Inside the Dallas Safari Club’s Annual Hunting Convention
There are three shooters on my flight from Charlotte to Dallas. Two middle-aged men in varying degrees of camouflage and another, younger man in a white nylon windbreaker with a hunting face mask. They’re going on a duck-hunting trip. I know this because one of them has a manila folder labeled “TX Duck Hunt Trip” peeking out from an open pocket of his laptop case. As I wait behind them on the jet bridge, I listen to the older men talk about their investment portfolios. The more vivacious of the two – a dark-haired man who’s trimmed his ear hair down to a shadowy stubble – changes tack abruptly and asks the younger man, “How’s that gun shooting?” He just blinks in response, and the older men laugh and call him gun-shy. “You’re giving me financial advice,” he says in his defense, obviously embarrassed. “Now we’re talking about weapons.”
I sit a few rows back from the happy huntsmen on the plane, watching them drink their bourbon and regale the flight attendants with tales of their adventures. They strike up a special rapport with one in particular and invite him along on their trip. “Hell yeah,” the flight attendant says, “I’m out of duck.” He kneels down in the aisle and tells them that men who shoot never have to worry, even should the apocalypse come. His girlfriend, however, is doomed. “‘If they close the Hershey’s store, what’re you gonna do?’” he says, then raises his voice an octave, draws out the drawl of his accent: “‘Well, I guess I’ll starve.’”
Hunting is a common enough pastime in the United States. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, 13.7 million Americans aged sixteen or over “took to the field” in 2011. But amongst Southern white men of means, shooting is a culture unto itself. The shooters on my flight (and this is the preferred terminology: “shooters” or “hunters” or “sportsmen” but, oddly enough, not “gunmen”) are part of what remains of the American hunting aristocracy of Teddy Roosevelt’s day. The older men know this; “free bourbon in coach!” crows the dark-haired one when the flight attendant proves himself an ally. The younger man, on the other hand, hasn’t quite learned the ropes. He has no camo on at all and he doesn’t seem to know that it’s all right for him – but probably not other people – to talk about guns on an airplane. If the younger man’s anxious to learn what’s what, he couldn’t have picked a better time to come to Dallas. This weekend – the 10th through the 12th of January – Dallas is playing host to Generations, the 2014 iteration of the Dallas Safari Club’s annual convention. If he’s got time before the TX Duck Hunt Trip, he can join the thousands of hunting enthusiasts who’ve thronged to this inflection point between the Deep South and the Wild West to learn which sort of bullets explode best inside bears, which sort of blinds keep you hidden from geese, and which sort of feed makes deer’s antlers grow so their heads look more impressive mounted on your wall. Generations also has the added draw of controversy. This year, the Dallas Safari Club plans to auction off the right to hunt one of the world’s five thousand remaining black rhinoceros. Conservation authorities in Namibia have been tasked with identifying the target animal: an old, post-breeding male who poses a danger to others. This one-of-a-kind prize is expected to fetch upwards of a quarter-million dollars, all of it earmarked for rhinoceros conservation. Needless to say, many animal-welfare advocates and wildlife conservationists are indignant at the idea that killing critically endangered rhinos is an effective way to save them. Auction organizers say they’ve received death threats. “Man up!” says one of the shooters on the plane, I’m not sure what about.
