"Hear how his bark has got short? He's got him treed!" We are deep in the woods on the side of a rocky ridge in far western Loudoun County. It is dark and muddy, and the only sound is the faraway yelping of a coonhound named Storm. About 30 minutes ago, just after sundown, Glenn Cogle let the 4-year-old hound off his leash and watched as Storm disappeared into the bramble. Twice, the hound circled back to us with a dejected look when the trail went cold. "Go on, go get him!" Cogle said, and the dog bolted.
Now, somewhere up the ridge, Storm’s chopped and relentless barking signals that the chase is over. Cogle adjusts the .22 rifle strapped on his back and points his searchlight ahead, as we begin the trek to find where Storm has made his stand.
It is a Sunday night in late winter. The only other signs of life in this lonesome stretch of woods are some deer peering through the trees, keeping their distance as they wait for the commotion to die down. Not long ago, this expedition would have been illegal because of a Virginia law that banned hunting raccoons with dogs on Sundays. Similar restrictions could once be found along the East Coast, a throwback to blue laws intended to curb vices like drinking and gambling.In March 2018, lawmakers in Richmond voted to lift the ban, though they left in place similar limits on hunting bears and deer, which are less likely to get into people’s trash cans and attics than raccoons.
Only animal rights activists seem ready to defend the ring-tailed bandit (and known rabies carrier). “The last thing that we need in a society wracked by violence is for yet another day of the week to be allotted for people who enjoy killing to go out into the woods and destroy animal families,” says Catie Cryar, senior media liaison for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Until the law changed in July, it was illegal to hunt raccoons after 2 a.m. on Sunday. Cogle, who runs an excavation business, now has 22 more hours to pursue a sport he says is a lot less socially destructive than other activities that have been legal on Sunday for years. “I can go get beer on Sunday and get drunk and kill you with my car. I can go to the racetrack and lose my house,” he explained during the drive from his home in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. “Why can’t I go out in the woods with my dog and get a raccoon?”
Cogle has been hunting raccoons for most of his 66 years. As a young boy growing up in Jefferson County, W.Va., he hunted with his dad and brother when the “Davy Crockett” TV show made raccoon-skin caps mainstream. Back then, the area was mostly farmland and forested hills. By the ’70s, he was able to help support his young family by selling raccoon pelts, which fetched $25 or more for their thick underfur.
Eventually, the market for raccoon pelts dried up and development moved in. But the raccoons and Cogle are still here, running around in whatever woods they can find, squeezed between subdivisions and vineyards. The challenge for Cogle is getting permission. It used to be as easy as asking farmers, who’d usually holler “Have at it!”— happy to be rid of an animal known for killing chickens. Nowadays, though, it’s a culture war in miniature, as many newcomers regard hunters as disturbers of the peace.
Friendly and cheerful by nature, Cogle turns ornery when talking about suburbia; the trash-can-raiding raccoons have arguably made a smoother adjustment to suburbanization than he has. He’s heard stories of newcomers in their McMansions, who try “nice ways” of removing raccoons from their attics like blasting Ozzy Osbourne to drive the animals out. “Do they really think,” he asks, “playing music is going to bother that ... boar raccoon who’s found him a nice warm place to sleep and eat?”
Tonight's hunting ground, beneath power lines and a cell tower, is called Short Hill. Earlier, Cogle parked next to the Ebenezer United Methodist Church graveyard, where his grandparents are buried. In the back of the car, Storm whimpered. He had to wait a spell while Cogle haggled with a man who rents a small house on the property. Finally, the man mumbled a sullen, "I ain't comfortable with it, but just don't park in my driveway."
In the woods, Cogle clambers over fallen trunks of locust trees covered in moss and darts through the underbrush. It’s uncharted territory, but he’s prepared. Gone are the days when getting lost was part of the hunt. Cogle uses a high-powered LED cap light and a GPS device to keep tabs on Storm, who has treed his quarry about a half-mile away.
Even with the high-tech gear, it’s still a slog over rough terrain, a hard sell to convince those who don’t understand the thrill of running a coonhound. Cogle says some people he has taken hunting “tell me that my wife must be ugly. They say, ‘Why would you be out here doing this unless you’ve got an ugly wife at home?’ ”
In fact, his wife, Patty, is one of the few brave souls willing to go hunting with Cogle, though usually only in nice weather. They’ve been married for nearly 50 years, and she remembers when pelts helped put food on the table and meals included raccoon meat that they also sold on the black market. “It’s beefy and a little bit stringy but not bad,” she says.
Cogle hunts other game, such as bobcats and wild turkeys. But those excursions are solo and lack the comradeship he gets from hunting with Storm. Cogle has raised him from a pup; he’s descended from a prestigious line of coonhounds from Mount Airy, Md. “He’s not the best dog I’ve ever had, but he’s all the dog I need,” Cogle says. “He’s a little smarter than he should be, but that makes up for my stupidity.”
When we finally reach Storm, his barking is so loud at close range that it hurts your ears. He’s run a couple of raccoons up a hollow tree, which he circles while cocking his head toward the highest branches. His yelping announces that his job is done and now it’s time for Cogle to earn his keep.
About 100 feet above, a bushy tail hangs from a limb. Cogle points his Chipmunk .22 rifle as Storm quiets down. A few pops ring out, and his quarry, a 20-pound boar, drops to the ground with a loud thud. He isn’t interested in the second raccoon, especially if it turns out to be a female, which he tries to spare whenever possible.
“One boar’s all we really need,” he says, gathering the spent shells to leave no trace. “As the world turns, what the hell is anybody hurting? The raccoon is probably the meanest little animal on the East Coast. He’s destructive. He’ll tear up your barn and he’ll steal eggs from nests.” This is conservation by the barrel of the gun, Teddy Roosevelt-style: One less boar raccoon on the midnight prowl could mean one more wild turkey out strutting come spring.
On the downhill hike back to the car, Cogle trails behind a subdued and contented Storm, now back on his leash. In the starlit night, a cell tower looks to be taking a long swig from the Big Dipper. Cogle is already thinking about the next night that he and Storm will be out running raccoons back to their Maker.
Eddie Dean is a writer in Maryland.