Web warriors hunt and peck and kill
By Jay Root, TFORT WORTH (TEXAS) STAR-TELEGRAM, February 24, 2005
BOERNE, Texas -- Howard Giles was beginning to think he would never get a decent shot at the wild hog. But about an hour into the hunt, the beast finally moved into the rifle's sights and Giles fired.
With the click of a mouse.
That's right, Giles was in his home office in San Antonio, aiming at the animal from a program on his computer. The hog was eating soured corn in the Texas hill country about 45 miles away, oblivious to the remote-controlled 30.06 rifle pointing at his neck.
"There was a lot of anticipation. My heart was pumping," Giles recalled. "I felt like I was there."
Welcome to the controversial union of modern technology and game hunting. It's called Live-Shot.com, and it's operated by San Antonio body-shop estimator John Lockwood. The Web site allows anyone with Internet access and a mouse to hunt and target shoot by remote control, all in real time.
For Lockwood, it's a way to open up hunting to people who can't or won't walk into the woods with a shotgun or rifle.
But for critics, including state Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, it's unnatural, unfair and immoral. Smith has every intention of making it illegal, too.
"I don't believe we should be able to kill God's creatures with the click of a mouse," said Smith, who has introduced legislation to ban remote-control hunting. "The creatures of this earth have a hard enough time sustaining themselves while we're after them when we're physically present. They don't need this."
Legislators in other states are also introducing legislation to stop the practice before it takes off, according to published reports.
Lockwood is the first to admit Internet hunting is not for everybody. In fact, he said he's not interested in it himself because he prefers the outdoor experience and thrill that only in-person hunting or target shooting can produce.
Yet, there are some people who can't or won't brave the elements but still crave a hunting experience, he said. And whether they're handicapped, stuck in a hunt-free foreign country or just curious beginners, Lockwood thinks they should be able to use his site. And he can't understand why so many people are so viscerally opposed to what he's offering.
He frequently gets profanity-laced e-mail. People tell him he's sick or "off his rocker" or violating the laws of nature. Don Horrocks of the Diamond D Ranch in Junction told him in a recent e-mail that he is a "disgrace to the hunting and animals industry" and vowed to do "everything in my scope to condemn you."
Lockwood insists that what he's doing is not all that different from the standard guided hunt.
He notes there's always a person in the blind to ensure safety. A Texas hunting license, obtainable over the Internet, is required. And Lockwood is standing by with his own rifle in case the one controlled by remote doesn't do the job.
"We're just having the animals come to us instead of going out and tracking them," he said. "They're not penned up. They're just as free-ranging as on any other ranch."
The system is deceptively simple, all of it contained in an 8-foot-by-12-foot wooden trailer on a 220-acre ranch about 15 miles east of Boerne. Sitting on a folding banquet table inside is an assortment of computer equipment.
Wires from the computer snake to a pan-tilt motor, a wide-angle camera and, atop metal brackets, a Ruger .22 rifle fitted with a scope and a 10-round clip. The smaller caliber rifle is used for target shooting.
On a recent Saturday, the Ruger was pointing toward a target gallery -- balloons, tiny metal sheep and the like -- about 30 yards away.
Suddenly, the motor whirred into action, lifting the rifle slightly upward and to the left. On the adjacent computer screen, the camera brought a bright yellow balloon into the scope's cross hairs.
A loud whack erupted from the gun barrel, and a balloon pop could be heard in the distance. The gun moved again to the right, fixed on another target and fired again. Another hit.
Hundreds of miles away, in Ligonier, Ind., paraplegic Dale Habgerg had his eyes trained on a computer screen, which displayed the wilted balloons he had just fired upon from the Live-Shot.com Web site.
He operates the on-screen controls -- four arrows in a circle and a "fire" button in the middle -- by manipulating a special joystick he can insert into his mouth. In the same fashion, early next month, Hagberg, 38, hopes to bag a feral hog.
He had been an avid hunter before he broke his neck in a diving accident 18 years ago. Now paralyzed from the chin down and confined to a bed, Hagberg has never managed to shake off the desire to hunt wild animals.
If everything works out, Hagberg will become the second Live-Shot aficionado to shoot a hog by remote control. The hunt is set for early April.
"I'm excited and nervous," he said, speaking in short bursts through a respirator and relying on a nurse to relay his comments over the phone. "I'm not sure I'll be able to get aimed at the animal before it moves away, so I'll have to wait and see what happens."
More than 350 people -- from places as far flung as Hong Kong, France and Peru -- have signed up as members of Live-Shot.com. They pay $14.95 a month and $5.95 each time they fire off 10 rounds of ammunition at inanimate targets.
The hunting is extra: it costs $300 for two hours and $75 for an additional hour. Meat processing, shipping and taxidermy costs are not included and can cost hundreds more. Lockwood says he's taking reservations for future hunts.
Only exotic or imported game are stalked. Lockwood settled on that approach because regulations for native species -- such as white-tailed deer -- in many cases require the hunter to physically attach a tag to the animal before it's moved, he said.
And as it turns out, the state Parks and Wildlife Department, worried that remote-control hunting could get out of hand, has issued a proposed regulation banning the practice for native game animals. Smith's legislation would prohibit it altogether.
Giles, who got to do the first hunt because he's a friend and co-worker of Live-Shot.com's owner, said he doesn't see why it would get out of control.
Giles, who grew up hunting along the banks of the Guadalupe River, has killed hogs with guns and arrows. Doing it with a remote-controlled 30.06 from 45 miles away, he said, was a lot harder than he thought it would be.
If anything, it's more difficult than shooting in person because cameras and swivel motors afford the hunter only so much vision and motion, he said.
"I thought it was going to be more like a video game. It was nothing like I figured it would be."
Giles said when the hog appeared on his computer screen, he felt all the rush and excitement he had known in the Hill Country of his youth, despite being nowhere near the action.
When he finally did click the "fire" button, the hog was hit in the neck, but it wasn't enough to take him out. Lockwood, standing by with his own 30.06, had to jump into action. It would take another two shots from Lockwood's rifle before the hog went down for good.
"I don't know how people are going to feel toward it," Giles said. "But by all means it's a real hunting experience."
HOW IT WORKS
From anywhere in the world, computer users can pay a monthly fee of $14.95, then $5.95 for each 20-minute target-shooting session, in which up to 10 rounds may be fired. Live hunts are priced at $300 for two hours, not including meat processing, taxidermy or hunting license fees.
Two cameras, one connected to the rifle scope and another alongside the gun, beam images of the targets back to the subscribers. The rifle is mounted atop a pan-tilt motor, which users control with four arrows -- up, down, right, left. When the target appears in the scope's cross hairs, users click a "FIRE" button in the middle to discharge the rifle.