MILFORD, VA. — The foxhounds were a blur of brown and white as they raced from their kennels on a recent August morning, looking for their prey. They disappeared in the thick underbrush, and a chorus of high-pitched yips echoed through the trees.
They had found their game.
Minutes later, the gray fox streaked through a clearing, pursued by a pair of baying hounds.
On John Bassler’s 143-acre Piney Run Foxhound Training Preserve in Milford, Va., a densely wooded property lined with electrified fences to keep about 30 wild foxes inside contained, the chase is recreation, he said, part of a Virginia tradition commonly known as “fox penning.”
His property, about 80 miles south of the District, is one of 37 state-licensed foxhound training preserves, most of which are in the southern part of the commonwealth. Some are used to train dogs for hunting in the wild. More than a dozen of them also host field trials — staged competitions where hounds are scored based on how closely they track their quarry. Last year, more than 140 such competitions were held at Virginia preserves, according to the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
To critics, the practice of unleashing hounds on captive foxes is a savage abuse of animals, a blood sport akin to dogfighting that has become the subject of a mounting controversy in Virginia.
Opponents, including the Humane Society of the United States and other animal rights organizations, have for years urged lawmakers to crack down on the practice, saying it results in the illegal sale and brutal deaths of foxes who are torn to shreds by packs of dogs. Earlier this year, a bill that aimed to ban the establishment of new pens and make it impossible for existing facilities to be sold or transferred except between spouses passed the state Senate but failed in the House.
But recently approved regulations by the state game department will take effect this month. Among the new rules is a requirement that pens have rounded fence corners — designed to keep foxes from being cornered; a limit to the number of dogs allowed per acre; and a prohibition on cash prizes for competitions.
The new regulations don’t go nearly far enough, said Laura Donahue, Virginia director of the Humane Society of the United States.
They “are either meaningless or completely unenforceable,” she said. Without constant supervision, there’s no way to prove how many foxes are placed in a pen, what condition they’re in, or what happens to them after they’re released, she said.
“These animals are owned. This is not hunting,” she said. “This is dogfighting.”
She wants Virginia to follow in the footsteps of Florida, where officials banned fox penning in 2010. Numerous other Southern states still permit the practice.
Virginia Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax), who sponsored the legislation to ban new pens, said there is an important distinction between hunting and fox penning: The latter is a practice that began in the 1980s.
“Everyone makes the claim that this is part of our hunting tradition — you’d think that George Washington had an electrified pen,” he said.
The pens are stocked with foxes caught and delivered by trappers — more than 5,800 foxes have been delivered to Virginia pens in the past five years, according to the game department.
Although it is illegal to buy a wild animal outright, Virginia law permits the reimbursement of a trapper’s time and expenses for catching and delivering the fox. That, Marsden said, is a loophole he would like to close. He also feels the new regulations are insufficient.
“I appreciate the fact that there’s a little bit of progress being made, but — rounded corners?” he said. “That’s going to save a fox’s life?”
The new regulations resulted from a 2004 study conducted by the state game department and analyzed by researchers at Virginia Tech, according to Ryan Brown, legislative and policy manager with the department.
The study tracked 56 foxes at the largest foxhound training preserve in Virginia. Half of the animals were killed by hounds in activities related to field trials; only 10 percent of the foxes survived the 18-month study period, researchers said.
But preserve owners and supporters say the facilities are operated humanely and blame the Humane Society for perpetuating a false image.
The Humane Society “is a deceitful organization that raises money from unsuspecting people through hysteria, frenzy and lies,” Davy Hackett, president of the Virginia Foxhound Training Preserve Owners Association, which represents the state’s licensed training preserves, said in an e-mail. “Our goal is to provide quality chase opportunities and to compete hounds in an environment safe for the hound and the fox.”
Kirby Burch, vice chairman and lobbyist for the Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance, which represents more than 80,000 members who use dogs in all manner of hunting, said the pens serve an important purpose. “They are a very good place for people to train dogs . . . and to keep them out of farmers’ fields and off the roads,” he said.
Burch maintains that fox preserves have evolved significantly over the years. He has judged about 10 field trial competitions at Virginia pens in recent years and said he has never seen or heard a fox caught by the dogs.
Although some mounted hunts in Virginia use the properties to train young dogs, most members of Northern Virginia hunt groups — including those in Fairfax and Middleburg — do not, according to Dennis Foster, executive director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, which governs hunting groups across the United States and Canada.
Foster said the association opposes an outright ban on the preserves. But the facilities are self-perpetuating to an extent, he said: The pens use foxes removed from hunt country, which leaves fewer foxes with which to train hounds in the wild, making hunters more likely to train their dogs in the pens.
He said a well-maintained preserve can be a useful way to assess young dogs or to correct errant tracking behavior — for instance, if a hound starts following deer instead of foxes. But foxes shouldn’t be killed in the enclosures, he said.
“We’re for making sure [the pens] are handled properly and humanely,” he said.
Bassler, a retired landscaper who opened his preserve three years ago, said he knows his dogs have caught foxes in his pen from time to time; he’s found the bodies. But those animals were already compromised, he said. “When you trap a fox, it messes their feet up sometimes,” he said, referring to the steel-jawed traps used to catch foxes in the wild.
Bassler has already installed rounded fence corners on the perimeter of his property, where his hounds were still in full pursuit nearly an hour after they’d been released from their kennels. Their barks grew louder again, approaching the gravel road that circles the preserve.
But the animals never appeared. The fox had turned deeper into the brush. There was only a faint crackling of branches, the calls of the hounds fading as they moved away again, continuing the chase.