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Consumer Reports

Animal-rights outcries can't stop foxhunts | (KRT) INDIANTOWN, Fla. — While the sky turned from nighttime black to pre-dawn blue and the wind cut through the pines and palmettos, the hunters unloaded their gear and the hounds paced in the covered bed of a pickup.

By the time the eastern clouds began to turn pink, the horses were saddled and the hunters were primping their tweeds and adjusting their Windsor knots. A radio played Irish fiddle music.

Far from the music, Loxahatchee, Fla., resident Maria Wise Miller rode across the pine flat woods alone. A length of string - its end soaked in fox urine - dragged behind her horse, laying a trail for the hounds and hunters to follow.

At 7:15 a.m., the master of the foxhounds blew his horn, the 18 riders gathered and the dogs poured out of the back of the truck, claws clicking on the metal tailgate, noses searching for the fox's scent.

The hunt was on.

Foxhunts, like this one hosted by the Palm Beach Hounds, are becoming increasingly popular in the United States and Canada, according to Dennis Foster, director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America.

Over the past decade, the number of foxhunting clubs in the two countries has increased by more than 25 percent - from 140 to 177, he said.

Though foxhunting long has been under fire from animal rights activists in the United Kingdom, it has attracted much less attention in the United States. American hunters say their version of the sport is focused on the chase and doesn't usually involve killing foxes.

"What happens in the U.K. is they literally hunt them down and rip them apart. Here, it's more a social sport," said Jennifer Ferguson-Mitchell, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts-based International Fund for Animal Welfare. Though it's one of the leading opponents of foxhunting in the United Kingdom, the group is not fighting the sport in the United States.

The Palm Beach Hounds, founded in 1979, have never killed a fox, said director Rick Sapir, of Juno Isles, Fla. But other clubs do sometimes kill their quarry.

It happens mostly when the quarry is sick or old - and then the death at the hounds' teeth is quick, Foster said. Healthy foxes usually escape and aren't particularly stressed by the chase, he said.


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"It's called survival of the fittest. We're killing off the weak," Foster said.

Animal rights activists agree that American foxhunters kill their prey much more rarely than their British counterparts. But American foxhunting is not nearly as kind and gentle as its practitioners claim, said Humane Society of the United States spokesman Wayne Pacelle. Though few admit they kill foxes, many do, he said.

"We are very critical of the idea of chasing, terrorizing and sometimes killing foxes just for the amusement," Pacelle said. "This is basically an animal fighting situation."

Drag hunts, where someone like Miller lays down a trail for the hounds to follow, are fine, though, Pacelle said. That's what the Palm Beach Hounds do much of the time.

"It's really an elaborate game of hide and seek that we just love to play," Miller said.

On a recent Wednesday, the Hounds were hunting in the Dupuis Management Area, a nearly 22,000-acre swath of land straddling western Palm Beach and Martin counties in Florida.

Sapir served as master of the foxhounds, directing seven white, brown and black hounds in their search for Miller, the fox. Flanking him were four whippers-in, who helped make the dogs pay attention to Sapir's commands.

The hounds ran through the grassy, open country, skirting shrubs and trees, noses to the ground. Occasionally, they'd lift their heads and bay.

An owl watched from a tree. A pair of wild hogs hurried along, not far away. The sun, low on the horizon, made long palmetto-shaped shadows. The thermometer showed 45 degrees.

Following along behind Sapir, his helpers and the hounds were the rest of the riders - in foxhunting jargon, "the field." They watched the hunt unfold, leapt fallen logs and enjoyed the scenery.

Wellington, Fla., resident Art Cirkus, the master of the field, said he'd been foxhunting for a decade. It's not so different from polo, show jumping and other equestrian sports, he said.

"This is just another event where you form a partnership with the horse and get the job done," he said.

On Wednesdays, the Hounds dress relatively casually, mostly in tweed jackets. One rider - a cowboy from Virginia - even wore fringed leather chaps. But on Saturdays, the hunters wear formal scarlet jackets and black leather riding boots.

The Hounds' hunts usually cover 10 miles over about two hours.

By 9:30 a.m. the riders had returned to their cars and horse trailers and dismounted. There were smiles all around, but no fox.

"We had a great day," Sapir said. "This is such a beautiful place."

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© 2004, outh Florida Sun-Sentinel Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services