It easily could be a controversial new video game. The premise: You, the hunter, release a group of hounds along with hundreds of others into a wooded enclosure, tracking their whereabouts via GPS and a smart phone. Wild foxes, supplied by trappers, roam 100 acres or more and have one hiding structure per 20 acres. If the dogs latch onto a scent, points are awarded; deductions are made if they backtrack. Usually, six to eight judges are present. Winners receive prizes, often cash rewards.
Of course, fox penning is no video game. It's allowed by state law.
And even if the dogs exhaust the foxes, perhaps catch one and kill it, the game isn't over: Virginia allows the trapping of wild foxes for restocking the pens. In the last five years, 6,300 wild foxes were released in 37 fox preserves across the state — fenced, private land where technology keeps a bead on the multitude of competing dogs. The biggest, consuming 840 acres, is in Greensville County.
Increasingly the practice has come under fire by animal rights activists, who say the competitions are blood sport and unnecessarily cruel. Recent legislation in the General Assembly has attempted to outlaw fox-pen competitions. This year, state Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax County, introduced legislation banning fox preserves and their subsequent competitions, a defanged version of which passed the state Senate. In late February, the bill died in the House of Delegates.
"We will not be dismayed by a lack of progress," says Laura Donahue, state director for the Humane Society of the United States, who insists that a majority of Virginians find hunting "fenced wild animals" unacceptable.
Indeed, pressure is mounting. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries plans to propose new regulations at its March 20 board of directors' meeting, including limits on the number of dogs allowed in the pens to one for every 2 acres, rules that would allow foxes to become acclimated with the pens prior to releasing the dogs, to cut down on the number of foxes caught and killed, and more regulations relating to the fences themselves.
But that's unlikely to satisfy animal rights activists. "At the end of the day, they're putting lipstick on a pig," Donahue says.
The issue largely has flown under the public's radar. Supporters say the objective isn't to kill the foxes, but to train dogs for the real thing. And despite the concern from activists, there's little data available on how often the dogs actually capture the foxes and kill them. Mike Fies, a wildlife research biologist for the state game department, says "precious little" data is available on foxes captured, save for a single project between 2002 and 2004. But that data has never been released.
"That happens occasionally," Fies says of dogs catching and killing the foxes. "It's the exception rather than the rule."
The state began offering licenses for fox pens in the 1980s. Gray and red foxes, Fies says, are the only wild game the state allows to be trapped and then hunted. That's part of the problem, says Ed Clark, president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.
"While fox pens were originally intended to also be training facilities, the difference is the animals are trapped wildlife, not bred," Clark says. "Foxes are publicly owned wildlife. No other activity allows such private commercial ownership, certainly not on this scale."
Donahue is more concerned about the treatment of the foxes. If they aren't exterminated, they endure extreme stress from "perpetual pursuit," she says. The fox escapes, she says, often are little more than a barrel with a hole cut into the side.
If the foxes are able to escape the enclosure, there's another problem, says Clark, a self-described lifelong hunter. "Foxes are what we call a high-risk species for rabies, and each pen can have up to 10 licensed trappers, trafficking from anywhere in the state," he says. If the foxes aren't perishing from stress, or stress-related disease, Clark concludes that loose foxes could set in motion an epidemic. He mentions that stress is also the result of communal feeding areas, which the instinctively solitary foxes frequent to avoid starvation.
A well-trained fox hound, some say, is taught not to kill the animals. Supporters say the foxes receive adequate medical treatment, and easily evade the dogs with their proverbial smarts. Advocates say fox pens aren't about killing the animals, and they help keep the hunting tradition alive.
"Virginia has already lost a generation of outdoor enthusiasts to Xbox and iPods," says Matt O'Brien, whose 3,200-member Facebook group, called Virginia Sunday Hunting 4 All, supports fox-pen hunting. "[We] all need to stick together if hunting in general is going to survive."
Others say that the proponents are missing the point, and that it isn't about banning the hunt.
"Fox pens are not a tradition," Donahue insists. "There is no fenced pursuit of other animals. Mounted hunters do not own pens [and] many condemn them, actually. Most hunters believe in fair chase — that's tradition." S
News Editor Scott Bass contributed to this story.