The horns measured 20� inches in a straight line, three inches longer around their four corkskrew twists. The stalk had been a good one. Clearly Murff knew his business. But it would be days before we picked out the last of the cactus needles.
That was killing enough for this safari. Our final stop was the Auerhahn Ranch, a 1,700-acre spread of hilly parkland near Boerne, just north of San Antonio. It's owned by Bob and Betty Kelso. He's a retired lieutenant colonel of armor cavalry, she's president of the Exotic Wildlife Association, a nationwide group that is trying to impose order on the burgeoning exotics business. The ranch is named for the German version of the capercaillie, the largest of the Eurasian grouse, although the Kelsos have more than 70 species of exotic birds on the ranch.
Ranch foreman Ronnie Shackleford, 35, is a shambling, wide-grinning transplant from Oklahoma who sounds and even looks like a younger, bearded Slim Pickens. We toured the ranch for two days in his pickup. In one pasture were four greater kudu, one a magnificent bull with spiral horns in excess of 50 inches. In another were five sable antelope, tall, powerful animals with rich, almost black coats marked with ivory white. One is a pettable three-year-old cow named Suzy, but the bull, kept separate from his congeners except for the presence of a submissive mate, is another story. "That guy's a killer," said Shackleford. "Last year we put a young bull in with him, his son actually. He drove a horn clear through his chest. We found the young-'un stiff in the pasture next mornin'." I looked at the back-sweeping horns. The sable stared back, narrow-eyed, waiting. It put me in mind of a story Goff told at the YO. A hand on another Hill Country ranch a few years ago went out to feed the herd of beisa oryx. He didn't come back. Two days later, they found him dead, still on the horns of the oryx cow that had killed him.
Both Goff and Shackleford feel it's downright stupid, if not indeed fatal, to treat these exotics like gentle spinoffs from The Wild Kingdom. "I wish television would do a special on how cruel nature can be," Betty Kelso says. "They should show what it's like when a flock of wild ducks turns on one of its weaker members and pecks it to death. Nature is marvelous—powerful, complex, magnificent as the planet itself—but it's not all sweetness and light."
The pride of the Auerhahn is its herd of 13 P�re David's deer. Betty Kelso acquired the nucleus of the herd from a Missouri rancher in 1982 after he had been unable to get them to reproduce. She learned that the stags—two of them—had been kept separate from the eight hinds, putting only one in with them during the rut. She gambled and put them all in together. It paid off. The stags battled mightily during the rut, and the competition turned on the winner's reproductive urge. Roaring and rutting for two weeks straight (during which he lost 100 pounds), the "harem master" who had won the initial battle finally wore himself out. Then the loser took over for another two weeks. This went on for six weeks straight and fawns were soon on the way. The deer are doing so well that the Kelsos have volunteered under the aegis of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources to help reintroduce P�re David's deer to China.
For good or ill, the Texotics invasion is here to stay. Just how far it expands remains for the ranchers and wildlife biologists—hopefully in concert—to decide. But there is certainly something splendid, almost magical, about the juxtaposition of these odd, elegant creatures with the Texas landscape. Leaving the Hill Country—reluctantly—I thought suddenly of Finn Aagaard's 10-year-old daughter, Marit. Born in Kenya, now learning to talk with a Texas drawl, living in the midst of animals most Americans have never even heard of, she dreams not of aoudad or axis, nilgai or nyala but of—unicorns. She draws them, collects them in the form of stuffed toys, charms, even a snowfall paperweight with a unicorn inside, given her by one of her dad's hunting clients. The desire for the exotic lies deep in all of us.
As we prepared to leave Texas, Eppridge and I stopped at a store in Fredericksburg and bought Marit a farewell gift: a tiny white china unicorn with a golden horn.