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January 19, 2010

Fox Penning: All About Violence

The Humane Society of the United States

caged fox on the way to a fox pen

Georgia DNR

by Mike Satchell

In the two years that Mamie Henderson worked for her husband at his fenced hound dog facility in Waynesboro, Ga., she experienced so much savagery that it turned her into an ardent critic of an underground blood sport known as fox penning.

Virtually every weekend, she watched large packs of hounds chasing scores of captive coyotes and foxes. The dogs, dosed up on stimulants, were loosed prior to daybreak and run until noon during grueling two- and three-day competitions on her former husband's 1,800 fenced acres. Unable to tolerate more, she eventually called it quits and began to speak publicly against the event.

Fox and coyote penning—also called live-bait dog training—pits wild animals against hounds in contests that end in blood, agony, and death. For the wild animals, there are no means of escape; even if the animals live to see another day, they can suffer life-threatening injuries and still be hunted again.

For wildilfe, the cruelty begins long before the actual competitions are staged. Animal dealers catch wild animals using steel jaw leg-hold traps that can tear flesh, cut tendons and ligaments, and break bones. Animals are routinely transported from midwestern states to pens in the southeast in tiny cages with no access to food or water. Some die on the trip.

Most states prohibit shipping wildlife across state lines due to the high risk of spreading rabies and other diseases, but enforcement is difficult. Officials estimate that thousands of coyotes and foxes are trapped annually to satisfy the demand from commercial wildlife enclosures, which have operated legally, although secretively, since the 1980s.

Today, these pens operate in 20 Southern and a few Midwestern states. Enclosures can range from 15 acres to more than 1,000 acres. North Carolina has about 110 of these arenas, South Carolina some 130, Georgia more than 60 and Virginia around 40.

The HSUS campaigns against pens and progress is being made—slowly, given that regulations governing these operations differ from state to state. This year, legislation in South Carolina to allow the use of bears to train hounds in pens was defeated, and the Minnesota legislature banned the import and export of coyotes.  The North Carolina legislature is currently considering legislation to prohibit pens.

In 2008, the Indiana Natural Resources Commission voted unanimously to prohibit live coyotes trapped in the state from being sold to wildlife pens during the seven months when coyotes are not allowed to be hunted. The HSUS called on state lawmakers to make the ban year-round.

Just this November, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) arrested 12 people for illegally buying and possessing coyotes and foxes to stock preserves.  For the past two decades in Florida, pens have consistently operated without required permits and flagrantly violated stocking requirements.

Earlier this year, neighbors of a fox pen in Holt, Fla. witnessed dogs mauling coyotes against fence lines. FWC staff investigated and stopped the activity twice within the pen.  On the heels of these citizen complaints and the FWC investigation, the Commission heard testimony from The HSUS during recent meetings and is weighing a ban on the pens.

Today, Mamie Henderson looks back on working at her ex-husband's Georgia wildlife pen with nothing but bad memories. "There was no goodness at all," she says. "It wasn't about hunting. It was just about violence and killing innocent animals. It should be banned."

Mike Satchell is editor-at-large for The Humane Society of the United States.

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