The main entrance to the Ox Ranch, about two hours west of San Antonio, has the look and feel of many entryways to grand Texas spreads. There’s a coyote fence made of cedar posts, a big metal gate controlled by a keypad, and, atop the arch you pass under, a black-steel tableau of wildlife, including two bucks with impressive racks and a wild turkey trotting by a patch of prickly pear cactus. It screams native Texas. But go beyond the gate, as I did one hot and hazy afternoon last summer, and you’ll soon come face-to-face with strange and majestic creatures transplanted from other worlds.
The first critter I spotted was a red stag, one of the planet’s largest deer species, native to Europe and Central Asia, with velvety antlers that branched toward the sky. He was contentedly chewing his cud as he lay next to a tall fence enclosing the 18,000-acre property—a jarring sight that just began to prepare me for the mile-long drive to the ranch headquarters.
From the front gate, I drove past a private airstrip and a large herd of dama gazelles, a slender kind of antelope that’s critically endangered in its native Sahara. Behind a row of guest cabins, several European fallow deer loitered beside the basketball and tennis courts. I slowed down to gawk at some especially strange-looking deer with matted fur and unusually long tails that were munching aquatic plants in a pair of shallow lakes. Called Père David’s deer, I later learned, these animals were extirpated from China more than a century ago, but the species held on in European zoos and royal menageries. The ones at the Ox Ranch seemed to be doing fine, just standing around, indifferent to my presence. When I parked my car at the palatial main lodge of limestone and wood, a kangaroo roused itself from the shade of a live oak and lazily bounded to a slightly safer distance.
“So what’s on our agenda today?” asked my assigned guide, an affable twenty-year-old named Dylan Sivells, who wore a camouflage shirt, a pair of shorts, and flip-flops. “We huntin’?”
I wasn’t sure. Hunting at Ox is not cheap. Roaming the ranch are game animals from every continent but Antarctica—about ninety species, including white-tailed bucks artificially bred for supersized antlers and an orange-hued antelope from Africa called the bongo, with spiraling horns and pencil-thin white stripes, which often weighs in at six hundred pounds and goes for $35,000 a kill. Emus are a relative bargain at $1,000, while nilgais (another monster antelope, this one from India) and impalas cost $5,500 each. Zebras: $5,500. Addaxes: $6,500. Kudu: $17,500. White-tailed bucks are $2,500 to $20,000, based on the size of the antlers. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys killing kangaroos, that’ll set you back $7,000 a pop.
Guests can also partake of less lethal activities, such as photo safaris and torching stuff with flamethrowers or driving around in Soviet, German, and American tanks from the World War II era. Some use the tanks to crush old cars. Others prefer to navigate a “war zone” obstacle course in the decommissioned military vehicles. Guests can also fire off live rounds from mortars and machine guns, race supercharged jet skis on one of several lakes, explore caves, hunt for arrowheads, or take private yoga classes beside a waterfall (though it might be hard to meditate amid the gunfire).
With so much to do, and so much to shoot, some enthusiasts describe the Ox Ranch as Disneyland for exotic game hunters, a kind of magic kingdom for hypermasculine wish fulfillment. For Ted Nugent—the rock guitarist, avid hunter, and political provocateur—the resort is “proof positive that God is real.” The ostriches and zebras are fair game, although I learned that hunters are not allowed to kill the long-necked giraffes, which peacefully nibble the leaves of the ranch’s live oaks. There are no big cats at the Ox Ranch—no second coming of the Tiger King. It’s illegal in Texas to hunt so-called “dangerous” exotic animals, including elephants, lions, rhinoceroses, and tigers. (Native mountain lions can be hunted anytime, anywhere in Texas.) But hunters at Ox can opt to shoot a number of other species that are rare, endangered, or even extinct in the wild.
Instead of hunting, I planned to enjoy the spectacle of the rarified world of high-end hunting ranches, which I’d previously glimpsed only through the tall game fences that line many a rural Texas roadway. “I just want to ride around and look at cool animals,” I told Sivells. More than happy to oblige, he cranked up his custom hunting Jeep, and our tour began.