The NRA Hospitality Suite is to the right as I come in. It’s a medium-sized ballroom hung with stars-and-stripes bunting, Wayne LaPierre’s face in endless close-up on a big TV. I recognize him from after Newtown: his jowls and tiny glasses, his smugly aggrieved expression. A couple of old men mill about, sipping coffee from paper cups. Further down the hall, near where they’ve set up registration, I hear the crack of a hunting rifle. On an enormous screen suspended from the ceiling above the taxidermied head of an elephant, a sportsman hurries down a green hill in Africa. He’s only wounded the antelope; it takes another shot. The animal drops and barrel rolls out of sight, now presumably dead. The sportsman cheers in jubilation, thumps one of his many assistants – “native porters” in the old colonial parlance – on the chest with the flat of his palm. “You guys are awesome,” he says, and shakes every hand they offer him. The video finishes and another comes on. This time it’s a grizzly bear they’ve shot, standing poleaxed for a second, then pirouetting nose-first into a stream. The same sequence of death after death will roll on endlessly for the entire convention, on this screen in the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center’s airplane-hangar atrium and on other, smaller screens spread throughout the complex. You can sit in the Convention Center’s own Starbucks, sipping your mocha and listening to canned Motown, as leopards get shot and fall from trees. I realize now, belatedly, that I almost always flinch when I see an animal die. There’s something about how sudden it is, as if a switch had been flipped, that pulls the air out of my lungs. This is not an ideal hang-up to have if you’re planning a weekend with shooters. Luckily, no one seems to notice me twitching. Exhibitors are streaming across the sky bridge that connects the Convention Center to the Omni Dallas Hotel. Many of the ladies among them are wearing sneakers, the cowboy boots they’ll wear on the exhibition floor tucked underneath their arms. I go up to registration, past the sign that reminds patrons that concealed weapons are not permitted in the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center, and buy a two-day ticket for thirty dollars. Children under twelve get in for free. I puzzle over that for a second – is it because they’re a growth market? – then decide I’m overthinking it. I take a program and an auction catalogue from the stack on the table. A harassed-looking volunteer says “Enjoy the show” to no one in particular. The show, it turns out, is quite a show. Tan women with hair the color of American cheese are stationed by the entrance, hawking raffle tickets. This year’s prizes include a dove and pigeon hunt in Bolivia, “Stunning Ladies Diamond Earrings (Value: $6,500),” and a Bad Boy Buggies Ambush. It turns out that a Bad Boy Buggies Ambush is a kind of armored golf cart, and not – as I first thought – the sort of prank a new father might have played on him by his old fraternity brothers. I peruse the merch next door at the Safari Club’s own booth, then cut around behind the raffle gals and onto the convention floor. It’s still only a little after ten in the morning, so the vast, battlefield-sized room is relatively quiet. I decide to take advantage by wending my way past all of the thousand-odd exhibitors and taking a look at their wares. Next to a furrier’s that advertises itself with a placard on a stack of pelts that reads, simply, “Genesis 3:21” (I looked it up: “Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them”) I hear someone say “I’m looking for coyote fur.” “Coyote fur? Right here!” says the furrier, with the razzle-dazzle enthusiasm of a B-list game show host. Next door, a wildlife artist and his friend stand on an exhausted zebra-skin rug and debate which breed of dog is hardest to paint. It has to be labs, they agree. There is a mesquite-wood bathtub on sale at a booth further in for eight thousand dollars. There are chandeliers and Christmas trees made of antlers, paintings of elephants and American Indians, a taxidermy display featuring a bear chasing an apoplectic squirrel down a mossy log. There are trucks and ATVs, falcons and puppies, a seven-foot tall anthropomorphic fish named Charly the Arctic Char, doomsday shelters, faux cacti made of metal. Safari operators from Tanzania, New Zealand, Alaska, Argentina, Zimbabwe, Canada, Colorado, South Africa, Idaho, Austria, and Tajikistan are out in force, most of them with a demure bowl of candy set out beside their brochures. If you play it right, you can get a handful of mints every ten feet. I even come across a selection of baby bibs that feature headless cartoon bodies of hunters, cowboys, and fishermen. As far as I can tell, if you bib your infant in the hunter one, she will look more or less like Elmer Fudd, except without the hat. Oh, and guns. Thousands of guns. Everywhere I look there is a man squinting down the length of a rifle at some imaginary mountain goat on a hill in Tajikistan or a pretend flock of birds in the rafters. Guns are also what draw those lucky children who get in