by KIM HILSENBECK
Standing at just 5 foot 1 inch, Debbie Thames can stare down an elephant in Africa, a bear in Canada or a mountain lion in Texas while drawing back on her compound bow or leveling her rifle with the best of them.
She’s a good shot with both types of weapons, evidenced by the many mounted animals on the walls, shelves and floors of her home near Buda.
Her passion for hunting grew right along with her passion for her husband, Michael, whom she met in second grade at Buda Elementary. Thames said they never dated and went their separate ways after high school.
She was a widowed mother of a young daughter when they met again. The couple started hunting together as a means of dating more than 20 years ago, after reconnecting at their 10-year high school reunion.
“We couldn’t afford much else back then,” she said.
Over the years, she and Michael started going on hunting trips together, expanding their ever-growing collection of animal trophies. They dreamed of hunting in Africa, which came true in 2002. She returned to Africa three more times – most recently in 2009.
And in Africa, says Michael, hunting is a source of economic stability.
When Debbie killed an elephant, two tribes came in asking for meat.
“There wasn’t an ounce of meat left on that elephant; they fed more than 200 people,” she said. “They use the bones to make tools and the trunk is given to the chief in a symbolic gesture of respect.”
“You pay a trophy fee as well,” Michael said. “It’s big business.”
He said hunting also creates jobs for many locals.
“A lot of people think you shouldn’t hunt elephants, but there are so many and if they keep breeding, the government comes in and kills them. And no one gets any money from that,” he said.
“Anything you shoot over there they eat or use for bait,” he said.
Debbie has accomplished something few women hunters have – the so-called “Africa Big Five,” which consists of Cape buffalo, leopard, elephant, lion and rhino.
This petite insurance agent who has a French manicure and wears high heels has been to remote places in extreme conditions, sitting motionless in a blind or tracking an animal on foot in the wild, waiting for the right shot.
She has had many extreme experiences along the way.
“I was charged at by an elephant and [Mike] pushed me up a tree,” Debbie said of a trip to Africa.
Her husband laughed at the memory, saying, “I’m not sure why we did that. It put her right at eye level with the elephant.”
Her experience and love of hunting qualified Debbie for something else that only a handful of women have done – she is one of the 10 finalists in the fourth annual Extreme Huntress 2013 competition.
The winner will receive the hunting trip of a lifetime to Alaska – which will be shown on the NBC Sports show, “Eye of the Hunter” – in 2013.
Being an extreme huntress is now almost second nature to her.
“It’s fun to shoot a bow; it’s like a competition with yourself,” she said.
She and Michael practiced shooting every day for six months before she shot her first bear with a bow.
“The Hunger Games,” a popular novel series featuring its own extreme huntress, Katniss Everdeen, has brought bow hunting to a whole new generation of hunters, and a whole new gender. Bob Sarrels of Sarrels Archery in Manchaca said sales of his custom traditional bows to women have increased since the series and movie came out.
“My niece has gotten into it,” Debbie said.
Queenie and Chief, as they are known to their grandchildren, hope to pass along their love of hunting and land conservation to future generations.
That is one reason for submitting an application for the Extreme Huntress competition.
What does it mean to be an extreme huntress and why does she want the title?
“It’s going outside your comfort zone,” she said, “and doing things out of the ordinary. There are a lot of women hunters who haven’t been blessed with going to Africa, so I don’t think that’s going to get it.”
She said hunting has been a journey for her and has given her new confidence, especially when she got her first bear in Canada when she was alone–her husband was a few miles away.
Debbie said she and her husband are also involved with the conservation aspect of hunting – which to some may seem contradictory.
Animal rights activists create anti-sport hunting campaigns, some with celebrity endorsements, claiming it’s not a sport and that it endangers wildlife species.
Debbie and her husband believe that wildlife management and land preservation are important to sustainable ecosystems. They are members of the Safari Club International.
Aside from land and wildlife population conservation issues, data from the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies shows that hunting is an industry all its own.
Nearly 40 percent of Americans participate in some wildlife recreation, creating a ripple effect for related businesses including gas for trucks, food, hunting weapons and ammunition, taxidermists, convenience stores, hotels and private property owners. Those ripples generate more than $25 billion in revenue sales annually and create nearly 600,000 jobs.
Hunters pay an 11 percent excise tax on certain hunting equipment. In 2007, this generated $280 million nationally. Through the Wildlife Restoration Fund, this money is distributed to states for wildlife conservation and hunter education. Additionally, millions of acres of public-use land has been purchased, preserved and maintained with this money.
The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies data also shows that license fees for hunting raise more than $700 million annually. And Americans spend more than $600 million on hunting dogs and accessories each year.
In addition to the economic boom from hunting, private donations from hunters and associations, such as the National Wild Turkey Federation, Ducks Unlimited and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, top $300 million each year. That money goes toward preserving and protecting wildlife habitats.
Thames said her husband encouraged her to apply for the Extreme Huntress competition this time around. She took him up on it.
“It’s hard to put yourself out there,” Thames said. “But it’s what I really love to do and it’s a passion.”
“I encouraged her to do it,” Michael said of the competition. “There’s not too many women who’ve done what she’s done.”
Thames said she would also like to see hunting become more of a family endeavor, not just dads and sons.
The contest, says Thames, is not just about getting something on the wall or in a magazine; it’s to create a positive role model.
“When a woman goes out hunting, the whole family goes,” she said. “I think that’s a lot about this contest and trying to create a role model and get families out more.”