Sivells navigated along miles of trails, up and down hills through what looked like a free-range zoo, then over to check out the tanks and military-grade weapons. We drove up a limestone ledge to view a few dinosaur tracks and to the rim of a cave that neither of us felt like climbing into. Beside the shore of a small lake, we stopped to say hi to Buttercup, a giraffe. At the “big blind,” an air-conditioned tower on top of a hill, guests can play cards and drink bottomless complimentary booze while they wait for a surveillance system to sound an alarm when it’s hunting time. Then the hunters can throw open a window and use thermal scopes to shoot feral hogs—our future overlords—at one of eight feeders situated around the hill’s base.
Sivells grew up hunting relatively common exotics such as blackbuck antelope and axis deer on his family’s land, west of Fredericksburg. “We’ve got a lot better options out here,” he said of Ox. The abundance of game is a big draw for big names. In Sivells’s one year of working at the ranch, his clients have included a Major League baseball player and the owner of an NBA team.
Although some guests choose to hunt from blinds or stalk game on foot, most prefer to hunt “safari-style,” with Sivells driving them into position to fire away from the comfort of the Jeep’s passenger seat or from an elevated bench mounted to the back of the vehicle. Exotic hunting takes place year-round and is popular even outside the usual hunting seasons. And unlike native deer, which typically shed their antlers by the end of February, most species of non-native antelope, sheep, and bovine never lose their horns; axis bucks can drop their antlers any time of year. In the warm weather, most of the game animals that Sivells and I saw were languidly standing or sitting beside bales of hay, grain feeders, and watering stations. We spotted one of those $35,000 bongos. Many of the critters had ginormous racks that would have wowed on a wall mount, but they were accustomed to being fed by humans every day and seemed about as wild as Hereford cattle.
Shooting an animal so tame it doesn’t try to escape is often derided as “canned” hunting, a term also used to describe shooting animals in enclosed spaces, a relatively common yet highly controversial practice for trophy collectors. You might remember the worldwide outrage sparked in 2014 over photos of Texas Tech cheerleader Kendall Jones posing with the lion, elephant, hippo, and other animals she killed during African safaris. The following year, relatives of Matthew McConaughey received death threats over reports that they offered canned deer hunts on their 22,000-acre ranch west of San Angelo. The accusations were baseless, but amid the fallout, McConaughey’s name and photo were scrubbed from the ranch’s website.
Brent Oxley, the owner of the Ox Ranch, brushes off claims that they offer canned hunts, a term that isn’t defined in federal law. “Everyone has different skill sets and physical abilities,” Oxley wrote on the ranch’s website in 2019, noting that he would someday take his then-four-year-old daughter to Ox for her first hunt. “I guarantee it’s going to be a hunt of a lifetime for her, but if it was me doing this same hunt, I’d easily consider it a canned hunt.”
Ox’s animals range freely across thousands of acres, he frequently notes, and while many guests prefer to hunt easy prey from roadways, anyone seeking a stiffer challenge can target more elusive “monsters” that haven’t been seen in years, including the reclusive and remarkably well-camouflaged nyala antelope. And yet ranch management is so confident that it promises a free trip to hunters who don’t get an opportunity to shoot their desired animal, a courtesy that has never had to be offered.
Whether on a Texas ranch or an African safari, shooting a rare animal is controversial. The prospect thrills some trophy hunters while outraging animal lovers whose introduction to the sport often comes through viral photos of wealthy elites in head-to-toe camouflage, proudly kneeling beside the carcass of a beast that’s been felled for its horns or rarity. In an article about the Ox Ranch in 2017, the New York Times labeled the resort a “breeding and killing ground” for non-native species.
“Captive hunting is an egregious form of animal cruelty,” Lauren Loney, the Texas state director of the Humane Society of the United States, told me. “The line between wild animal and livestock is very much blurred here. These animals are essentially raised in captivity and have lost their natural fear of people. Even if a hunting ranch is huge, with thousands of acres, these animals will come to the same place the same time every day to be fed, so a shooter can be there, waiting and ready. That’s why we see these captive hunts offering a one-hundred-percent success guarantee—and that’s not part of traditional, ethical hunting.”
Canned or not, most of the hunting at Ox didn’t really appeal to me. Though I hunted ducks, hogs, and squirrels to put food on the table while I was writing my first book a decade ago, I hadn’t been hunting much in years and had no interest in shooting a semidomesticated animal. But then Sivells and I came over a hill, and I saw something very different: slender, fleet, athletic deer scampering away from our approaching Jeep. They were axis, an attractive, reddish deer with white spots. Native to India and some neighboring countries, they are also known as chital. Each time we came within sight of a herd, they flushed away and bounded for cover in the juniper scrub. “The axis are probably the most skittish game we have out here,” Sivells said, “other than the addax,” an antelope from the Sahara with elegant twisted horns.
