Creatures Great and Small

At home with the exotic animals in Lampasas.

Ricky Smith closes down the auctioneer window with Laurie Henderson after a bird sale. (Despite the “no photos” sign, Kifaru granted the <i>Observer</i> permission to photograph inside the auction house.)
Jen Reel
Ricky Smith closes down the auctioneer window with Laurie Henderson after a bird sale. (Despite the “no photos” sign, Kifaru granted the Observer permission to photograph inside the auction house.)

Steve Provost is a literal ringmaster. The 50-year-old animal expert for the Kifaru Exotic Animal Auction in Lampasas spends one weekend every six weeks offering all manner of beast and bird from the auction house ring, a caged, semi-circular pit protecting spectators from the animals inside and vice versa. Provost has his own cage inside the ring for protection from aggressive animals, but on a Saturday afternoon in early February, showing a Bennett’s wallaby, he has nothing to worry about.

The Bennett’s wallaby, Macropus rufogriseus rufogriseus, is a subspecies of red-necked wallaby indigenous to Australia’s island of Tasmania. No bigger than 40 pounds at maturity, the animal is sort of a miniature kangaroo that, like many macropods, uses its muscular tail as a fifth limb to move in a characteristic gait called pentapedal movement. The crowd, a couple hundred strong, oohs and ahhs as the wallaby hops from one side of the enclosure to the other. A woman asks her family, “Wouldn’t it be fun to have one of those?”

Part game-show host and part carny barker, Provost is on point in the ring. He is short, with shoulder-length gray hair and glasses, and he wears a hunter-green-and-camouflage jacket. With a shepherd’s crook in hand and his voice booming via headset microphone, he is in control and he shows it. With one hand holding the wallaby by the scruff and his other arm cradling its furry torso, he extends the wallaby toward the crowd like an offering. “You’re not going to be able to find anything like this for this cheap,” Provost tells them. It’s a refrain he uses liberally throughout the day. He’s talking about the wallaby’s docility and comfort around humans. Its suitability, in short, as a pet. This wallaby has been bottle-fed and thus largely domesticated. “All the work has been done for you,” Provost says.

Kifaru is one of a handful of exotic animal auction houses in Texas, part of a robust billion-dollar U.S. trade in exotic animals. Though there is no hard and fast definition of “exotics”—each state defines the term differently—the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department considers animals exotic if they’re “grass-eating or plant-eating, single-hoofed or clove-hoofed mammals that are not indigenous or native to Texas.” Most of the exotics business in Texas relates to ranching and hunting these animals. Trophy hunters will pay top dollar to bag a rare and unusual beast. There is also a sizeable market for exotic pets including monkeys, tigers and wallabies.

The Texas cattle industry has been around for centuries; if you want to buy breeding stock, there are hundreds of sellers. The exotics market is far murkier and, as Provost explained, more susceptible to deception. Thus the role of auction houses such as Kifaru. “I don’t have a stake” in the sale, Provost explained. “I’m neutral. I’m like the referee.”

Though it’s empty most days, Kifaru is hard to miss, its wooden edifice resembling an Old West saloon planted at the edge of Highway 183 just south of Lampasas. A massive sign advertising “EXOTIC ANIMAL & BIRD AUCTION” with a frolicking cartoon rhinoceros (“Kifaru” means “rhinoceros” in Swahili) spans the face of the building. Kifaru auctions are always on weekends. Saturdays are reserved for exotic hoofstock (blackbucks, fallow deer, zebras, giraffes, oryx, gazelles), domestic farm animals such as goats and alpacas, and primates and other unorthodox pets. Sundays are for birds—some exotic, some less so—and small animals including reptiles and rodents. Provost often doesn’t know what species will be up for bids until the day of the auction. Kifaru doesn’t own any of the animals for sale; the auction house simply facilitates transactions, taking 10 percent of each sale as commission.

