Shooting fish in a barrel: U.S. canned hunting industry offers ‘menus’ of rare animals for a thrill kill
By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson
The canned hunting industry is often associated with countries like South Africa, where wealthy trophy hunters can pick out and shoot captive-bred lions in enclosures for a hefty price tag. It is, literally, the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, and it is a practice so shameful, many hunting groups disavow it.
But what is not as well known is that canned hunting is a thriving industry right here in the United States—one that results in cruel and unnecessary suffering and death for thousands of animals each year. Sadly, because of the indifference of some lawmakers who have failed to stop them, these operations, which exist solely to breed and sell animals for a thrill kill, continue to flourish.
It is estimated there are more than a thousand canned hunting ranches in this country, and about half of those are in Texas. Only 26 states have a full or partial ban against them. Many offer a “menu” of animals that a hunter can choose from, from native elk and deer to non-native animals like African antelope, Australian kangaroos, and even scimitar-horned oryx, which are considered extinct in the wild. Some ranches offer to obtain additional species “upon request.”
The manner in which these places operate makes one’s stomach turn: for instance, animals are habituated to eating at feeding stations at regular intervals, and the shooter can lie in wait for them there for a guaranteed kill. Captive hunts with thousands of fenced acres will often offer a “100% success” guarantee to shoot an animal, or offer a “no kill, no pay” policy on the animals.
The animals are so tame that when we conducted an undercover investigation into canned hunting ranches a few years back, the investigators could walk up to them and hug them. One Texas canned hunt operator even admitted to tranquilizing his animals when people paid him to.
Even species listed under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. law that protects at-risk wildlife, are not off-limits at these operations, under the false guise of “conservation”. The ESA generally prohibits killing animals that are listed as threatened or endangered but allows permits for such killing when it can be shown to enhance the survival of the species in the wild. Canned hunting ranches have exploited this permitting provision under the misguided allowance of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, using it as a loophole to sanction the breeding and killing of ESA-listed species solely for profit.
We hope the Biden administration will revisit this policy. The fact is, animals bred for canned hunts have no impact on the wild populations of these species because they are typically not suitable for release into the wild. These heartless operations are simply an animal protection nightmare and they are breeding grounds for infectious diseases.
Canned hunting operations host unnatural densities of animals which creates an atmosphere rife for the spread of illnesses like chronic wasting disease (CWD) — a neurological illness that occurs in cervids, members of the deer family, who are often stocked at these ranches. There’s a great deal of movement of animals between canned hunting ranches which further helps spread the disease.
CWD has already been found in more than half of the U.S. states, including Texas. It is always fatal because there is no approved, reliable live test, and there’s no vaccine or cure. Worse, this disease has also infiltrated wildlife populations outside the ranches, and outbreaks in other states have cost taxpayers millions of dollars in response efforts. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has reported nearly 200 cases of CWD in Texas among both wild and captive deer populations since 2012.
Ending the global canned hunting industry is one of our priorities in our fight against trophy hunting. Each year we’ve been shining the light on the Safari Club International and its annual convention, where canned hunts are auctioned off. The SCI convention has been canceled this year because of the pandemic—a development that will spare thousands of animals a cruel and unnecessary death. However, the Dallas Safari Club convention will go on, beginning February 10, and, like every year, there will be plenty of canned hunts, both local and international, on offer.
There are nothing but downsides to canned hunting, and the sooner we can get our lawmakers to act against it, the better—and safer—our country and our wildlife will be. There are now bills in New York and Rhode Island that would crack down on canned hunts in those states, and we urge Texas lawmakers to also work on ending the cruelty flourishing on their soil. Breeding and killing animals for fun in enclosures they can’t escape from is an unethical practice that is devoid of all humanity, and our laws should not be enabling it.
Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.