White Serval Kitten

Canned Hunts by Jessica Janson

Who doesn’t love baby animals?

White Serval Kitten
White Serval Kitten

Hands in the air if you don’t find baby animals to be the cutest darn things you have ever seen! Nobody? That’s not surprising. Most of us spend an amazing amount of time on the Internet watching videos or sharing pictures and articles on those tiny bundles of joy. Most of us are overjoyed when a zoo announces the birth of yet another healthy baby wild animal, especially the exotic cats! We are glued to the screen and happily share newly released videos of newborn cubs and kittens all over social media.

What if I told you for every healthy litter born, many healthy adults are labeled surplus and sold off in an effort to conserve space and cost? Now, what if I told you one of the many terrible places these animals could end up is in an industry referred to as canned hunts?

It’s very possible you have never heard of a canned hunt and perhaps it’s hard to imagine how our beloved zoo animals, each with a name and often a fan following, ending up being hunted at all. A canned hunt is, for many, a sport in which they can pay thousands of dollars to hunt within a fenced in space, assuring a kill and, in the end, a trophy and bragging rights. Most often these animals have been reared by humans so that when a hunter approaches, they are in no way terrified for their lives, the way an animal born in the wild would be. The loving trust that was developed between a captive wild animal and its caregivers is twisted into a gruesome mechanism of its death. Because the animals have relied on their human caretakers all of their lives, they often excitedly greet the hunters who have paid for the right to kill them.

Warning:  Graphic Content!

It’s estimated that the canned lion hunting industry brought in nearly 70 million dollars in South African alone, just last year. On average 60% of all the lions slaughtered in Africa each year come back to America as skins and trophies. And those are just the statistics for one type of big cat in one area of the world. Considering how many ‘trophy animal’ species there are, the accompanying numbers would be staggering, if you could find them. But statistics on canned hunting are difficult to come by.

It’s an industry that thrives on ignorance, and remains largely hidden from the public eye. It’s easy to pass off canned hunting as a problem that occurs only in third world countries, but sadly it also happens in many, many states throughout America.

Perhaps, not too far from your own home town.

I was fortunate enough to share correspondence with a former under cover agent with the Humane Society of the United States. Mike Winikoff , devoted most of his undercover work to canned hunt investigations. He was kind enough to answer the following questions for me in an effort to educate the public about this nefarious industry.

◦What animals are at risk?

That varies widely from state to state. When I did my research, there were some states including Texas and Missouri where you could hunt pretty much any species you want, including in some places endangered species, whereas others would limit it to only exotic (non-native) species, and still others would limit it to only native species. Limitations in some states were almost always based on disease control concerns rather than any sort of ethical or animal protection concerns.

◦ What’s the average age of these animals?

The ones who come straight from zoos tend to be very elderly – i.e. of no “economic use” to either the zoo itself or any sideshows (i.e. circuses, roadside zoos, game farms). But there is also a supply of the progeny of zoo animals from breeding farms, often via auctions, and those animals can be of any age.

◦ Why do zoos keep breeding animals if they don’t have room for them? Do they do it on purpose to make money? 

There’s no draw for the gate like babies. Note all the news stories whenever a cute baby is born at any zoo. It vastly increases attendance and often related marketing (i.e. things like stuffed animals depicting the baby.) A baby equals free, positive media and advertising. Few people think about what happens to the older animals who need to be moved out to make room for the babies.

◦ Zoos actively hide their associations with canned-hunting companies, how? Shell companies? Secondary brokers? 

When I did my work on this, they did it by not selling directly to known “bad guys” or hunting ranches. They sell to a dealer or breeding ranch, and those places would then sell the animals either directly to hunting ranches or at auctions. The auction system allows animals to pass through several hands, several layers of “legitimate” dealers before they end up at the hunting ranch. A few really stupid (or redneck-led) zoos did sell directly to hunting ranches, but that became much less after we generated media on it. The San Antonio Zoo was always (back then) the most brazen, as they had owners of hunting ranches sitting on the board of the zoo, who would buy animals straight from the very zoo where they sat on the board.

