Monday, Feb. 23, 2009
Prized hound dies in shelter dispute
Decision to euthanize Big Hitter could be symbol of troubles that imperil the sport
By DAWN HINSHAW - email@example.com
On a clear and frosty morning in late December, Big Hitter, a 5-year-old foxhound who hadn’t been in the woods for weeks, caught a scent and took off running.
He was fast.
His owner, Arnold Jones of St. George, had arrived for a dog drive at the Kingville Hunt Club in Lower Richland near 6 a.m. that Saturday, meeting up with about 35 guys and 50 hunting dogs.
When Hitter hadn’t returned by 10 a.m., it was clear he had gotten into the Congaree Swamp.
The 6,000-acre hunt club is adjacent to the expansive national park, so it’s not unusual for dogs to chase deer into the swamp and keep on going.
What Jones couldn’t know then was that Hitter — who he’d bought for $750 and expected to produce a line of valuable offspring — would walk for four days and 20 miles, looking for his master, before ending up at the Columbia Animal Shelter.
There, he would die in a dispute over a city law requiring that dogs be neutered before being returned to their owners.
The death of this tricolor foxhound — something that probably would have been unheard of not long ago — has created a stir among hunters.
“There’s rules, surely,” said Trevor Bedell of West Columbia, who helped Jones try to retrieve Hitter, since his hunting buddy lives out of town. “But the animal shelter’s mission should be to protect the dog, when we were making efforts to get the dog.”
Interim city manager Steve Gantt said Hitter’s owners didn’t get to the shelter within the timeline spelled out to them.
“It’s a bad situation all the way around,” said Gantt, who hunted with hounds as a kid in Chester.
Hitter could be a symbol for a Southern tradition that’s fading — hunters using dogs to flush deer from the woods, starting a fast and furious chase into the sights of waiting hunters.
It’s a way of hunting passed down in South Carolina families for generations.
But in recent years, the tradition has created bad blood among dog hunters, the more common “still” hunters and landowners.
Large tracts of property required for dog drives are being cut up and developed. The number of hunt clubs is dwindling, too, creating more situations where hunters clash.
Sometimes, dogs tracking a deer will run beyond the boundaries of a hunt club and onto private property, passing a hunter silently waiting in a deer stand.
Jones, who owns 35 to 40 dogs that he uses to hunt big bucks as trophies, can’t imagine hunting any other way.
“There is nothing more exciting than 25 hounds running the deer right at you,” said Jones, 46. “Your heart goes pounding in your chest. It’s an adrenaline rush, to have game coming at you that fast, and you have a matter of seconds to even try to shoot.”
Frank A. Boysia hunts on 3,000 acres he and his father own in Lee and Sumter counties. They farm and participate in wildlife programs that provide habitat for deer and quail.
But Boysia said trespassing dogs disrupt the “good and natural experience” he pursues outdoors.
“I’m sitting there in a peaceful situation with my son on a deer stand, in a food plot that I’ve planted — with my money, with my labor and my love,” said Boysia, 40. “It ruins your whole reason for even having property like that.
“So for me, it’s a property rights issue.”
HUNTING FOR HITTER
Hunters usually look for lost dogs along roads.
That’s because foxhounds know to wait there, said Charles Ruth, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources.
“They’re going to be out standing by the road, looking for their owner. A lot of time, they’ll start walking the road because they can relate the road to the truck to the man.”
That’s how Hitter would have ended up in Columbia.
The Saturday of the hunt, Jones went home to Dorchester County. Bedell, 31, said he drove down Bluff Road and through Lower Richland on each of the next three days, looking for Hitter.
The next day, Christmas Eve, Hitter wandered into Columbia’s Granby Park, his tracking collar and I.D. tag still fastened around his neck.
A city park ranger called the phone number on the tag and left a message for Jones, then called the Columbia Animal Shelter.
RURAL CULTURE, URBAN LAWS
Animal control laws in Columbia don’t acknowledge the tradition of hunting with dogs.
In Columbia, lost pets must be neutered before they can be returned to the owners with three exceptions — if they are sick dogs, show dogs, or guide dogs for the blind.
The spay-neuter program is the foundation of the shelter’s efforts to reduce the number of unwanted animals.
If a hunting dog steps outside the city limits into unincorporated Richland County, the law is different.
In more rural Richland County, owners of hunting dogs can take their dogs home without sterilization if they have a valid hunting license.
Richland County administrator Milton Pope said the dual policies make sense. People are allowed to hunt in the county, not in the city.
