Before the Natural Resources Commission got to Agenda Item 5 during their regular meeting on Nov. 16, Chairman Bryan Poynter issued a stern warning to the sizeable crowd assembled in opposition to a proposal that would legalize "penning" in Indiana – a practice in which hunters use wild coyotes and foxes as "bait" to train dogs within fenced enclosures.
The meeting, he said, was going to proceed strictly by the book.
"No issue has been more sensationalized and exaggerated," said Poynter, an avid hunter.
At issue was a preliminary vote that would regulate operations that use live coyotes and foxes as "bait" to train hunting dogs within fenced enclosures. At present, Indiana is home to one known fox and coyote enclosure: Midland, a 300-acre, fenced facility, in operation for roughly 20 years near Linton, in Greene County.
The DNR currently has no penning regulation on the books, allowing Midland, effectively, to regulate itself.
Citing the absence of regulation, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) initiated a petition earlier this year to ban coyote and fox pens in Indiana, and presented it to the state DNR, which openly supported a ban as recently as March.
Then, the DNR changed its tune. The department's legal wing, the Natural Resources Commission (NRC), appointed a taskforce to investigate Midland – a single visit that was announced to Midland's owners in advance. The task force – whose efforts, Poynter maintains, were thorough – uncovered no evidence of animal cruelty, Poynter said.
"The process works," he assured the gathering. "I'm proud of the leadership."
Despite the assembled opposition, the commission voted 9-2 to preliminarily adopt a permitting system for Indiana penning facilities – setting into motion a rule-making process that will include public hearings before the commission makes its final decision. In exchange for legal operating permits, penning facilities like the one in Midland would be forced to comply with certain regulations. The new laws would also include a moratorium on new enclosure permits after January 1, 2012.
In the meantime, Poynter unilaterally denied a request to close the Midland until a final decision is reached.
Anne Sterling, state director for the HSUS, argued that such permitting systems have been tried unsuccessfully in other states, and that other kinds of wildlife-related permitting systems have never achieved compliance. She said she wondered at the justification for creating regulation to accommodate one individual for commercial profit.
"This is not conservation," Sterling said. "Tax dollars should be spent on conserving wildlife, not on private profit at the expense of wildlife."
Power of the pen
Supporters of penning claim regulations would ensure safeguards to keep captive animals from harm – including maximum dog-to-wildlife ratios, acreage minimums, and mandatory escape enclosures for the wild animals.
Jack Hyden, president of the Indiana Beaglers Alliance, said the purpose of the facilities is to "help dogs develop" and to "watch them work," but "not to harvest game." He insisted that "holes and rocks" provide escape for coyotes and foxes, but are too small for dogs to follow, and that dogs are judged in field trials only as a competition for bragging rights.
"No coyotes are allowed to be caught," Hyden said. "If a dog catches a coyote, it's banned for life."
Critics insist, however, that such rules have little bearing on what actually transpires at penning facilities. More often than not, they say, coyotes and foxes are viciously torn to shreds by frenzied packs of dogs. Numerous investigations in other states have revealed that, even in circumstances where penning is regulated, the prey is often killed, fueling a constant demand to restock the enclosures.
"It may have been about training once, but now it's about money, betting and trophies," said Christin Tank, vice president of Training Not Torture, a Florida-based non-profit group that advocates against penning. Tank led efforts to close Florida's penning facilities, which resulted in a statewide ban in September.
To date, thirty-nine states have banned penning.
In a recent study by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, radio-collared coyotes were released inside one of the largest pens in the state that features escape shelters and meets the proposed NRC regulations. Most of the coyotes either escaped through the fence or were killed by dogs.
Similarly, eyewitness accounts like Tank's and undercover videos taken at facilities in other states support accusations that exhausted, trapped coyotes and foxes are regularly ripped to pieces by packs of dogs.
"Why isn't it considered dog fighting when multiple dogs attack one coyote or fox in a corner of the enclosure with no hope of escape?" Tank asked.
Hyden pointed out that the videos weren't shot in Indiana. "It's not happening in Indiana and it will not happen here," he said. "Ninety percent of those against enclosures don't understand the issue and the humane way it's done."
