June 29, 2011
South Carolina Neighbors Fight a Fox Pen
Community wages a two-year battle against cruelty
by Ruthanne Johnson
The first time Kevin Gause heard about coyote and fox pens was after a neighbor noticed a flurry of construction along her property line.
He knew nothing about the operations, only that the construction meant one was coming to his community in Conway, a quiet town near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Gause decided to investigate since the pen was located behind his parent's home, where wild turkeys, songbirds, possums, raccoons, and foxes frequent the landscape. In a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis, his mother watches wildlife from their back porch.
"There's nothing that she loves more than to go back there in the spring and watch the does come out with their fawns. . . That kind of stuff is really amazing, when you can absorb the gifts God has given us."
Gause talked to people who run their dogs in fox pens and local trappers who trap wild coyotes and foxes and sell them to pen operators. Though no one talked negatively about the practice, something didn't sit right with Gause.
"Even if one animal dies for human entertainment, that's too much."
As a hunter with a strict ethical code of fair chase and killing only for sustenance, the practice seemed a cruel aberration to Gause. He still remembers the lesson his father taught him as a young boy when he shot a songbird with his new BB gun. His father took away his BB gun for a year.
Hunting down the facts
Gause's investigation led him to news stories telling about the cruelty of penning. One Florida family living next to a fox pen had videorecorded the carnage as proof of the cruelty. "They watched animals get torn to pieces alive by a pack of hounds—just for enjoyment." He did not want his mother to witness something like that.
In fox and coyote pens, dozens of dogs compete in fenced-in areas to chase—and sometimes rip apart—wild-caught foxes and coyotes. South Carolina has more than 100 known pens, with few regulations governing them.
Though the Conway community thought there was nothing they could do, Gause refused to give up. "I said, 'We can fight. We don't have a choice.'"
In the anti-cruelty zone
Gause and his father took the case to the Horry County zoning board, arguing that the land was zoned only for light forestry and agriculture, not an entertainment venue, "which is what a fox pen is considered," Gause said.
They also argued that the pen would hurt the community and the practice is inherently cruel. One of the pen's owners even admitted in the hearing that foxes and coyotes are sometimes caught and killed by dogs. "None of that mattered. All they cared about is that it fits inside certain zoning parameters."
The judge ruled against Gause’s appeal.
But the fight wasn't over. Gause and other community members went door to door to gather support. They talked to the local newspaper and television stations. "I was on the front page of the paper twice and did three or four interviews with the local stations."
The community collected money for an attorney to research the zoning regulations and further organize their arguments, and filed another appeal. "It was a huge stretch for everyone," said Conway resident Wendy Sarvis, whose 81-year-old aunt and 80-year-old mother-in-law contributed funds.
In May 2011, their efforts were rewarded when the judge ruled in their favor based on zoning restrictions.
For Gause, the win was worth the two-year battle and countless hours away from his wife and son. Seeing his community pull together to prevent cruelty was inspiring. "We had people at the hearings that we never imagined would have come, who weren't even part of the community, to be on our side. It was good to see that."
Gause now speaks out against fox and coyote pens whenever opportunity arises. "Even if one animal dies for human entertainment, that's too much."
If you live in South Carolina and would like to help end fox pens, please email us.
Ruthanne Johnson is a staff writer for All Animals magazine.