Years ago, a debate over whether to require hunting dogs to be spayed or neutered was among the sticking points in efforts to merge city and county animal control operations.
It was no longer an issue when the two jurisdictions decided last year to join programs under one roof — at the Columbia shelter.
The merger will occur in coming weeks. Gantt, the assistant city manager, said this might be a good time to compare policies and see whether they should fall more closely in line.
Still, Marli Drum, the shelter director, doesn’t anticipate problems keeping track of which animals are picked up in the city and which are picked up in the county.
Addresses are logged and city limits lines checked with care, she said, in part to ensure the city doesn’t foot the bill for any animal not in its jurisdiction.
‘A WELL-KNOWN HOUND’
The city’s neutering requirement was a big bone of contention once Jones and Bedell discovered the dog had been taken to the city shelter.
They did not want the dog neutered.
While Bedell had sold the dog to Jones, he said he retained breeding rights.
Jones said Drum first told him the dog had to be neutered, then agreed to accept proof that he had placed in four national trials — documentation that was hard to find during the holidays surrounding Christmas and New Year’s.
“A lot of people knew the dog,” Jones said. “He was a well-known hound. He came from champions.”
Jones collected what proof he could and faxed it to Bedell. Bedell acknowledged he never turned the paperwork over to Drum, saying the documents weren’t what she wanted.
In an interview, Drum said she didn’t have permission to discuss the case but would talk generally about procedures. The city also provided a Jan. 6 memo outlining her recollection of events, under the subject line, “EUTHANIZED DOG.”
Under city policy, lost or stray dogs are held for five days, Drum said. If they have tags, they are kept for two weeks. Once the owner is reached, however, the five-day hold begins.
Bedell said he went by the shelter once and called twice, trying to bring Hitter home.
The last time he called Drum was on Friday, Jan. 2, nine days after Hitter was picked up.
Bedell said he told Drum he planned to adopt the dog once Hitter became available to the public for adoption.
Drum’s memo said she explained he couldn’t adopt the dog just to get around paying the redemption fees, and that she reiterated the dog would have to be neutered.
The following Monday, Bedell went to the shelter only to find that Hitter had been put down, one of 43 dogs to be euthanized Jan. 5.
Drum’s memo said Hitter had developed kennel cough, a contagious infection. “Because of this, the dog could not be held any longer,” she wrote. “To do so would have put many other dogs at risk.”
Just last week, Bedell showed up at the shelter looking to help a friend, Lee Gross, retrieve his lost hunting dog.
The dog had been picked up in Richland County, around Hopkins, and was released to his owner after he produced a hunting license.
“There’s got to be some consistency,” Bedell complained.
“I don’t see how they can be executioner on one and let the other go with a ... hunting license.”
END OF THE HUNT?
Hunting with dogs is part of the culture of the Southeast, from Virginia to Arkansas, said the DNR’s Ruth.
In South Carolina, dog drives are allowed only in the 28 counties where it has the foothold of history, from Richland, Lexington and Kershaw counties south and east toward the coast.
But deer hunting with dogs has declined over the past 20 to 30 years, part of an overall change in the number of people who hunt, according to DNR figures.
After peaking in 1980 at 203,170, the number of South Carolinians who took out hunting licenses bottomed out in 2006 at 154,078.
With tensions rising among hunters, legislators, led by Sen. Yancey McGill, D-Williamsburg, are trying to mediate.
Calhoun County Sheriff Thomas Summers said two or three hunting dogs were shot to death in the woods a couple of years ago in a sign of the growing rift among hunters.
And a couple of “nuisance” lawsuits have been filed against dog owners in the absence of laws to regulate dog drives.
The Legislature stepped in last year, asking DNR to arrange a series of meetings in hopes of reaching agreement among hunters. “We did not come to a consensus,” Ruth said.
Hal Goodwin, whose family started the Kingville Hunt Club in 1962, expects his generation will be the last to hold deer drives — social events that start at daylight and usually include a dinner of game, like venison or catfish stew.
Oftentimes, the men stay overnight, sleeping in campers.
“You may call it a Southern thing, but it’s been going on hundreds of years,” said Goodwin, 59.
“I’ll probably see it go away in my lifetime. ... There’s a big move in South Carolina from a lot of people to do away with dog driving totally.”
But Boysia said he doesn’t want to see an end to the tradition of dog drives.
“I don’t think we’re like the Hatfields and the McCoys. I really do not,” he said. “Ultimately, we’re all hunters.
“We don’t want to drive people out of the sport.”
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.