Aside from feral hogs, axis deer are perhaps the most common non-native game species in Texas. Adept at leaping over fences and wriggling underneath them, they regularly escape from properties where they’ve been stocked; herds of several hundred roam ranches where they were never stocked. They reproduce rapidly and thrive in Central and South Texas, which resemble their native habitat in Asia and where self-sustaining herds have been counted in 27 counties.
They’re also among the tastiest of the exotics. Of deer species, “axis is the best eating, by far. A lot of people eat axis, and they won’t ever eat whitetail again,” Sivells told me. “I like it chicken-fried.”
The flash of those axis deer rekindled some half-forgotten feeling inside me, the thrill of the hunt and the reward of meat obtained by my own hand. But at $3,500, the cost to hunt an axis buck was beyond my means; then again, I had never been a trophy hunter. An axis doe would provide delicious venison for my freezer and was significantly more affordable. I called my wife, Laura. “Can I spend six hundred dollars to shoot an axis doe?” I asked. She didn’t miss a beat. “Absolutely not.” Next, I emailed my editors. To my pleasant surprise, Texas Monthly would foot the bill. The editors agreed with me: to better understand a place like the Ox Ranch, I needed to go huntin’.
In 1929 a prominent San Antonio business owner named Richard Friedrich purchased 2,500 acres in the Hill Country near Hunt and began to stock his ranch with “surplus” foreign animals bred by the San Antonio Zoo. Friedrich, who also happened to be president of the San Antonio Zoological Society, was not the first Texan to introduce non-native game to private lands. During the twenties, King Ranch foreman Caesar Kleberg brought nilgai antelope to the state, some of which he’d purchased from the San Diego Zoo. But it was Friedrich’s innovation to put up tall fences around a portion of his “breeding farm.” The ranch’s next owner, the famous fighter pilot and Eastern Airlines general manager Eddie Rickenbacker, was the first to offer commercial hunts of exotic animals. The property, which was later sold to the owner of Patio Foods, a frozen-dinner manufacturer, is in operation today as the Patio Ranch, which still touts its bona fides as Texas’s first exotic game ranch.
With its subtropical, savanna-like terrain, lax regulations, and abundance of private land, Texas has become the epicenter of the exotic game industry in the United States. The Kerrville-based Exotic Wildlife Association, founded in 1967, estimates that five thousand ranches across nearly all of rural Texas are home to two million non-native animals from 130 different species, pumping 14,000 jobs and $2 billion into rural areas—up from $1.3 billion in 2007. That’s a big deal in parts of the state where ranching and farming are in decline.
For decades, many of Texas’s biggest ranches have stocked exotic game animals such as blackbuck antelope and aoudad sheep, most famously at the Y. O. Ranch Headquarters, near Kerrville. The breeding, selling, and hunting of exotic game in the state is so lucrative and so widespread that the industry has its own nickname: Texotics.
And although novelty and commerce were the industry’s original driving forces, conservation of threatened species has also become an important goal for exotic game breeders and owners as well as many of their clients. Over time, Texas has become an important refuge for a plethora of animals threatened by habitat loss and poaching in their native lands. Incredibly, the Lone Star State is home to an estimated 90 percent of the worldwide population of addaxes, dama gazelles, and scimitar-horned oryx, species once found in abundance in North Africa. In recent years, conservation groups have been reintroducing Texas-bred oryx to Chad, the African nation from which they disappeared three decades ago. “If it wasn’t for ranches in Texas, that animal would be extinct,” said Ox Ranch CEO Jason Molitor. Plans are also underway to begin moving critically endangered addaxes from Texas to Chad and Morocco.
Katy Palfrey, the CEO of Austin-based Conservation Centers for Species Survival, a nonprofit that works to increase the number of rare and endangered species both on private lands and in the wild, told me that conservation-minded ranches in Texas are an important part of restoring species. “If we want to build populations up to levels they need to be at—sometimes thousands of animals—you may not be able to do that in their native habitat,” she said. Most zoos don’t have the space for sustainable herds of endangered species. Texas ranches do.
