HARRISONBURG — Dan Chavez and Alex Lane are two of several Valley locals who have been following a certain General Assembly topic the past two years with bated breath.
Last year, the topic of fox penning showed itself in both the House of Delegates and the Senate, but it didn’t make it past committee level. On Tuesday, a similar, albeit watered-down, version of last year’s bill passed the Senate.
Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, and Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, voted against the bill, which would place restrictions on fox penning.
The practice occurs when hunters place foxes into large fenced areas — 100 acres, at minimum — and release hunting dogs to hunt, and sometimes kill, the foxes. While proponents tout fox penning as a method of training dogs to hunt, opponents claim that it’s torturous for the foxes.
Unlike last year’s proposed bill, which called for an outright ban on the practice, the Senate’s version this year would simply place further restrictions on it. It would end staged competitions in fox pens, when judges often choose winners to receive cash prizes for their dogs’ efforts.
The bill also places limits on the number of dogs allowed per pen.
“I feel like fox penning is pretty much just cruelty in the form of entertainment,” said Lane, a veterinary assistant at the Shenandoah Valley Spay/Neuter Clinic in Harrisonburg, before calling the practice “unbecoming for a civilized society.”
Chavez, community outreach manager at the clinic, said he was disappointed that local legislators didn’t support the bill.
“I think there are a lot of legal and moral values that are being ignored in this,” he said.
Hanger explained that he voted against the bill because he believes the issues are being addressed outside the General Assembly, not because he doesn’t believe fox penning should be further restricted.
In December, Hanger met with several parties, including representatives of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, to discuss the issue. The state agency agreed to bring up fox penning at its March meeting and discuss possible restrictions.
“With that in place and moving forward, I felt that the bill would not be necessary at this point,” he said, adding that he’d be surprised if it makes it through the House, where it’s expected to be brought up before a subcommittee as early as Monday.
“Quite frankly, if the [game department] doesn’t move forward as I expect them to do, I expect you would find the continued support for something like that bill … next year,” Hanger said.
But he added that many fox pen operators are effectively adhering to current restrictions, a sentiment echoed by Scott Dean of D&S Nuisance Animal Control in Elkton.
Although Dean only traps wild animals causing a nuisance for property owners, he used to trap foxes and relocate them to several fox pens.
All the pen operators he worked with were adhering to tight restrictions, he said.
“I wouldn’t have dealt with them if they [weren’t], because I’ve got to worry about my reputation,” Dean said. “You have to be legit to [operate fox pens]; you’ve got to be licensed.”
Of the nearly 40 fox pens in the state, none is in the central Valley; most are concentrated in the southeastern part of Virginia.
Chester Scudder of Fulks Run wouldn’t have used a pen even if there had been one nearby. Though he hasn’t hunted foxes in decades, he hunted on the open range.
“There’s money in [the pens]; that’s what they’re doing it for,” he said. “I don’t see where you have a whole lot of fun chasing something that’s penned up.
“Takes the work out of hunting. … That’s kind of like shooting clay pigeons.”