Jurgen Schulz is Kifaru’s owner and founder, and while Provost and the rest of the company’s floor crew work the auction, he is out of sight in his modest office in another part of the building. Schulz, a German who grew up in South Africa, has spent much of his life raising, selling and collecting exotic animals. His grandfather, Christoph, was a renowned animal collector for the Tierpark Hagenbeck zoo in Hamburg, Germany, and made a living capturing rhinos, hippos, giraffes, monkeys, elephants, antelope and big cats in German East Africa prior to World War I. The Schulz family established one of the first game reserves in Africa, and Jurgen’s father, Walter, was a wild game collector for zoos all over the world.

Schulz formed J.C. Schulz Inc., an exotic fauna collection firm, one of the nation’s largest exotic animal dealers, in 1975. In addition to Kifaru, which he opened in 1996, he also owns an exotic game ranch in Lampasas.

Interest in exotic hoofstock waxes and wanes, he told me, and with the ongoing drought, the trade is in a major lull. In fact, Kifaru announced at its May auction that it is suspending hoofstock sales indefinitely in light of the down market.

Jurgen Schulz
Kifaru Exotics owner Jurgen Schulz leads his 3-week-old camel, Scout, out of the pens and into a trailer that will carry him to Schulz’s ranch, about 30 miles north of Lampasas, where he keeps 20 camels for breeding purposes.

Hoofstock animals require lots of pasture and, by extension, water. “We used to get like 130 miniature horses and 40 or 50 miniature donkeys. We’d sell miniature animals until 5 or 6 in the afternoon, and then we’d start selling the exotics and didn’t finish until 10 or 11 o’clock at night,” Schulz said. “Now that we’ve had some rain, those who had a few animals aren’t selling them, because they’ve got pasture.” Though he predicted that the following day’s bird auction looked promising, it was shaping up to be a slow Saturday at Kifaru.

The auction house is a large but cozy auditorium with enough room to seat several hundred. Four rows of maroon plastic stadium seats surround the ring, and a gangway separates the chairs from maroon-cushioned benches that extend to the back of the room. Doors open on auction days at 9 a.m., and customers who show up early can either wait in the lobby, get some coffee and a snack at the adjacent café, or peruse the animals for sale out back.

Aside from the cement floor, the structure is built almost entirely of wood, and Kifaru’s insurance company mandates a strict no-smoking policy to prevent the place from burning down. Signs posted on the walls remind customers of that policy, as well as a “no cameras” rule. Posters advertise the Exotic Wildlife Association (EWA). The Ingram, Texas-based EWA promises that “Included in your purchase price is financial support to defend the right to buy, raise and sell exotic animals.”

Much of the current debate about exotic animals in Texas—to the limited extent that there is one—is over what the state considers “dangerous wild animals.” Owners of such animals—the Texas Health and Safety Code lists 19 species, including lions, tigers, jackals and gorillas—are regulated to protect the public. Since 2001, state law has given counties the option to either create public registries of such animals or ban them outright. Katie Jarl, the Humane Society’s Texas director, believes that policy has led to a patchwork of inconsistent county laws that, she believes, creates a public safety hazard.

“We’re all about personal freedoms, but when your personal freedoms encroach on public safety and public health, then we certainly have a concern there,” she said. The Humane Society supports H.B. 3952, a bill introduced by Rio Grande Valley state Rep. Ryan Guillen this session that would establish a statewide registry for dangerous wild animals. “In 2014, we found that out of 254 counties, more than half of those counties had changed their rules on dangerous wild animal ownership since 2005,” Jarl said. “So we know that the current law is simply not working. It’s sending mixed signals, and most of the time the counties aren’t even sure how to enforce or apply the state law.” Firefighters have the right to know, she said, if they’re putting out a fire at a building that houses a chimpanzee. Sheriff’s deputies should be aware if they’re serving a warrant to a man who keeps a lion.

Jarl cited a case that’s notorious in the exotic pets world. In 2011, in Zanesville, Ohio, Muskingum County Animal Farm owner Terry Thompson released dozens of his exotic pets, including lions, tigers, bears and wolves, before committing suicide. Responding authorities had to kill 49 of the 56 released animals, and Jarl said H.B. 3952 might help prevent a similar tragedy here.