for free. “I want a gun,” says a little boy dressed as an old timey sheriff. “I want to ride the escalator,” says the littler boy beside him. The man I’m guessing is their father smiles indulgently. “Pretty amazing, right?” he says as he leads them further in, pushing their infant sister in front of him in her stroller. No sheriff’s badge or Elmer Fudd bib for her – just a pink bow stuck to the top of her head, as if she were a present you bought on your way to a party and didn’t have time to wrap. The little sheriffs gravitate to the Dallas Woods and Water Club booth, where an older man in a buzz cut is playing a video game. Or not a video game, exactly: this is a live-action simulation designed to educate gun owners about responsible concealed carry. The little boys stand there and watch, their eyes wide beneath the brims of their half-gallon hats. “We get to shoot guns,” one of them says. “Look at that thing.” On the screen, a woman is confronting her boyfriend, who’s lounging insolently in the driver’s seat of his Camaro, for cheating on her with her sister. The argument grows heated and the spurned girlfriend pulls a gun. The man playing the game extracts his toy gun from the back of his pants and drops into the Weaver stance. “You stay out of this!” the woman keeps saying. “Call the cops!” says the guy in the Camaro. There’s a lot more shouting and then the woman shoots her now-ex-boyfriend in the face. A split second later, the buzz cut shoots her in the chest. There’s a lot of CGI blood all over the car. The mini-sheriffs’ eyes get wider. “Little late,” says the instructor blithely, taking back the video-game gun. The buzz cut shrugs, philosophical. “Little late,” he agrees. “He cheated on her, though.” I retreat to the food court and eat a sandwich and a plate of fries. Two tables down, at the edge of the dining area, a shiny saleswoman in an immaculate polo shirt works her way through a circuit of Vanna White arm raises in front of gigantic Dodge Ram pickup. Halfway through her second go-around, three Safari Club stalwarts with enormous belt buckles come and sit down at my table, nodding at me politely. I try not to eavesdrop but they’re sitting facing me as I eat, like guests on a genteel talk show. One of them – thirty-something, with a round face and a manicured soul patch – tells his companions that he produced a piece for the Discovery Channel that I think was about Christians who hunt. It may have been called “Blind Faith.” I don’t think the Christian hunters on the show were blind, though that would have made for great TV. The soul patch keeps saying “It’s amazing how things blow up like that.” Behind him an army of Latino busboys circles through the crowd, throwing half-eaten food away.
If the young man in the windbreaker on the flight from Charlotte to Dallas had ditched the TX Duck Hunt Trip and come to Generations, he might have taken advantage of the Safari Club’s array of educational seminars. These carry intriguing titles like “Safari Destination NAMIBIA!,” “Fierce Fishes of the Amazon,” “Intro To Reloading Clinic,” and “Shotgunning: The Reality of What It Really Looks Like.” I’m too compulsive a school-goer to pass these by. One of them – Tom Julian’s session on designing one’s own trophy room, which he insists is much more than “four walls and a bunch of dead critters” – is a jovial run-down of topics like wall height, humidity, “special niches,” plywood, windows, soffits, and LEDs. The other seminars I attend are much more grim, offering as they do variations on the theme that hunting is imperiled and people are out to get us. The well-known sportsman Craig Boddington – a mild-mannered ex-marine from Kansas with placid hair and a knowledgeable smile – kicks things off by reminding us that “next time an anti-hunter engages you,” we should let him know that “there’s no alternative funding.” Apparently, being accosted by “anti-hunters” is a common enough occurrence that we must be on our guard. Hikers, photographers, boaters, birdwatchers, and other unarmed varieties of nature enthusiast should be thanking hunters, Boddington says, because, without “us,” there’d be no wildlife left. (Here the facts bear him out, at least to an extent. Since 1937, excise taxes on firearms and ammunition have gone to support state wildlife agencies; the National Shooting Sports Foundation – which, in a ghastly coincidence, is headquartered in Newtown, Connecticut – estimates that these excise taxes, combined with license and permit sales and hunters’ philanthropic donations, contribute $1.6 billion to conservation annually.) Of course, the American hunting aristocracy “takes to the field” all over the world, where they’re liable to meet all sorts of people, and not just “anti-hunters” who can be waved off with statistics. When he gets to discussing how pigs are larger in Central Asia because Muslims don’t eat pork, Boddington’s PowerPoint alternates between pictures of himself, crouched beside animals he’s killed, and candids of his Pakistani and Tajik guides. “Asia is different,” Boddington says. “They’re dressed different than you and me.” He holds us in suspense