Monongahela man travels world with bow in search of adventure
Peter Hathaway Capstick. Ernest Hemingway. Fred Bear.
Those guys probably had game rooms like Victor Zeni's. Undoubtedly had stories similar to his that they could share, too.
The rest of us? Not so much.
Relatively few people get to travel the world in search of big game, and fewer still do it well enough to make the record books on a consistent basis. But that's what Zeni's done. He grew up in Monongahela — and still lives within two miles of his boyhood home — a self-described Huckleberry Finn. Free time was spent swimming in the creek, building rafts, fishing, and shooting his bow.
“When I was a kid I'd get my ‘Outdoor Life' magazines, and I'd just devour them, you know? I would always look in the back, where they had the ads for things like Alaskan bear hunts,” Zeni said.
“It's something I always wanted to do, but I never had the money. So when the money came, I was gone.”
His trophy rooms prove it.
There are mounts of white-tailed deer, taken everywhere from Washington and Greene counties to the Midwest. Mountain lions. Elk. Moose. Brown and black bears. Crocodiles. Elephants. African lions. Leopards. Cape buffalo. Fallow deer. Zebras. Ibex. There's even an African watusi, a wild breed of cattle.
“They're bigger than the biggest farm bull you've ever seen,” Zeni said. “Every once in a while they turn around and look at you like you owe them money.”
Zeni has hunted in seven countries, from Australia to Bulgaria to Africa to Spain, and has the accompanying tales to tell.
Armed guards searched his party in Zimbabwe. In Turkey, he spent eight days living in a cave 300 yards underground with seven men, no meat and little food and had to walk for nearly a day to escape insurgents who attacked a nearby village and killed 50 people.
He once found himself in a canal in a pedal boat — “like the ones you'd ride at Kennywood,” he said — surrounded by crocodiles and hippos, which kill more people in Africa each year than any other species.
The 14-foot crocodile that he killed on that trip had human teeth in its stomach.
“They can live a long time and they have a poor digestive system, so when stuff gets in there, it stays forever, I guess,” he said.
It's tough to say what he enjoys hunting most.
“You know, I get that question all the time. But when I get to a spot and hunt an animal, whether it's an ibex or a lion or a rhino or a white-tailed deer, I always think there's nothing like it,” he said.
He admits to feeling a special thrill when it comes to big cats, though.
“I love the big cats, partly because they're something that can turn around and make a meal out of you,” he said.
If there was ever any doubt of that, it was erased for him the first night a leopard came into a bait he was hunting. It was dark — leopard hunting is done after the sun sets — and he was in a blind.
“The cat was in a tree, and you could hear him cracking bones, just crunching them,” Zeni said. “As far as I'm concerned, they're the meanest thing in Africa. They have a disposition. They're just constantly ticked off.”
It's not just the size and power of cats that gets him, though. It's “also the roar,” he said.
“If a big cat is even decently close, the roar makes your lungs vibrate. It's very guttural. It's like being around 100 loudspeakers,” he said.
Zeni is just about always “decently close” to his quarry because he hunts primarily with a bow. Before injuring both elbows, he used a bow with a 92-pound draw weight shooting weighted arrows that he'd made himself.
He did it well enough to not only make the record books but earn some special recognition.
“Victor E. Zeni is the first archer to take the ‘African Dangerous Seven,' with all of the trophies ranking in the top 10,” reads a letter from Safari Club International.
The dangerous seven includes the African lion, hippopotamus, crocodile, cape buffalo, elephant, rhino and leopard.
At the time he shot them, Zeni had the No. 1 crocodile, hippo and lion, No. 2 elephant and rhino, No. 3 leopard and No. 4 cape buffalo.
Zeni is past 60 years old, but the boy inside him is as eager for adventure as ever. He hunts with his son and grandson around home and is scheduled to go to Austria — to try for five species of deer — and Africa — to hunt leopards over dogs — this year.
If he's shooting a bow with a 70-pound draw weight these days, he's still looking to get close to the action.
“It's the thrill. It's being close to an animal and using your own power. When you're pulling that bow, you're creating your own energy to kill that animal,” he said. “It's the challenge I love.”