Kifaru doesn’t sell lions and tigers because of the liability, Schulz said.

Provost, who has two animal science degrees from Texas A&M, is Kifaru’s resident animal expert, so it’s his job to set the stage for the sales. “I’ve been doing this my whole life and I deal in values of animals day in and day out,” Provost said. He began his career by determining the sex of ostriches and emus for auction houses, sometimes 500 birds a night, and has been working at Kifaru since it opened. According to his bio on the Kifaru website, he is an animal trainer and behaviorist as well as a consultant to private owners, zoos and conservation projects.

Provost tells Kifaru’s auctioneer, Ricky Smith, where to start the bidding on the Bennett’s wallaby. “I don’t care what you paid and I don’t care what you think it’s worth. I know the value of it, and I’m going to start it in that ballpark and let it sell for whatever it sells for,” Provost said.

Bidding on the wallaby starts at $800. The more exotic animals rarely attract the attention of more than two or three potential buyers, Provost said. The most aggressive bidding war of the day is over a baby alpaca, for which the price barely tops $200, going to a man who has already purchased a miniature horse and another alpaca that morning.

Two competing bidders raise the wallaby’s price to $1,150 before one taps out. But there’s a problem: The wallaby’s owner is in the stands, a few rows down from the man who bought his animal, and he isn’t happy with the final price. Provost negotiates between the two parties. The seller wants at least $1,300, but he settles at $1,200. Smith bangs his gavel, finalizing the sale.

Not all of the day’s sales end so amicably. After the wallaby sale, the price on a young camel reaches a mere $9,000, which is extremely low in the current camel market, according to Provost. The seller isn’t present at the auction, but Provost is pretty sure he won’t accept so little, so he calls a P.O. (short for “Pass Out,” auction jargon that means a seller isn’t satisfied with the final price and will keep the animal). Even when sellers keep their animals, they pay Kifaru a $10 fee.

While Provost handles the animals, using a crook to communicate with employees at the ring’s entrance and exit—a tap on the entrance gate to let animals in, a tap on the exit to let animals out—John Brommel earns the auction house some extra cash. At the beginning of the day, the walls of the auction house were plastered with all sorts of craftwork, taxidermy and assorted junk: “We Don’t Call 9-1-1” signs and metal Texas stars and cattle-skin rugs and woven blankets. By the end of the auction, all of this stuff will be owned by someone, no matter how much or how little it sells for. Brommel is in charge of how and when each piece is auctioned off. A large man with thinning black hair and an imposing voice—he doesn’t need a microphone—he walks around the auction house pointing and chatting, always with a toothpick in the corner of his mouth. As Provost readies himself between animals, Brommel auctions off a few items at a time. An American flag here, bundles of sea snake skins there.

Steve Provost
Steve Provost operates a traveling exotic animal educational program and also breeds and trains animals for zoos and the entertainment industry.

Most of this day’s customers are familiar faces. “I know who is going to buy the animal when it comes in the ring, because it’s the same people over and over that want the same things,” Provost said. But there are also a few novices and people attending just for the spectacle. One woman is starting a goat farm, and she buys a donkey for $100. The donkey, she tells me, will protect her goats from coyotes.

At the beginning of the auction, Smith told the audience, “I think we’re going to have a short day.” He was right. Kifaru runs out of animals to sell at 1:15 p.m. Once the sales end, buyers line up at teller windows in the lobby to finalize their purchases. The man who bought the wallaby is sitting on a gatepost by the door of the auction house, looking at his cellphone. I ask if he’s ever owned a wallaby before, and why he bought this one. He gives me a slight grin, a half shrug, and a faint, indiscernible utterance before turning back to his phone. A few feet away, Provost is on his own phone, checking in with sellers who chose not to attend the auction in person.