The income from exotic wildlife sales and commercial hunts can also help Texas families keep their ranches intact, said Charly Seale, the executive director of the Exotic Wildlife Association. When Seale inherited his family ranch, in the eighties, he wasn’t all that interested in cattle. “I learned very early to have a pasture with exotics. I doubled my income off that, primarily axis and blackbuck.” Because the Texas government classifies exotic animals as livestock, keeping them can also result in significant agricultural tax breaks.
Despite their economic and conservation benefits, some exotic game animals have caused problems in Texas. Aoudad sheep, introduced from North Africa eighty years ago, outcompete native desert bighorns for water and forage in the arid mountains of the Big Bend region. There are just eleven free-ranging herds of desert bighorns in the Texas wild, totaling about 1,500 animals, despite continued restocking efforts that date back to the fifties. Compare that to an estimated 25,000 or more aoudads. (Experts stress that the aoudad count is unreliable.)
Though there has been very little research into the effects of exotic ungulates on the Texas landscape, ranchers and wildlife experts say they’ve seen no evidence that some popular species of exotics, such as blackbuck antelope and oryx, are degrading habitat. Those delicious axis, though, are another story. In some areas of the Hill Country, they are severely overgrazing, leading to soil erosion, harming water quality, and damaging native plants, particularly in the South Llano and Pedernales watersheds. Although no one really knows how many axis deer live in Texas, Seale and others say the population in the Hill Country has exploded in recent years, and the number most often cited, 125,000, is likely a vast undercount. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department does not survey exotic animals, which are nominally regulated by a different state agency, the Texas Animal Health Commission, which typically oversees the livestock industry.
In ideal conditions, native white-tailed deer and axis don’t compete much. Whitetail tend to browse on forbs such as flowers and weeds as well as brush and small trees. Axis and many other exotics prefer to graze on grass. That dynamic can change in a hurry, though, when animals get too crowded or a drought hits. “An axis can turn to grass to survive, but whitetail simply can’t efficiently digest enough grass to stay alive,” said Mike Miller, a TPWD biologist based in Kerrville. “For every axis deer that you add, that’s one less white-tailed deer you’re going to raise out there. Something’s got to give, and usually our native deer are going to suffer first when there are too many browsing animals.”
That makes axis unpopular with some landowners. Hill Country rancher Roy Leslie is a self-described “sworn enemy of exotics and invasives,” or at least those that don’t stay confined to their owners’ private property. He and his family have killed nearly five hundred axis deer on the Hillingdon Ranch, between Fredericksburg and Comfort, most of them in the past five years.
“We shoot every one we see,” Leslie said. “I had four in the cooler last week. I don’t leave the house without my rifle.” Leslie claims that axis have thoroughly overrun some of his neighbors’ ranches, eating through much of the understory habitat that would have nurtured native wildlife, such as ringtail cats. Once axis eat all the tree leaves within reach, he adds, they can chew through the bark, killing the tree. Leslie advocates treating axis as destructive pests akin to feral hogs. “We’ve done such a good job demonizing feral hogs that no one has a problem nailing them,” he said. “But something like an axis deer—they look like Bambi, and they’ve got long eyelashes and Disney spots, and shit hits the fan if you start nailing a lot of axis in a public place.”
The Ox Ranch’s owner, Brent Oxley, is best known as the founder of HostGator, a web-hosting provider. Oxley started HostGator in his Florida Atlantic University dorm room in 2002, later moved the business to Houston, and sold it in 2012 for $300 million. Then just 29 years old, he celebrated his newfound riches the same way many Texans do: he went west and bought a ranch.
Oxley’s spread, previously named Four Aces, sprawls across 28 square miles where the rugged hills of the Edwards Plateau converge with the Chihuahuan Desert and the brush country of South Texas. Part of the property was once a fishing camp owned by the late governor Dolph Briscoe. As Oxley explored the ranch, he soon discovered the presence of ungulates, such as aoudads, axis, blackbuck, red sheep, and scimitar-horned oryx, introduced by previous owners. Oxley, who grew up a city kid in Boca Raton, Florida, had never been hunting until a professional guide took him out to shoot varmints on his own land. Tearing through bushes in the back of a Jeep on a pitch-black night, Oxley missed several shots before hitting his first feral hog. He followed the blood trail on foot, wondering if the injured boar would charge and attack. Instead, he found the animal dead. It was, he said, one of the most exciting nights of his life.