for a moment, then smiles a disarming smile. “Hey, don’t worry about it – as hunters, they speak the same language.” This view is not shared by Nick Wackym, the security expert who leads a session about avoiding death at the hands of people like Boddington’s guides. Wackym insists that he wants us to go to “the far side of the world,” but that we should do it in a smart way. Midway through his presentation, he tells a long story about a comic misadventure he was privy to in Najaf, Iraq, in 2007. A “midget sniper” was proving a problem for NATO troops. They captured a man they thought was their guy only to learn from their Iraqi informant – and here Wackym grins and lapses into the accent American actors use when playing Soviets – that “is wrong midget.” It turns out that Najaf is “full of midgets” and it’s easy to mistake one for another. Wackym says that the Delta Force men who captured the “wrong midget” held him down with a broom, stuffed a hundred dollars in his pocket, and “un-arrested” him. Later, thankfully, they managed to apprehend “the right midget” and all was well with the world. This story is intended, I think, to impress on us the gravity of the security situation abroad. Wackym ends his presentation with a YouTube clip of a successful hostage rescue, despite his insistence that most kidnap and ransom cases (“K ‘n’ R-s” to those in the know) end either with the ransom being paid or in death and disaster. After a few seconds of shaky helmet-cam footage of helicopter shadows and men being shot, we see the three Italian hostages in question alive and well and smiling. Wackym says: “Here they are with a bottle of Pepsi and bad haircuts, God bless ‘em.” But, for all that, it’s Michael Sabbeth’s seminar that turns this sense of being under siege all the way up to 11. Sabbeth is a lawyer and author from Denver with the jittery eloquence of a comedian. He peppers his comments with references to “illegal thugs,” terrorists, rapists, criminals, and gang members who are in the country illegally or possess guns illegally and against whom responsible gun owners are a needed bulwark. And yet, he says, shooters are blamed for all of society’s ills, from “illegitimate births” to the public school system. “We hunters” don’t have “cultural confidence,” he says, because “we have been beaten up for so long.” Among those doing the beating is the “flash mob” that opposes the Safari Club’s impending rhino auction. Sabbeth reminds us that Safari Club members are receiving death threats on social media. And all this for the sake of an old, cantankerous, post-breeding male who’s more of a threat to his fellow rhinoceros than anything else. “It sounds like me,” Sabbeth quips, in a moment of almost-empathy. “I could go on his wall.” When pressed, he expresses doubt that the controversy will amount to much of anything. After all, anyone might “think twice about protesting ten thousand people with guns.”
Outside, next to the Praise the Lard barbecue truck that’s parked in the turn-around by the Omni Hotel, elementary school kids from Georgia are flouting Sabbeth’s warning. Carter and Olivia Ries, who are young enough to have gotten into Generations for free if they had wanted to, are the co-founders of the environmental advocacy and wildlife conservation organization One More Generation. (A clever, acronym-friendly name, as their t-shirts and business cards attest; the toll-free number advertised there and on their website is 1-877-OMG-THANKS.) They’re buttonholing convention-goers as they walk past on the sidewalk to try to convince them to oppose the rhino auction. Their father Jim stage-manages these encounters, for the kids’ benefit as well as that of the camera crew that’s shadowing them. (Carter and Olivia are the stars of a forthcoming documentary.) At a break in the action, the cameraman turns to get some b-roll footage of the white hackney carriages drawn by prancing horses that sweep up the street from time to time. “I never knew how movies work,” Carter announces, happily. “Now I get it.” The point that Carter and Olivia are trying to make – a point that I watch them get a burly man in an NRA hat to concede – is that if the black rhinoceros that the Namibian government is auctioning off is such a problem individual, they could relocate him or put him in a zoo instead of killing him outright. “I really commend these children,” says another woman they stop. She’s a Safari Club employee, and seems genuinely conflicted. The hunt itself may be wrong, she tells them, but “the heart is in the right place.” Judging from Carter and Olivia’s wide-eyed looks, where the Safari Club’s heart is doesn’t make much difference. A little later that afternoon, a small group of protesters gather a few blocks away from the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center at the corner of Lamar and Young. Dallas PD officers watch from across the street, leaning back against their cruisers. Weeks later, when it comes out that Texas-based shooter and TV host Corey Knowlton won the rhino auction with a three hundred and fifty thousand dollar bid, his Facebook page will be swamped with