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Hunting made easy

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Shooting captive animals to mount their heads on a wall is a booming sport. Should Congress step in?

The exotic corsican ram trotting about the 100-yard-long pen in central Pennsylvania paid little mind to the men approaching across the field. People were always walking in and out of the pen, as often as not with food for the flock. So the ram didn't resist when the men drove all the animals toward one end of the enclosure. It was only when the first arrow--fired from just yards away--struck it in the haunch that it realized something was up. The ram hobbled off and was struck by a second arrow, then a third. It stood for a moment staring beyond the fence line and then settled onto its haunches, bleeding. A gunshot to the abdomen finished it off--preserving its head as a trophy.

It has never been easy being an animal at the business end of a hunt, but these days it's hard being the hunter too. Dwindling ranges and herds make the ancient business of stalking prey an increasingly difficult proposition. The answer for many Americans is to shift their shooting grounds from the wild to one of the country's growing number of hunting preserves.

By almost any measure, hunting preserves are enjoying a boom. Up to 2,000 may exist in the U.S., with 500 in Texas alone. Many advertise on the Internet and in hunting magazines, and all offer the same thing: the chance to bag a trophy, with none of the uncertainty of hunting in the wild. "No kill, no pay" is the promise many make.

Of course, making good on that guarantee requires bending the prey-and-predator rules. Animals at some preserves are so accustomed to humans that they wander into range at the sound of a rattling feed bucket. Elsewhere they're confined to small patches of woods where they can't elude hunters for long. At others they may never even make it out of their cages before being shot.

Most troubling, it's not just prolific-as-rabbits deer and other common prey that are being killed in such canned hunts, as they're sometimes called; it's rarer creatures too. All manner of exotics--including the Arabian oryx, the Nubian ibex, yaks, impalas and even the odd rhino, zebra or tiger--are being conscripted into the canned-hunt game and offered to sportsmen for "trophy fees" of up to $20,000.

Not surprisingly, these hunts have their critics. A handful of states ban or restrict the practice, and a pair of bills are pending in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to prohibit the interstate sale of exotic animals for hunts. Supporters of the hunts object, arguing that exotics are bred in sufficient numbers to support the industry and that many surplus zoo animals could not survive in the wild anyway. Even to some outdoorsmen, however, canned hunts are beginning to look like no hunt at all. "I started hunting when I was 7 and didn't kill my first deer until I was 16," says Perry Arnold, 52, of Lake City, Fla. "What they got going on now, that ain't hunting. That's a slaughter."

A slaughter is precisely the way canned-hunt foes frame the practice, and the killing of the Corsican ram is not the only horror they point to. The Humane Society of the United States tells stories of its own: the declawed black leopard that was released from a crate, chased by dogs and shot as it hid under a truck; the domesticated tiger that lounged under a tree and watched a hunter approach, only to be shot as it sat. "Canned hunts are an embarrassment," says California Representative Sam Farr, sponsor of the House bill.

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 lyin