Mention hunting dogs and you might think of a bird dog pointing a covey of quail, hounds baying in the woods, or a retriever diving for a duck. But that barbershop calendar image doesn't quite fit with the type of dog hunting on the agenda of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Wednesday in Apalachicola, when the agency considers the fate of fox pens. The commission's experimental regulation has failed, and the pens should be banned.
These pens are, in essence, dogfighting arenas sanctioned by the state. Operators build a sturdy fence around a tract of land, stock it with foxes, coyotes or both, and turn loose a pack of hunting dogs to chase them down. Prizes go to the most effective dogs.
The pen's size — a minimum of 100 acres — is nowhere near the natural range of a fox or coyote. And the outcome is hardly in doubt. Often the dogs end up tearing the animals to pieces.
This began as a state experiment in 1988. The idea was to issue permits, pass rules and control a situation that was out of hand. With urbanization, dogs chasing foxes on open land were trespassing, crossing highways, getting lost and causing all sorts of problems for nearby property owners.
The state regulated the pen size and fence height, and it required that the quarry have access to some kind of dogproof sanctuary. The animals had to be vaccinated and kept in a "safe, sanitary and humane manner.''
Foxes had to come from out of state, to preserve our own population. Coyotes had to come from inside the state, to cull the local population. Pen operators had to keep meticulous records of where they got their animals.
The well-intended effort has been a disaster. An FWC staff report cites a flourishing black market bringing hundreds of coyotes into Florida. An undercover investigation found that killing the quarry was not only accepted but encouraged, and many operators were eager to buy illegal animals. Operators weren't keeping records of where animals came from or their vaccinations. And some had no permit at all.
The FWC also points out that these pens pose a risk to public health and livestock. Coyotes from Texas have brought in a new form of rabies. The animal smugglers could also set loose on Florida a tapeworm that can be picked up from foxes, coyotes, dogs and cats. In humans, it causes parasitic tumors in the liver, sometimes in the brain or lungs, with symptoms that don't show up for five to 15 years. It has already turned up in foxes taken from South Carolina pens.
Last September, the FWC stopped issuing permits for fox pens and ordered a study of the situation. It will decide the next step next week.
These are cruel canned hunts. They have nothing in common with ethical hunting. They are inhumane, and their operators have a documented disregard for state rules. Policing them is waste of time and money. Most worrisome of all is the serious danger to the public health. The commission should shut them down.