An exclusive Prince George's County fox-hunting club is under attack by an Upper Marlboro woman who claims that several dozen baying foxhounds charged onto her porch Wednesday afternoon and devoured four of her cats -- the late Angel, Feet, Philbert and Dimples.
Betty Payne, 52, who lives in two acres of wooded property with her seven remaining cats, said she was fixing dinner for her pets when she realized that an excursion by the Marlborough Hunt Club -- whose members include several local judges and bank presidents -- had somehow gone awry.
"There was a cat on the windowsill in front of me, and I saw something pull it down," she remembered yesterday. "I ran out to look and about four dogs were tearing the cat to pieces, right in front of my eyes."
Payne said she watched in horror as the trained hounds went on to dismember her cats, even as huntsmen tried to intervene and Payne "screamed and hollored at the top of her lungs."
The incident has baffled and angered members of the hunt club, who pride themselves on the establishment's 40-year history of civilized sportsmanship.
"We have one of the best-bred foxhound packs on the east coast," explained club president Jerrold V. Powers, a retired judge from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. "The bloodline is very, very good."
"A hound is a peculiar type of animal, and sometimes I suppose they'll get to playing around," said vice president John E. Hayes, an Upper Marlboro veterinarian. "But these dogs are not trained to kill, although I suppose every once in a while instinct takes over."
A. H. Smith Jr., the "master of the foxhounds" at Wendesday's outing, would say only that "we're investigating the situation and as soon as we have a comment we will release that comment." He would not confirm or deny Payne's charges.
The hunt club, which maintains a clubhouse and special dog kennel near Upper Marlboro, plans fox hunts twice weekly through the farms and woods of Prince George's, Hayes said.
Members, who pay at least $200 a year in dues, may join either as "hunting members" or social members. The ranks include former Prince George's Judge Ralph Powers, current Circuit Court Judge Audrey Melbourne, and Gustav Bucheister, the chairman of the First National Bank of Southern Maryland.
Ordinarily, Hayes said, the hunts are planned to "join horse, man, dog, and fox, and allow everyone to go home unscathed." The hunters never intend to kill and have never -- up to now -- succeeded, he said.
By Payne's account the assult on her cats was not only deadly, but unprovoked.
"They certainly weren't bothering anybody," Payne said, "they were just sitting up there on the porch waiting to eat. I can't tell you the anguish I felt watching them being torn apart."
Payne said that Smith had visited her home after the hunt and offered to pay for replacing the cats, or for treating any others that had been mangled. "But how can you replace something you've loved for 10 years?" she asked.
"I saw an article that said these were supposed to be gentle dogs," Payne said. "But I guess they got rid of those dogs and got some mean ones."
Hayes said that if the club's dogs had indeed killed Payne's cats, "I'm sure we'll make it good.
"But I find it hard to believe that mature cats would have been injured by those hounds," Hayes said. "There are also a tremendous number of wild dogs that travel in that area, so it may not have been ours that did it."
While the club's investigation continues, Payne already has retained a lawyer.
"I really haven't done an in-depth investigation yet," said her attorney, Martin Dennis. "But off the top of my head I would say she has a trespassing action -- not to mention the infliction of mental anguish and distress."