RICHMOND, Va. - State wildlife regulators agreed Thursday to take a closer look at the little-known sport of setting loose hunting dogs on foxes in fenced preserves, a practice called legalized animal fighting by critics but defended as a Southern tradition by proponents.
Opponents urged the state Board of Game and Inland Fisheries at a meeting to outlaw fox-penning as cruel, inhumane and a close cousin to cockfighting. A neighbor of a fox pen in Mecklenburg County in Southside Virginia told board members the sound of hounds pursuing and capturing foxes was so "hideous" she had to keep her windows shut year-round. Others called the fox-penning an embarrassment to the state, which permits the practice.
Proponents, including operators, said the foxhounds set free in pens rarely catch their prey, which can slip into holes to escape baying hounds.
The board, which could have enacted a ban, instead decided to let staff at Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries continue to study the practice and consider the possibility of tighter oversight. The board will likely take up the staff recommendations in June, said Curtis Dixon Colgate, a board member from Virginia Beach who proposed the review.
"The process needs to start somewhere in order for our constituents to talk about the regulations," Colgate said. The range of actions, he said, could include a "full-blown moratorium to everything in between."
While proponents say fox-penning occurs throughout the Southeast, in West Virginia and in some Midwest states, it started to gain popularity in Virginia only in the 1980s.
Thirty-seven fox pens now operate in Virginia, and each must have a minimum of 100 acres. Many are located in Mecklenburg County, near the North Carolina line, and are intended to give hound hunters a place to work their dogs. Competitions are held, too, among hunting dogs.
Operators insist the foxes are treated humanely and enjoy a good chase.
Jennifer Hackett represents most operators at the Virginia Foxhound Training Preserve Owners Association, and she and her husband also run a 317-acre fox pen in Appomattox County. The association, she said, is opposed to a moratorium but is open to more state regulations.
Michele Taylor is a member of the association's board and operates a fox- penning operation in Mecklenburg County.
"Not all fox are trapped on the outside and brought into a life of terror, as they say," Taylor said, referring to claims by opponents. "They're born and bred there. If there was anything cruel or anything inhumane, I would personally not be involved."
Thousands of foxes have been stocked at pens over the past few years in Virginia. Fox pen operators say many die naturally or escape the enclosures, while opponents say they are killed by foxhounds.
Dixon, who grew up in Mecklenburg County, said he has visited fox-penning preserves and has never seen a fox caught during the chase. He described it as an extension of the Southern tradition of hunting with hounds, which has been pinched by the loss of farmland and open spaces in Virginia.
Opponents such as the Humane Society of the United States said they were pleased the state would take a closer look at fox-penning, but made it clear they would prefer to see it end.
"It's a form of animal cruelty and so altogether it should be stopped," Laura Donahue, director of Virginia Humane Society, said after the meeting.
Robin Starr, the CEO of the Richmond Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said she is pleased the practice will be examined but said it falls short of her desire.
"I do not understand how it is any different from any form of animal fighting," Starr said.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.
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