Oxley liked the exotics, so he bought a few more. Then more still. Eight years later, he lives in a mansion near a creek on the ranch. Today, the Ox Ranch offers safaris complete with luxury cabins and gourmet cuisine. Soon, it’ll have glamping tents with private hot tubs, Oxley wrote me in an email, declining my request for an in-person or phone interview. “It’s never been done before in America,” he said.
Oxley, now 37, courts controversy, believing that all publicity is good publicity. “We unfortunately cannot do business without offending people,” he told the San Antonio Express-News last March, after the Ox Ranch shared a video of an employee using flamethrowers to incinerate several boxes of toilet paper during the toilet paper shortage.
He has claimed that he loses more than $2 million annually on the ranch, although Molitor, Ox’s CEO, said they hope to break even in the next couple of years. While I would have expected the Ox Ranch’s rarest animals to be top draws, Molitor said the typical hunter comes to the resort to hunt more common (and less expensive) animals such as axis, blackbuck, and native white-tailed bucks. Of the roughly 1,400 animals hunted on the property in 2019, axis accounted for 235 and whitetail for 150. Although Texas hunters are allowed to shoot exotics anytime they please, the busiest season for the Ox Ranch is still the traditional hunting season, in late fall and early winter.
Why go to an exotic game ranch to hunt plain old white-tailed deer you can see almost anywhere in Texas? Because the whitetail at the Ox Ranch are also exotics, of a sort. They are selectively bred, at a facility thirty miles away, for massive antlers. “For most guys, the biggest they’re ever gonna see hunting in their life is one hundred and forty inches,” said Molitor, referring to a common measurement of a trophy buck that incorporates the antler spread, antler circumference, and length of points. “I have deer that top three hundred inches”—a rack that could measure about two feet across the inside spread, perhaps with twenty or more points.
Unlike exotic species, which the state considers private property, native whitetail are held in the public trust. Even those located on private land are owned by all Texans and are managed by TPWD. In October the Texas Supreme Court upheld a ruling against deer breeders who’d been hoping to overturn this doctrine. Leslie, the rancher and enemy of exotics, also condemns the practice of breeding native deer in captivity. “Most of these whitetails that make up the deer porn photographs, I don’t think they can survive on their own,” he said. “They probably can’t jump a damn fence. They’ve been fed out of a protein feeder their whole life. They’ve had all the adaptability and survivability bred out of them.”
Another criticism is that exotic ranches don’t offer a “fair chase” hunt, a common term for spotting and stalking a creature that has a decent chance of escape. Instead, some exotic ranches allow gun-toting customers to execute a relatively tame livestock animal. Beef tastes good, but we don’t plug away at cattle in the pasture. Is a docile eland antelope any different?
“I’m not interested in shooting something that has been placed there for me to plug. That’s not hunting,” said David Yeates, the CEO of the Texas Wildlife Association, a nonprofit that promotes hunting and conservation of private lands. “People will go through mental gymnastics to justify their chosen business practice, and there’s plenty of that going on in the hunting space.”
Molitor and Oxley have heard all of these arguments and seem eager to knock them down. In their native habitat, of course, many of these creatures would have been killed by apex predators. “I guarantee it’s a lot more humane to be shot by a bullet than eaten alive by a lion!” Oxley recently wrote on the ranch’s website. Molitor told me that fees from high-end trophy hunters are the only way the ranch can afford to provide for so many animals. “Hunting for us is really a means to an end,” said Molitor. “There’s no way we can afford to have this ranch and raise these animals if we don’t have the hunting income.”
However, other Texas-based operations, such as the nonprofit Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, in Glen Rose, south of Fort Worth, and the for-profit Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch, north of San Antonio, each home to about fifty animal species, have operated for decades without allowing hunts. Instead, they charge admission to those looking for a close encounter with wildlife and, in the case of Fossil Rim, accept tax-deductible contributions. (Oxley notes that his operation dwarfs theirs.)
“A legitimate conservation effort would be to ensure these animals can survive in the wild by supporting the many organizations that are working to address habitat degradation and poaching,” said Loney, the official from the Humane Society of the United States, who notes that poaching in Africa and Asia continues to devastate a number of threatened species. “Trophy hunting of captive animals only furthers the normalization of killing these animals.”