Twenty-two states ban private possession of primates as pets, and as of 2013, 20 states ban private ownership of big cats. Only seven states require no license or permit to own exotic pets. Texas has neither the most stringent nor the laxest regulations. Though H.B. 3952 would have no impact on the buying and selling of most exotic animals, including hoofstock, the exotics industry sees the bill as one more attempt to infringe its rights.

“We have to continually fight to stay in business, to keep onerous regulation off of us,” EWA Director Charly Seale said. Though Seale said EWA concerns itself only with hoofstock, many of his organization’s 5,700 members also own big cats or primates, and a large percentage of those members are in Texas. “As long as it’s responsible ownership under USDA licenses, and they meet the requirements, they should be allowed to own them,” he said. All Texas exhibitors, breeders and dealers of exotic animals are required to be licensed through the USDA and are ostensibly held to the standards of the federal Animal Welfare Act. But experts and advocates say USDA regulations are ineffective. According to Born Free USA, an animal advocacy nonprofit, “Roadside zoos and private individuals across the state imprison dangerous wild animals in appalling conditions that meet neither federal nor state regulations. These facilities get away with such conditions due to a fatal combination of poor federal enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act and ineffective state oversight.”

Exotic animals in Texas—including but not limited to monkeys and primates that don’t fall under the state’s dangerous wild animal laws—are in a sort of legal blind spot. Pet capuchin and macaque monkeys are often purchased as infants, but when the males reach sexual maturity and become aggressive, many are either handicapped (by removing their teeth and nails), chained or discarded. The lucky ones end up in animal sanctuaries. The Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary alone houses nearly 20 big cats, almost all of which came from private owners or facilities condemned by the USDA. According to Executive Director Patti Clark, the Austin Zoo receives lots of calls about exotic birds; she said buyers often don’t understand how long the birds live, how loud they can be and how messy they are.

Brooke Chavez, executive director of the Primarily Primates animal sanctuary in San Antonio, said that though she doesn’t receive many calls regarding animals purchased directly from auction houses, Kifaru and businesses like it are just as culpable for irresponsible owners as private breeders are. “They might say that they’re just facilitators, but of course they’re the ones allowing the sales. There’s no rules for the breeders at all when they’re taking these animals in. They don’t have any guidelines. It’s just about money. That’s all it’s about,” Chavez said.

Provost said that though he tries to weed out inexperienced or unqualified bidders, he can’t stop people from doing what they want with their money. “I would say there are probably some irresponsible purchases, but you can do that at Walmart. You can do that anywhere else, and I don’t know how to control or stop that other than what I do, which is to [warn people about special requirements]. However I can help the situation, I certainly do that verbally,” he said. “But if a 90-year-old grandma wants to come in and buy that big, bad water buffalo bull, it’s her money and this is America and she’s free to do that.”

No one is sure how many tigers are in private hands in Texas, and though the USDA keeps a list of licensed owners, the Humane Society estimates that the number of unlicensed privately owned cats could total more than the number living in the wild, which is as few as 3,000. What is certain is that the exotics industry happens to attract its fair share of criminal activity. Auctioneer Brommel, who also owns Austin taxidemery store The Corner Shoppe, pleaded guilty in March to participating in the illegal sale of black rhinoceros horns, and will be sentenced to up to five years in prison on June 3. All species of rhinoceros are protected under the Endangered Species Act. According to South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs, poachers killed 1,200 rhinos in that country in 2014.

The EWA has proposed a solution to the rhino-poaching problem: Bring them to Texas. According to its website, the group is “working out the details of an arrangement . . . which may culminate in the relocation of white rhino to the U.S. and more specifically, to South Texas, where the rhinos would find safe haven, in the wild.”

Three African hoofstock species that are either critically endangered or extinct in the wild—the scimitar-horned oryx, the dama gazelle, and the addax antelope—are already thriving in Texas. Game ranchers chalk this up as a conservation success story, and attribute it to their own efforts and money.

If EWA’s deal goes through, the rhino on the roadside sign in Lampasas might soon have company.

Alex Dropkin is an Austin-based freelance environmental journalist focusing on endangered species and food-production systems.

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Published at 12:27 pm CST