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What makes the problem hard to police is the sheer number of exotic animals for sale. There are about 2,500 licensed animal exhibitors in the U.S., and only 200 of them belong to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which condemns the sale of exotics to hunting ranches. Even unaffiliated zoos might be reluctant to wade into the canned-hunt market, but many do so unknowingly, selling overflow animals--often products of too successful captive-breeding programs--to middlemen, who pass them into less legitimate hands. The crowding that can result on the ranches leads to animals' being killed not just by hunters but also by diseases that occur in dense populations.
If zoos have trouble keeping track of exotic animals, Washington doesn't even try. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can intervene only if animals are federally protected or if the hunt violates a state law and interstate commerce is involved. Since many cases don't meet those criteria, the animals are essentially orphaned by the feds.
Still, not all hunts on preserves provoke an outcry. Many ranch owners keep exotic animals out of their collections or conduct hunts on grounds that give prey a sporting chance. The Selah Ranch in Austin, Texas, is a 5,500-acre spread covered by Spanish dagger and prickly pear, often with no sign of the elusive animals that live there. "There are a lot of exotic animals on this place that die of old age," says Mike Gardner, owner of San Miguel Hunting Ranches, which runs Selah.
Here too, however, the odds can be stacked in the hunters' favor. Deer are often lured to feeding stations, where they are serenely unaware of the men in the stilt-mounted tin shack 75 yards away. Such lying in wait--or "shooting over bait"--is legal in Texas and defended by hunters. "It promotes a clean kill," says Gardner. Other sportsmen are troubled by the practice. Stan Rauch of the Montana Bowhunters Association believes that fed animals are tame animals and should thus be off limits. "Animals become habituated to people when they depend on us for food," he says.
Even preserves with no baited killings and lots of room to roam may be less of a square deal than they seem. "If a ranch advertises itself as having 3,500 acres, you need to know if that space is open or broken down into pens and whether there's protective cover or the ground is clear," says Richard Farinato, director of the Humane Society's captive-wildlife protection program.
Concerns such as these are prompting governments to act. More states are being pressed to ban or restrict hunting in enclosures. The House bill, which parallels one introduced in the Senate by Delaware's Joseph Biden, would not drop the hammer on the hunts but would give Washington a way to control the animal traffic.
But the new laws could come at a price. In Texas alone, the hunt industry brings in $1 billion a year; a crackdown could hurt both good ranches and bad. "Cattle prices have stayed the same for 40 years," says Gardner. "To hold on to acreage, you've got to have other sources of income." Safari Club International is worried that since hunting areas are so different, it may be impossible to pass a law that covers them all. "There's no standard to say what is and what isn't fair," says club spokesman Jim Brown. "You know it when you see it."