By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 8, 2005
BULVERDE, Tex. -- On a tranquil Central Texas landscape, three fallow deer wandered through live oak and cedar as a rifle barrel poked out of a small shack nearby. With a metallic click, the Remington, clutched in a motorized steel cradle without a hunter at the trigger, swiveled to track them.
The gun's scope showed the cross hairs settle right behind a buck's shoulder and hold steady, a perfect aim that would kill the animal in one clean shot -- if the hunter wanted to fire the gun. More than 1,300 miles away in Indiana, looking at his computer screen, he decided to pass. This hunter wants to bag a blackbuck antelope, and he will wait to click the computer mouse that will send the electronic signal to shoot.
It is called hunting by remote control, the brainchild of Texas entrepreneur John Lockwood, whose Internet business advertises a "real time on-line hunting and shooting experience."
The business, Live-Shot, is open to everyone who registers and pays monthly $14.95 membership dues and a $1,000 deposit toward the cost of the animal. People using the service must have a valid Texas hunting license, which can be obtained online.
The Remington .30-06 rifle is mounted atop a homemade contraption of welded metal and a piece of butcher block, and is attached to a small motor, three video cameras (two linked to the Internet, including the one embedded in the gun scope) and a door lock actuator, like that used in a car. The actuator is attached to a wire that pulls the trigger at the click of the mouse. From virtually anywhere, someone with an Internet connection can fire the rifle.
If most hunters use blinds to conceal themselves from deer or other wildlife, "what is the difference in this and clicking a mouse?" asked Lockwood as he pulled the trigger of an unloaded Winchester Model 70 .30-06 that he uses for hunting. "Nothing. That is the same exact motion, and it takes the same amount of time."
Although the business, which apparently is the only one of its kind, has yet to turn into a bonanza, opposition to it has. Bills to ban the cyberspace activity are moving through at least 14 state legislatures from Hawaii to Maine, including hunter-friendly Texas. Virginia lawmakers passed prohibitions that take effect July 1. The California Fish and Game Commission ordered emergency regulations last week to bar hunters there from using the Internet to shoot animals, and last month, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department banned Internet hunting of native Texas game animals. A move to shut down the venture for good is percolating in Congress, where a bill to prohibit "computer-assisted remote hunting" was introduced recently.
In a rare alliance, hunters and the National Rifle Association have joined forces with their traditional foes, the animal welfare and Humane Society activists. And some scholars, not surprised to see violent computer games elevated to another level, are questioning the propriety of an enterprise that blurs the line between the reality of man-stalks-beast in the great outdoors to the virtual anonymity of shooter-pulls-trigger from thousands of miles away.
"The problem here is . . . the distance. It increases our sense that real killing is an anonymous activity," said Kirk O. Hanson, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California. "You use something familiar, a mouse, to fire the weapon . . . much as computer games that involve shooting human or animal objects. Technically it's possible. But as a society, do we want to do this?"
Absolutely not, says U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who introduced a bill last month to make Internet hunting a crime punishable by as long as five years in prison. "If ever there was an issue for Congress to speak with some moral and ethical clarity, this is it," Davis said. "If you let this go on in society, what's next?"
For now, Lockwood's fledgling business continues to operate on a friend's ranch about 30 miles northwest of San Antonio. The Web site offers target shooting, but it is the exotic-game-hunting element of the business that has been condemned as a violent computer game gone awry or criticized as the equivalent of an online slaughter.
Lockwood, 40, a body shop estimator in San Antonio, said the real problem is that he and his enterprise are misunderstood. He said the Web hunt is most likely to appeal to the disabled who cannot leave their homes or to hunters outside of the United States. He said he has been contacted by disabled hunters in the United States and Europe and by troops stationed overseas who are interested in online hunting.
Lockwood said he began exploring the concept in 2003 after he showed a friend a videotape of wildlife he recorded while hunting. His friend wondered whether a camera could be attached to a gun for use in long-distance hunting. Lockwood said he also was inspired by a Web site that allows users to "hunt" by clicking a mouse that takes photos with a network of cameras set up at wildlife sites. Lockwood registered his Web domain early last year and with several software programmers created the site, which became available to the public in January.
"Obviously, this does not appeal to most people who can get around," Lockwood said. "Most hunters would care less about hunting like this. I don't want to hunt like this."
Regulators and lawmakers in many places are trying to make sure that even people who do want to hunt remotely cannot. Virginia's ban will be the first in the nation. It will outlaw the possession of the equipment, in combination with the software, to allow a gun to be fired from a remote location. To hunt, a hunter will have to be with the rifle on the site of the hunt, said bill sponsor Del. G. Glenn Oder (R-Newport News).
"I had the only bill the NRA and the ASPCA both supported this session," Oder said.
In California, state Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Redondo Beach) introduced a bill that not only prohibits the establishment of Internet-hunting sites in the state but also forbids residents from using businesses such as Live-Shot, and from importing, exporting, owning or confining any bird or mammal taken by or used in remote hunting. The California Senate passed the bill, and it now moves to the state Assembly.
"This is the kind of technology I associate with war -- like drones -- not with sport," Bowen said.
"In fact I heard about this and I thought about the Texas book depository," she said, where Lee Harvey Oswald, reportedly aiming from a sixth-floor window, shot President John F. Kennedy in 1963 as his motorcade drove through downtown Dallas.
"Is this going to become part of the to-do list on your desk? Update calendar, finish memo, kill deer, pay bills?" Bowen asked.
Organizations representing hunters -- including the Arizona-based Safari Club International, the Texas Wildlife Association and Buckmasters, which arranges hunts for disabled people -- have called Live-Shot the antithesis of their sport.
"Hunting is totally experiential. You immerse yourself in it: You're outdoors, the animal has a fair chance," said Kirby Brown of the Texas Wildlife Association. "This falls off of the ethical charts."
But for Dale Hagberg, a quadriplegic in Ligonier, Ind., Live-Shot is the only way he can hunt after being paralyzed in a diving accident almost 18 years ago. The 38-year-old was an avid bear and deer hunter in his teens, but now is dependent on a ventilator and unable to sit up in a wheelchair for more than a few hours at a time once a week. He has used Lockwood's site about a dozen times to target shoot and four times to hunt but has yet to bag anything. He uses his mouth to manipulate a joystick that moves a remote camera to zoom in and out of the target area on the ranch in Texas and to aim.
During a six-hour hunt last weekend, Hagberg used the joystick to swivel the Remington from afar.
Several times, Hagberg focused the cross hairs on a group of deer that wandered into the camera's line of vision. But in telephone consultation with Lockwood, who serves as the hunt guide and who loads the rifle and disengages the safety when the hunter is ready to shoot, Hagberg decided not to fire.
"I just want to wait for the blackbuck to come," Hagberg said later in a telephone interview. "It's not about killing them. I really enjoyed watching" the deer.
Hagberg said he understands the opposition to Internet hunting, but this is what he has to say to critics: "I think if they walked in my shoes for a while or knew someone like me, they'd feel differently."
He has paid $1,300 to bag a blackbuck -- the price that Lockwood paid to stock the animal on the ranch -- and he will keep trying to get the spiral-horned antelope from his bed in Indiana, Hagberg said. His best friend, a taxidermist, has promised to make a wall mount, and Lockwood will arrange for a processor to send the meat to him.
"We'll do this until that happens," Lockwood said, "or this becomes illegal."