recriminations and insults and speculation about the size and state of his “manhood.” He will give an interview with CNN from a Las Vegas hotel room, where he has holed up with a private security team because of the threats he and his family have received. But that is later, and mostly over the Internet, and bears little resemblance to the gathering of kids and vegans on this Dallas street corner. One woman, an activist named Tammie Carson, holds up a sign that says “KILLING FOR CONSERVATION IS LIKE SCREWING FOR VIRGINITY.” She tells me that “screwing” was not the word that first came to mind, but that this was a family event. Carson is a veteran campaigner who chained herself to the underside of a truck during Tar Sands Blockade’s 2012 protest of the Keystone XL pipeline. “Some people are just brutal,” she says, emotion thick in her voice. But others – like teenage sisters Jasmine and Jordan – are newcomers to the cause. Their grandfather and his girlfriend told them to come and they did. “Well, I protest any time that people invite me,” says Jasmine, “just because it’s pretty cool to be, you know, nice to have a voice, and we can do it in our country.” They say they don’t want the rhino to die because killing endangered animals “messes with the food chain.” When I ask them if they’ve ever gone hunting with any of their high school classmates, they look at me as if I’d lost my mind. “I’m not interested in that. I don’t want to kill stuff,” says Jordan. “I would never. I would never kill an animal,” says Jasmine. “Yeah, it’s just – just not cool,” says Jordan. “Yeah,” says Jasmine. “It’s disgusting.” Other protesters suggest that Dallas is changing, that Texas is changing, to the extent that publicly shaming hunters is no longer totally unthinkable. Lisa Cassell – who compares killing for conservation to offering a child up to pedophiles to raise money for preventing child abuse – tells me about the vegan restaurants that have sprung up in Dallas and Fort Worth. She’s recently vegan herself; “I soaked my almonds overnight,” she says. “We’re gonna make some cheese today.” Trey, a quiet man in an Earth Day shirt and Longhorns cap, is an ex-hunter. He says he stopped because he “didn’t like killing,” no matter how popular it might be. If we cull rhinos, he wonders aloud, what’s to stop us from culling even more beloved animals – like bald eagles, say, or even people? Angela Antonisse-Oxley, one of the organizers of the protest, tells me she’s loved rhinos since she was a child – in part because of Moyo, a rhino she used to visit at the Dallas Zoo. “I got to know him,” she says. “I actually have a painting that he did.” She chokes up a little when she tells me that if she won the lottery, she’d bid in the auction and tear up her winning ticket. “I would rather spend the money on saving this rhino than getting out of my situation at home…. I could’ve paid off student loans with the money. But the first thing that I wanted to do was save this rhino.” The protest goes on for another hour. A few cars passing on Lamar honk their horns in support. Some drivers give Antonisse-Oxley and Co. a thumbs-up; others flip them the bird. “Kill animals!” I hear someone shout, and then a round of boos. There’s some talk about marching on the Convention Center and protesting at the auction itself, but people have begun worrying aloud about whether their parking meters have expired. Slowly, quietly, the protest dissolves. The cops get in their cars and drive off. I walk back towards the Convention Center with Lee Afsar, a small, dark-haired woman with a wary smile. Her criticism of the auction may be the only thing said at the protest that the Safari Club might take seriously: “I’m not a tree hugger,” she says. “I have guns. I believe in private guns. I get all that. But this is overboard.”
Inside the Convention Center I spot the Ries family gaping up at the killing on the big screen, much as I did when I first arrived. The exhibition floor is closing, and I follow the tide of shooters back across the sky bridge to the Omni Hotel. The Omni is hosting a black-tie reception before the rhino auction begins. I tried earlier to wrangle a ticket and was laughed at. They’ve been sold out for quite a while. For the first time since I’ve been in Dallas, my plaid shirt, jeans and boots mark me as an outsider, and hotel security keeps an eye on me. I sit on an upholstered pouf and watch men in glossy tuxedoes and fancy cowboy hats escort women in pink and purple fluff past the rope line. This is the hunting aristocracy that the young man in the windbreaker on the plane could be part of if he wanted. No matter how much has changed, that hasn’t. Waiters rove around, passing out champagne. Later tonight they’ll toast Corey Knowlton and his winning bid. But the hotel security guys are giving me dark looks and talking to their lapels, so there’s no point in staying. I go down the stairs and out into the evening. The protesters are gone. The streets are quiet. Overhead, in the darkening sky, thousands of black birds thread their way down Lamar and take a sharp right at Pioneer Square. Art by Yvonne Martinez.