◦ Is it there any zoo that has not ever participated in selling to canned-hunt agencies, or to a secondary party known to supply canned-hunt agencies? Are there any examples of the ideal zoo who plan for the long term, not the next year?

You’re basically asking if there are zoos who accept that they have a cradle-to-grave responsibility for all animals in their care, and their progeny. When I was working on this, The Detroit Zoo led by a guy named Ron Kagan were the leaders on this. I don’t know where they are on this today, and also I think Kagan is now at a different zoo, which is probably continuing his progressive policy. Other than Detroit, the best I could find back then was some zoos who were sincere about not letting their animals go DIRECTLY to hunting ranches, but with much lesser conviction about making sure they don’t end up at a hunt after passing through several other hands. And, again, the much bigger problem was the progeny – many zoos would sell their “surplus” to ranches where they would probably live safely while providing many offspring who would get sold to hunts.

◦ How can I find out if a zoo I enjoy takes part in selling to canned-hunting establishments?

Zoos are bad for many reasons, only one of which is canned hunts. I’d try to talk someone out of supporting zoos regardless of their connection to canned hunts. But the way to learn would be freedom of information act requests, or speaking with a local group that has already done FOIA requests, both state and federal.

◦ There are many ‘game preserves’ and ‘hunting preserves’ listed within our country that claim to provide a ‘real hunting experience’ and breed their own animals. Are these actually preserves? Or is that a cover for canned-hunting establishments?

If there is any fence at all, it is a canned hunt. It is just as easy to corner an animal against a fence in a 2000-acre enclosure as in a 5-acre enclosure. Additionally, even if there is no fence, if a captive animal is released in a situation where there is no real chance of escape even though there may not be fences, that is a canned hunt. An example would be where an animal is released from a transport cage in an area where he/she is already surrounded by hunters or dogs as soon as released. One way to gauge how much of a canned hunt it is is whether they guarantee a kill.

◦ When did canned-hunting first become popular? And is it a growing industry, or just holding steady? 

In the US, early 1970s, following an enormous breeding boom in zoos and the inability of zoos to place all the animals bred.

◦ What is the most important thing for the public to know and do to help stop the practice of canned-hunting?

Lobby state and federal legislators for anti-canned hunting legislation.

◦ Who can the public contact if they suspect a center in their area of supplying canned-hunting establishments with animals?

Either HSUS or PETA, usually, unless they live somewhere with a very active (and intelligent) local Animal Rescue group.

It is shocking to know that every click and share of a newly born zoo baby might help to promote the death of an existing adult animal who has been raised to depend on humans for their care. It is a sickening thought, that animals who look into our eyes and the eyes of our children today, could one day in the future look into the eyes of a ruthless killer who paid money for the chance to exploit their trust and kill them. Last year’s precious zoo babies and Internet sensations face an uncertain end as animal parks and zoos struggle to make room for the next babies to arrive. Animals raised to expect compassion and care from the humans around them will, instead, receive a death sentence.

Public awareness is the first step in assuring that exotic animals are not simply bred to create eye-catching babies. If we understand that the babies we so enjoy visiting might not get to live long and happy lives, we can ask zoos and other animal parks to stop breeding them. Everyone loves a baby, but we must love the adult animals they will become, as well, and demand that they be cared for responsibly, instead of sold to proprietors of canned hunts.

A baby animal is a lifelong responsibility, whether it’s wild or domestic. We don’t buy kittens and puppies, only to give them away or sell them when they grow up, and we shouldn’t do that to captive wild animals either.

If you would like to learn more about Mike’s experience undercover within the canned hunts he has written some incredibly eye opening exposes. Please visit his website www.mikewinikoff.com

Interview by: Jessica Janson

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