Molitor argues, counterintuitively perhaps, that encouraging the hunting of animals would secure the survival of their species—at least on private property, and in some cases through repopulation of their native lands—by making them valuable to hunters. Income from hunting—especially if it’s shared with locals—can provide an incentive to preserve the animals and their habitat and encourages more robust policing of poachers. “In ten years, you would see their populations explode because they have value all of a sudden,” he said. “We live in a world today where if something doesn’t have a monetary value, it eventually ceases to exist.”
Of course, it’s much harder to put a price tag on a wild animal in its native habitat. What do we lose when the only wild Asian buffalo live on private ranches for the wealthy trophy hunter to kill? Such questions were nagging at me, so I called Jesse Griffiths, an author, hunter, and chef and co-owner of Dai Due Butcher Shop and Supper Club, in Austin.
“Killing something because of its species is a little weird to me, but also, it’s a free country, and you can do whatever you want to do,” said Griffiths, who also teaches hunting and butchery at his New School of Traditional Cookery. “I think we can get wrapped up in negatives about how we feel about the high fence or the canned hunt, but at the end of the day, what we see is stewardship of land that is precious. If it’s preserved in one way or the other, I think that can be considered a win.”
Despite his taste for axis venison, which Griffiths describes as his favorite hoofed game in Texas for its fine-grained texture and intrinsic tenderness, he prefers to hunt native whitetail does. “To me, a trophy would be a big, mature doe, because I just think they eat better,” he told me. “I won’t even really shoot a buck. I tend to leave that to somebody who cares” about rack size.
I’m in Griffiths’s camp. As an occasional hunter, a grandson and nephew of ranchers, and a human who very much enjoys eating meat, I tend to shrug off anti-hunting sentiments. But my rural background is steeped in a different hunting culture than that of the high-end world of Texas game ranches.
My dad, a soft-spoken man named John Ferguson, was a lifelong hunter who, in 1986, gave me an air rifle for my seventh birthday. I don’t remember him pining for big bucks with enormous antlers. He prized game animals for meat, not trophies, and never even belonged to any group with a lease on deer-hunting property. Instead, while driving on remote petroleum leases for his job in the East Texas oil patch, he kept a rifle and shotgun racked inside the rear window of his Ford pickup truck in preparation for opportunities to inevitably present themselves. Other times, he stalked game on land owned by relatives. And he knew what he was doing. To hear my mom tell it, they survived the winter of their senior year of college on venison from whitetail he killed on his uncle’s cattle ranch. Later, I remember my dad occasionally coming home with a few squirrels for the stew pot. My own hauls from our frequent father-son “hunting” trips were, more often than not, limited to a few pellet-riddled Dr Pepper cans rattling around in the bed of his truck. The turtles in the ponds and the cardinals that sang in the pine trees had nothing to fear from our potshots because we had no interest in eating reptiles or songbirds.
When I was thirteen, a kindly man from our church invited me to my first dove hunt. My dad had died about a year and a half earlier. During that first idyllic afternoon stalking birds in a Hill Country field near Johnson City, a five-hour drive from our homes in the Piney Woods, I killed twice as many doves as anybody else. My extreme case of beginner’s luck drew surprise and consternation from the other hunters, most of them well-to-do East Texas oilmen. While cleaning my bounty afterward, I bragged that it was easy enough to shoot birds when I spotted them in the trees before they could fly away. The adults hooted and hollered. “They have to fly first, son! You gotta shoot ’em in the air!”
Hunting was a sport, these men explained. While I hadn’t broken any laws, I hadn’t given my prey a fair chance to escape. I had taken the doves in unsportsmanlike fashion. Truly, I’d never heard of such a thing. Those birds were for dinner! Even later, once I had grown up, the nights and mornings I spent hunting East Texas game—typically mallards and wood ducks, squirrels and feral hogs—had more to do with feeding myself and escaping into the outdoors than anything I would have called a sport. I also raised chickens, turkeys, and goats for a while and taught myself to butcher them. Then I moved away from East Texas, finding a different sort of life in the city. Except for the rare winter morning in an old friend’s duck blind, opportunities to hunt have all but fallen by the wayside. Despite repeated attempts as a young man, I had never even shot a deer, which struck me as a rite of passage that, as a native Texan, I had missed.
Two days after my tour of the Ox Ranch, I went back for my hunt. On an overcast July morning, I asked Sivells, my guide, if we’d be shooting animals at feeders. “All the animals do go to the feeders, but we do a lot more safari-style hunting out here. You’ll see a lot more deer from driving around. We’ll see them on the top of a hill and take off after them.”