Sterling, of the HSUS, disagreed. According to her group, no regulatory system in any state has been successful in preventing fox and coyote deaths.
"Regardless of the intent, dogs catch and hurt wildlife," she said. "There is no way to prevent a pack of dogs from tearing apart an individual coyote or fox."
Bill Myers, who owns the Midland facility, was not present at the November meeting to defend his operation, and could not be reached for comment.
Other animal advocates denounce penning as a blood sport akin to legalized dog fighting. They believe that penning is an unethical hunting practice, which constitutes cruelty to animals and encourages illegal activity, like gambling and the black market interstate trade in wild animals.
Kentucky and Ohio wildlife officials have conveyed concerns to the Indiana DNR about the illegal transport of wildlife across state lines. In 2008, a cooperative, seven-state raid led to the arrest of 18 traffickers illegally shipping animals across state lines to penning facilities. According to HSUS, five recent investigations of illegal activity related to pens discovered ongoing illegal trade.
A sporting chance
"Every sportsman in the state actually approves of and supports the existence of a well-ran (sic) and humane dog-training and field-trialing enclosures," Hyden argued at the Nov. 16 meeting.
It was a broad statement, with which not everyone agrees.
Steve Cecil, president of the Indiana Wildlife Federation (IWF), an organization that supports hunting, said the IWF is "fundamentally opposed" to penning in part because it violates the ethical rule of fair chase – the unfettered ability to escape when pursued.
"A fence violates that ethic,"Cecil said.
Cecil also argued that capturing and selling coyotes and foxes in the wild for private use and profit set a dangerous precedent for other wildlife species.
"IWF supports the North American model of wildlife conservation and the concept that wildlife is owned by no one," he said. "It is held in trust by the government for future generations. Private ownership prevents equal access."
At an NRC meeting in March, DNR officials presented a report that strongly recommended against bringing enclosures under the legalizing auspices of regulation – citing fair chase issues among others.
"The Indiana Department of Natural Resources has historically supported humane wildlife management policies and promoted fair chase," said CeAnn Lambert, head of the Indiana Coyote Rescue Center. "Now, the agency is considering regulations that appear contrary to those principles. The DNR's reversal completely surprised us. The proposed rule change has the potential of becoming a step toward encouraging canned hunting."
Linnea Petercheff, operations staff specialist with the DNR's Division of Fish and Wildlife (IDFW), who presented the early DNR report, has said there was no evidence that wildlife is being killed at Midland. At the November meeting, Petercheff made specific recommendations with regard to the permitting proposal, including: food, water, shelter and veterinary care for captured wildlife, and secure fencing within a 300-acre enclosure with "plenty" of natural and artificial escape areas.
Limits would be placed on the number of hours allowed for hunting, and the number of coyotes, foxes and dogs released (Current rules allow for a maximum of seven dogs to each wild animal, and a maximum of 275 dogs, no matter the size of the facility.)
But, as several critics have noted, the potential for animal abuse isn't confined to the proposed rules of the chase and living conditions. Live trapping to provide foxes and coyotes for facilities such as Midland's introduces potential for injury. Even if unhurt, wildlife is traumatized, removed from familiar territory and given little time to acclimate to new surroundings before being released ahead of a pack of dogs. If the coyote or fox survives the hunt, it lives only to endure the terror of another one.
And, as long as they continue to live, they're susceptible to disease, including rabies. In its March report, the DNR expressed concern about the potential for increased disease transmission, because of confinement and the risks posed if those animals escape.
The report also expressed concerns that enclosures like the one near Linton "could damage the public's view of trappers and hunters."
It may already be too late. Plainfield resident Rich Trivett, himself a supporter of "humane hunting," and unaffiliated with any advocacy group, said at this month's meeting that he worried that the inequality of weight and size — combined with the 7:1 ratio of dogs to coyotes — would equate to a situation more violent than dog fighting.
"I'm very disappointed that our state is considering allowing this when other states are banning it," he said.
Sterling agreed. As a representative of HSUS, she said she would fight to the bitter end.
"I'm here to show our overwhelming opposition," she said. "There's no excuse for this. The question is not can we regulate, but should we?"
The author is a member of PETA, an animal rights advocacy group.