AUSTIN, Texas — The deaths are still being counted, but last week’s extreme winter weather in Texas left yet another group of victims in its wake: exotic animals.
Days of freezing temperatures kept the state blanketed in ice and snow, and despite the frenzied efforts of breeders, ranchers and other caretakers to maintain water and food supplies, the losses grew: Axis deer. Blackbuck and gemsbok antelope. Wildebeest. Even a 58-year-old chimpanzee named Violet, who had been retired to a special refuge after being used in biomedical research.
“We have over $2 million in animals that have been lost, and another half-million in damage to infrastructure,” said Charly Seale, president of the Exotic Wildlife Association in Kerrville, Texas. “It’s an extremely trying time for all of us.”
At Valkyrie Ranch, 50 miles east of Austin, Francisco Artes put out hay and alfalfa for the wildebeest he raises for sale to zoos. It wasn’t enough to sustain two pregnant females and their yearlings. Indeed, the storm was the worst possible scenario for creatures equipped to withstand the extreme temperatures of Africa, with blood vessels in their curled horns that allow heat to escape.
“That works the exact opposite in the cold. The blood in the horns get cold and goes into their brains, and they were having seizures and dying,” Artes explained this week. “We had no way of keeping the animals warm. We were out in the blizzard, trudging around — and even when we could find the animals, we couldn’t do much to help them.”
After posting about the deaths on social media, within hours Artes had distributed more than 4,000 pounds of wildebeest meat to people in need. Nothing went to waste; even the animals’ intestines were donated to a dog rescue organization.
“I was telling everybody that wrote to us to come, but it was heartbreaking,” he said.
Seale lost 85 axis deer at his ranch in the Hill Country. Another 50 were found at the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park, site of the 36th president’s former ranch in Stonewall. The reddish-colored deer, native to India, were introduced in Texas in the 1930s and today are hunted for thousands of dollars.
Hundreds of deaths were also reported of blackbuck antelope, originally from India and Pakistan; gemsbok, an antelope with long horns; Barbary sheep; and scimitar-horned oryx calves. A sulcate tortoise — one of the largest tortoise species in the world — was among the 30 animals that froze on the Ox Ranch west of San Antonio.
The first storm knocked out power in parts of Central Texas on Feb. 11, followed by more extreme weather that led to wider, rolling power outages that became days long and took out water systems. Ranchers hustled around-the-clock to keep animals alive as best they could.
Many of those that rancher Joe Reed saw during the freezing temperatures were desperate. “They were 100 percent in survival mode, dependent on us,” said Reed, who owns an outfitter called Nomad Hunts. “For eight days, it was daylight to dusk, making sure water tanks were not frozen, making sure animals had food on the ground.”
Harry Fleming, the operations manager at a ranch north of San Antonio, had wild blackbuck, axis and whitetail deer coming right up to him for feed — extremely atypical behavior. “It was very difficult to watch the suffering going on,” he recalled Tuesday.
Exotic animals in Texas are monetized in several ways: for breeding and sale domestically, to repopulate endangered herds in their native countries and as trophies hunted for sport at a steep price. The industry provides an estimated 14,000 jobs and has an economic impact of $2 billion a year.
Seale said he is working with the Texas agriculture commissioner to ensure that exotic losses are counted the same way that livestock and crop losses are assessed for federal disaster declarations. The impact could continue for some time, said Andy Schwartz, the Texas Animal Health Commission’s executive director and the state veterinarian.
“We anticipate residual feed needs and cold-related health concerns,” said Schwartz, who blamed the sharp die-off on a variety of factors, including the animals’ overall health before the storms hit. Cattle, he noted, are better acclimated for cold weather and fared fairly well.
The Primarily Primates sanctuary in San Antonio not only lost Violet, but also monkeys and lemurs after its power went out, even with staff scrambling to quickly evacuate as many residents as possible from the 78-acre facility. Some 60 primates were moved to a neighbor’s house — with a video on Facebook showing dog crates of bushy-tailed, big-eyed lemurs in a converted “lemur room.”
At Snake Farm Zoo in New Braunfels, staff plugged in generators to keep reptiles and other animals alive, used hand and toe warmers in incubators and opened the outdoor portions of cages for the lions, mountain lions and hyenas to play in the snow. The big cats and hyenas frolicked as long as their paws could stand it, then headed back to the warmth inside, where all 500 of Snake Farm’s species remained safe through the storms.
Regardless of whether an animal dies in the wild or in captivity, property owners are responsible for disposing of carcasses, according to the Texas Animal Health Commission. Ranchers were still burying the carcasses this week or putting them on brush piles to be burned, Seale said. Some left them exposed to serve as a food source for other carnivores.
“We got hit pretty hard,” Reed said. “It’s going to cost us ranchers millions of dollars, if not hundreds of millions. This is how we make our living.”