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Virginia wildlife officials have proposed new regulations for fenced-in preserves where hunting dogs are trained to pursue foxes.
The regulations, developed by staff of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, will be debated Wednesday at a meeting in Richmond that is expected to attract a big audience, including operators of the state's 37 preserves, dog owners and opponents who want to shut down what they call fox pens. They argue the preserves are inhumane and little more than state-sanctioned animal fighting on the sites that can encompass hundreds of acres.
Defenders contend the foxes enjoy the chase and are treated humanely. The preserves are used to train hounds for the field during Virginia's fox season and for competitions in which dogs are judged for speed, persistence and other factors.
The game department said its website has received nearly 3,300 emails on the subject since last October, when it agreed to take a closer regulatory look at foxhound training preserves. At least half appear to be in response to campaigns aimed at the preserves, the department said. The Humane Society of the United States has urged its members to express their opposition to the practice, which the General Assembly has declined to act on.
Mike Fies is the department's furbearer project leader and the department's expert on foxhound training preserves, which he said are primarily in Southside and southeast Virginia. He said similar preserves are found in about 20 states in the South and Midwest.
"The goal is to train hounds by chasing foxes," he said. "The goal is not to catch the fox or kill the fox."
Under current regulations, each preserve must have a minimum of 100 acres. The preserves include cover and escape routes for foxes.
The recommendations Fies will present to the board would provide foxes with more opportunities to elude dogs. They include rounded fence corners so foxes are less likely to be cornered, additional escape structures, limits on how many hounds could chase foxes in the enclosures and training frequency, and the development of requirements to acclimate foxes to their new surroundings.
"We want to provide opportunities for quality dog training while addressing concerns related to fair chase and fox mortality," Fies said.
Each preserve would be authorized to use up to 10 trappers to supply foxes. Over the past five years, trappers have provided an average of 1,261 foxes annually to the state's 37 preserves.
Opponents have cited those numbers to make the case that foxes are killed at a high rate at the preserves.
Project Coyote, which has worked to end dog training involving captive coyotes and foxes, said Virginia should "relegate this cruel blood sport to America's dark past."
"As a nation we have banned both dogfighting and cockfighting because of their inherent cruelty and it's time we do the same for wildlife penning," said Camilla H. Fox, the group's executive director and a consultant with the Animal Welfare Institute.
The Virginia Foxhound Training Preserve Owners Association contends that many of the foxes supplied to the state's preserves foxes die of natural causes or escape the enclosures.
The proposed new regulations would be in addition to the rules the preserves must already follow, including record keeping on hunters and their dogs, health management procedures and animal provisions for the foxes. A fox injured during a training hunt, for instance, must be removed from the preserve and treated or euthanized.
Fies said he doesn't expect the recommended changes to appease critics of foxhound training preserves. "There's not a whole lot of agreement between the two sides," he said.
The department's governing board is not expected to vote on the recommendations until its June meeting.