BIRMINGHAM, INDIANAPOLIS, NORFOLK, WASHINGTON D.C.–A two-year investigation of “chase pen” hunting businesses called “Operation Foxote” culminated on November 11, 2007 with arrests in three states.
The Alabama’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, which initiated Operation Foxote, arrested 18 people and seized 55 foxes, 25 coyotes, two bobcats, and 33 cardinals who were apparently used as bait to catch foxes and coyotes. The investigators also found and seized a moonshine still.
All of the confiscated animals were killed “because they posed a health risk for native species and their survival chances were slim,” Alabama Department of Conservation & Natural Resources chief of enforcement Allan Andress told Birmingham News staff writer Mike Bolton.
Suspects from Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, and Wisconsin face jail time and fines of up to $225,000, Andress told Jay Reeves of Associated Press. “Andress said all 18 suspects either trapped, transported, bought or sold a prohibited animal,” wrote Reeves.
“We didn’t arrest any of the patrons,” Andress said. “More arrests are forthcoming in Alabama and at least six other states,” Mike Bolton reported on November 18.
The Indiana Department of Natural Resources Conservation charged Earl Hunt, 66, of Kennard, with multiple counts of illegally shipping wildlife–specifically coyotes used in chase pens, in which individual captive animals are pursued by packs of dogs.
The purpose of the pursuit is nominally to train hunting dogs to hunt in open countryside, as in British-style fox hunting, and the captive coyotes or foxes are required by regulation to have means of escape.
However, chase pens may be more numerous than clubs of people who ride after hunting hounds, and humane investigators have warned for at least 20 years that watching dogs chase and kill penned coyotes and foxes had become a spectator activity of only tenuous connection to traditional hunting practices.
The Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries on November 11, 2007 conducted simultaneous surprise inspections of all 41 licensed “training preserves” in the state, as chase pens are officially known. Initial reports said 36 chase pens were closed due to alleged permit violations, but Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries chief of law enforcement Mike Bise later lowered the number to 31.
“Some of the violations appear to involve only minor and inadvertent lapses in record-keeping,” reported Washington Post staff writer Frederick Kunkle, “but others could result in state or federal criminal charges against the operators, Bise said. He would not identify the operations whose permits were suspended.”
Said Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries chair James W. Hazel in a prepared statement, “After being briefed on this case, I am deeply concerned about what may be going on inside some of these sites.”
Indiana conservation officer John Salb told Associated Press that chase pen hunting could best be described as “prolonged agony” for the victim animals.
Wrote Kunkle, “Allan Andress, chief of law enforcement for the Alabama Wildlife and Fisheries Division, echoed concerns that the larger operations were violating regulations about conducting field trials so that the animals sometimes died, thereby creating a market that paid as much as $100 per live fox. Andress said some operations may have been earning ‘over six figures’ a year by charging as much as $25 per dog or allowing too many dogs in the preserve at once.”
Virginia chase pen owner William Goodman, 57, claiming to have been in the business for 35 years, told Kunkle that “Some English-style foxhunting clubs from Virginia’s horse country have trained their foxhounds at his facility, but most of his clientele are local hunters who haul their foxhounds into the woods in the back of a pickup and follow the chase on foot.”
Masters of Foxhounds Association of North America executive director Dennis Foster rushed to disassociate English-style foxhunting from the chase pen raids.
“We chase wild foxes on horseback,” Foster told Scott Harper and Linda McNatt of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. “Ninety percent of our hunts don’t use fox pens. Night hunters just let the dogs loose and let them run.”
Chase pen hunts are “not a typical fox hunt,” Andress agreed. “In the wild,” Andress told Bolton of the Birmingham News, “the fox knows where the cover is. He’ll be underground before the dogs get close. It’s not quite that way in these hunts. A fresh fox or coyote put into a pen doesn’t know where the cover is. The usual result is that the animal gets caught and killed. That’s why there is a constant need for fresh animals. It drives an illegal market to replenish the stock.”
Among the hints that Operation Foxote may produce more arrests and pen closures were that ilegally obtained coyotes reportedly came from Missouri as well as the states where arrests were made, and agents from Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and South Carolina also participated in the investigation.
Charged in Alabama with 45 counts of illegal animal trafficking, alleged chase pen animal supplier Harold Widder of Antigo, Wisconsin told Reeves of Associated Press that “I just made a wrong turn and wound up in the wrong state.”
Noted Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle, “The Indiana Department of Natural Resources has proposed a rule that would require trappers to kill coyotes within 24 hours of taking them,” but “during trapping season only,” leaving trappers free to sell “nuisiance” coyotes trapped at other times of year.
“The Indiana DNR and the state legislature need to take action to stop this practice year-round. All states should close their borders to this trade,” Pacelle said, hinting at a possible follow-up to the campaign that earlier in 2007 elevated transporting dogs and gamecocks across state lines to a federal felony.