made from driving more than 300,000 Texas Longhorn cattle “up the trail” to Dodge City.
The ranch’s website – 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 animals from 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. offered zoo-bred Scimitar-horned oryx antelopes, yours for the taking for $3,750. Until the ruling this year in Friends of Animals v. Salazar, tourists could plonk down $5,250 for the experience of obtaining the head of a Dama gazelle; for about $500 more, they were permitted to shoot a docile addax, used to being fed out of buckets. The federal government had been willing to allow zoos to sell these antelopes to ranches, calling the practice “absorbing the surplus specimens produced in zoos,” and “reducing [the] threat of extinction.”
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 that owners can kill to their hearts’ content. White-tailed deer, wild hogs, wild turkey, axis deer, blackbuck antelope, Sika deer and fallow deer are all managed by the Y.O. Landowners Association; thus residents have legal control over these animals. Home buyers also acquire special privileges that include free or discounted use of the airstrip, the chuck wagon restaurant, swimming pool, Africana game viewing pasture, horse arena and hunting on the main ranch.
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, 2,000 animals from 15 species 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 the 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.
Ten years ago, Friends of Animals co-ordinated an effort for the survival of oryx 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 filed our lawsuit in the federal courts to compel the secretary of the interior to list the three North African antelope species as endangered. We declined a government offer to settle our suit by covering captive-bred antelopes with the relaxed standards. We demanded a listing with no exceptions for antelopes who are captive-bred. This year, we prevailed.
1. This language appeared in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed exemption regarding the three North African antelope species and the related draft Environmental Assessment.