They hunt, we chase: Why American foxhunting survives
America's culture is a mix of borrowed traditions. Along with tea and textiles, early ex-patriots imported foxhunting and transformed it into a legitimate part of American history. Although it has recently been banned as a sport in England, it's still legal in America.
Why was Britain so eager to outlaw foxhunting?
The answer may be that Great Britain's form of foxhunting has a purpose very different from the American version.
As Laura Howden points out in the May 31, 2002 issue of National Geographic, "One of the main arguments behind the pro-hunt movement in England is that foxhunters perform a social service by culling foxes." English foxhunting opponents call it a cruel habit that survives simply for the pleasure of killing animals.
A report from The Mammal Society to The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals acknowledged that farmers and countrymen considered foxes destructive animals that needed to be limited.
In fact, the red fox population is somewhat overwhelming to landowners in England, and foxhunters are frequently employed to rid private properties of the "vermin." The feeling of the Europeans that foxes are a menace is primarily due to the numbers of lambs and domesticated animals the little red devils kill each year.
Yet, three years ago, during a year-long ban on foxhunting in rural England to stop the spread of foot-and-mouth disease, The Mammal Society found that fox numbers in England did not dramatically increase.
In the United States, most people do not think of the fox as a pest. In fact, some of our foxes even look different from their cousins across the pond.
The red fox is naturally rare in America, having been imported and bred from English stock to increase its population for sport hunting. Another breed, the gray fox, is a bit larger than the red, with a thick silvery coat and a belly of buff and white fur. More athletic than the red fox, it can actually climb trees. Neither of these breeds has ever presented a problem to American landowners due to overpopulation.
The true reason for foxhunting in America is the thrill of the chase. Chasing a fox with a foxhunting club requires a certain amount of knowledge and respect. No manmade weapons are used.
Hunt participants must master the ability to stay on a horse while traveling at great speed over obstacles, through dense forest, and in all types of weather. Hounds must be corralled and trained to "give tongue," or bark, when a quarry is scented. And the whole group must orchestrate and execute the process in a finely tuned ballet.
Once the hounds catch the sent of a fox, the game begins. The hounds follow the fox, the huntsmen follow the hounds, and the field of spectators follows the huntsmen. It is a joyous, hilarious, incredibly beautiful event that makes one feel as though time has reversed itself.
The fox gets into the spirit of things as well and often avoids going into obvious holes or up trees. Sometimes multiple foxes will appear and create havoc by crossing each other's paths and circling the whole gaggle of creatures involved in the chase. More often than not, the fox escapes.
The etiquette of foxhunting extends to the rights of the fox itself. If caught, the fox is killed by a hound, not a gun. According to the rules of the game, if he makes it up a tree or down a hole, he will not be harmed.
Some compare American foxhunting to deer hunting, but the differences are striking.
For starters, the fox certainly has far more of an advantage against its pursuers than a deer has against a silent, lethally equipped lone hunter. Foxes, if caught at all, are killed immediately, and never left to suffer or cause problems for the general public.
By contrast, injured deer from a hunter's badly aimed shot frequently wander wounded and bewildered into traffic or residential areas to cause accidents or at least an unsightly mess to clean up.
Another clue to the difference in American foxhunting is the fact that awards are achieved not in the number or size of kills an individual makes. Awards are received for how well a pack of hounds find the scent, notify the huntsmen, and lead the chase. The number of chases a hunt club obtains each year determines its prestige in the foxhunting world.
Although deer are usually hunted to eat, foxes are considered inedible, and it is the hope of the huntsmen that the fox will provide a good run and become a worthy opponent for future runs.
A good Master of the Hunt will carefully breed and train his hounds to scent, give tongue, and lead. And a hound is reprimanded for not quitting the hunt when a fox has "gone to ground" in his hole or otherwise outwitted his pursuers. It is not the desire of any huntsman to watch an animal be killed.
The reward for the Master's meticulous work is a glorious gallop through the rural countryside in pursuit of old English traditions without the bloody end.
Considering that our British cousins foxhunt– or say they foxhunt– for quite a different reason than we genteel Americans, it may be possible to consider that the fox is persecuted in Merry Old England.
We simply like to have a bit of a run. In fact, the greatest joy for a foxhunter is to be the first to spot the fox and howl: "Tally Ho!" which in laymen's terms means: "There he is! Everybody run like hell!" And thus the chase begins.
Daisy Rojas is a mom who grew up in Keswick Hunt Country, and the two highlights of her childhood were foxhunting and Christmas. Both are still legal in the U.S.