July 1, 2014 at 10:48 PM ET
Kendall Jones is used to being the one behind the barrel, but now the Texas Tech University cheerleader is under fire for photos she’s posted of her hunting expeditions.
The 19-year-old has stirred up controversy with a number of photos posted to her public Facebook page, which she launched in February, in which she smiles and poses beside a series of dead exotic animals — from a lion to a hippo, elephant and more — that she's hunted over the years.
In her bio posted to the social network, Jones says she followed her father on "hunting adventures" as a child, and shot her first animal, a white rhino, at the age of 13 on a trip to South Africa. She has since returned to Africa several times where she has "harvested" a wide variety of animals, and now hopes to host a television show about her exploits.
Jones, whose page had more than 89,000 likes on Tuesday, has since become the target of animal activists, and an online petition that has garnered over 80,000 signatures is asking Facebook to remove the college sophomore’s page citing “animal cruelty.”
The petition, posted June 22, calls for the teen's page to be removed for the “sake of all animals, especially the animals in the African region... where hunters are going for fun just to kill an animal!”
In a statement obtained by TODAY, Jones' family defended the photos and the actions of Kendall and her father Cody.
"First and foremost, it’s imperative to make mention that all of Kendall's hunts in Zimbabwe and South Africa were 100% legal with proper tags and licenses awarded on a pre-approved quota by the countries officials and wildlife department," the family said in the statement.
"Secondly, the tags, licenses, and fees purchased in addition to the services provided by local trackers, skinners, and assistants totalled over $160,000 USD, not including travel and/or production costs. In Zimbabwe, where over 70% of the country's population is classified as poor or extremely poor, this money, along with the $200 million hunters provide annually to the overall African economy, can provide a great deal of stimulus for the local economies. In the most rural areas, most people are unemployed and depend on bartering as a way of living and their economy welcomes hunters. We're very proud of Kendall and Cody in not only helping to conserve these species for future generations, but also for helping contribute both money and jobs to an extremely poor area of Africa."
In the statement, her family said Kendall is "still on pace" to be featured in a television show about her exploits in early 2015.
A Facebook spokesperson confirmed to NBC news that the social media network did recently remove some of Jones' pictures for violating the site's policies.
"We remove reported content that promotes poaching of endangered species, the sale of animals for organized fight or content that includes extreme acts of animal abuse," the company said in a statement.
Facebook would not say exactly how many pictures were removed or provide any more specifics. Other content was allowed to remain. "Certain content, which some may find offensive, can be used to spread awareness," the company added, "and we welcome dialogue about animal abuse, hunting and other animal rights issues."
On Tuesday afternoon, Jones’ page posted a photo of the young hunter with a rifle and the caption, “I just want to THANK all of my supporters for their continued encouragement and backing! I will continue to hunt and spread the knowledge of hunting and wildlife conservation.”
Jones’ camp also announced the launch of a separate Facebook page called “Support Kendall,” where supporters “can help us stand tall in our freedom to share and promote the 100% legal activities that hunters and conservationists continue to engage in.” That page already has more than 18,000 "likes."
Meanwhile, her critics took to her Facebook page in droves. Beneath a photo of Jones with a crossbow, Facebook user David Jack protested Jones and her defenders.
“The people who defend this practice either kid themselves on that people like this Kendall Jones are doing good or they are just plain ignorant or amoral,” reads part of his post. “This isn't conservation. Conservation is working towards finding a way to coexist with nature.”
NBC's Gabe Gutierrez contributed to this report.
This post was originally published at 7:16 p.m.