Ox Ranch provided the rifle and the ammo: a .300 Winchester Magnum with a Zeiss scope. At the firing range, I adapted quickly to the borrowed weapon and hit the bull’s-eye from a hundred yards. Good to go. Sivells got behind the wheel of his Jeep, and I clambered onto the bench on the platform mounted to the back of the vehicle, three steps up. We began to cruise. The Jeep was surprisingly quiet, although the tires crunched the gravel on the trails.
We drove about a mile and a half and parked near the top of a hill, with a great view of the flatlands below. “Most of the time, you’ll have a couple of seconds and then they’re gone,” Sivells advised. “It’s fast.” He put the Jeep back in gear, with me perched on the bench up top. As we crept up the steep trail I was laser-focused. I hadn’t felt so alive in months, tuned into every flash of movement in the distance. But the axis we saw were on the road—too close—and instantly scattered. Before long, my attention waned. My mind wandered. I’ve always been susceptible to getting lost in my thoughts; it’s why I was never a good deer hunter, why I was a sorry hand when I was in the oil field and such an incompetent bouncer when I worked at a bar. I’m in la-la land while tables are flipping and glass is breaking and dudes are pummeling each other. “Do you see them?” Sivells asked. I looked, in a sudden panic. There they were. “Those are a little small,” Sivells said. “Let’s put you on a bigger one.” We moved on.
We kept spotting them on hills up to half a mile away—too far for this inexperienced marksman. Finally, we came across a small group that bounded away and then stopped halfway up a hill. “Do you see that big doe beside those cedar trees?” Sivells asked from behind his binoculars. The deer had frozen in its tracks about 130 yards away, on a steep incline. Its long, white-spotted body was angled away from us, but her head turned back in our direction. She seemed to think she was out of our view.
I clicked the safety off and aimed where Sivells had instructed—just behind the shoulder—and, without allowing myself a moment to reconsider, pulled the trigger. “Got her!” Sivells said. He’d heard the bullet hit the deer and had seen her jerk up her front legs, a telltale sign of a solid hit, before she stumbled a bit, then bolted behind the cedar bushes. I had heard many hunters talk about the thrill of the hunt, the excitement of the first kill, but also the twinge of remorse that comes from taking the life of a beautiful creature. I had a sense of urgency; this was an important job that I had yet to finish. There was just one problem. Sivells and I had lost sight of the deer.
Sivells threw his rifle over his shoulder, and we scrambled up the hill, crunching the loose limestone gravel underfoot, to the spot where the deer had fallen. But it wasn’t there. Nor did we see any blood. Not a drop. That’s when I began to worry. An absence of blood meant that I might have “gut shot” the deer, hitting her digestive organs rather than her lungs or heart, causing a slow and agonizing death and potentially releasing fluids that could taint the meat.
Sivells radioed one of his fellow hunting guides, Sam Morrow, who’d been training Doc, his Blue Lacy, to track game. In less than a minute, the radio collar alerted us that Doc was sitting down—often a sign that he had located a deer or other animal. We found him beside the deer, who’d been hidden in a patch of shin oaks about forty yards up the hill. My shot had, in fact, punctured her stomach. However, because I had fired at an angle, the bullet had managed to pass through her heart and lungs before exiting the opposite shoulder. She had died relatively quickly.
“Perfect shot,” Sivells pronounced. Against my better judgment, I chose to believe him. “You got everything,” he said. “Congratulations.”
I will admit to feeling a wave of relief, although a hint of doubt has stuck with me: that I should have taken a better shot and spared the deer some pain in its final moments. Sivells dragged the carcass down the hill and, rather than field-dressing the deer, strapped it to the front of his Jeep and hauled it to a skinning shed on the ranch. It weighed 110 pounds. I left the deer with him and, a week later, drove to Uvalde Meat Market and Processing to pick up a box of forty, maybe fifty, pounds of venison.
Did shooting that doe count as “exotic” hunting? As culling a species now overpopulating swaths of Texas? Did my guided hunt count as “fair chase”? I still can’t say. But I can tell you this: The axis meat was a deep wine-red color, like elk. The backstrap was tender and mild. The ground meat was perfect in bowls of chili, and a leg cut, pounded and floured, was the best chicken-fried steak I’d ever made.
This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Aoudads and Bongos and Zebras, Oh My!” Subscribe today.