by David Kelley
GREENSBORO – The issue of so-called “bear hounding” has gotten a lot of press lately. It even hit the big time with the Boston Globe. For those of us who live in the Northeast Kingdom and see this “sport” up close and personal, there is much more to the story than is being written.
Underneath the veneer of our peaceable Kingdom is a harsh reality of wildlife’s struggle to survive, and in recent years drive-by hounders have introduced a new level of hideousness to that struggle.
Hounders frequently parked their pick-up trucks on the dirt road in front of our house. They then sat there, tracking their radio-collared dogs with Global Positioning Systems (GPS). Inevitably, a bear would run by – usually with its tongue hanging out of its mouth – pursued by a pack of howling hounds. Our horses would panic. Our cats would bolt, sometimes disappearing for days. Meanwhile, these high-tech hounders would take in the pandemonium like it was some kind of gleeful video game. Then they would look at their GPS devices and drive to the next road crossing where they expected this strange entertainment to play out again. Eventually, the exhausted bears would either climb a tree or stand and fight. Sometimes just the cubs would climb a tree and the sow keep running, doing all she could to lure the hounds as far from her cubs as possible.
This phenomenon is what the Boston Globe deemed “an emotional clash that has dragged an ancient hunting tradition into the modern spotlight.”
My family has been in Vermont since the American Revolution. I don’t know much about Boston traditions, but I know a little something about genuine Vermont traditions. Driving around in pickup trucks with GPS devices tracking radio-collared dogs chasing bears and unweaned cubs to exhaustion has nothing to do with any Vermont hunting tradition. Bear hounds have chased and cornered coyotes on two of my neighbors’ property. They were gruesome encounters for all involved – especially for some of the children that witnessed one of those encounters. But if somehow this behavior qualifies as some kind of a tradition, then it deserves to go the way of some other New England “traditions” – like burning witches or caning students.
On one occasion a man and woman with two hounds parked in front of our house. My wife went outside and told them not to release their hounds on our property. The hounders got angry, as if we were violating their rights. The man stepped out of his vehicle to argue like he had some right to let their hounds loose to scare the hell out of every creature in sight. After that particular visit we posted our land. This couple wanted to sit in their SUV and watch the chaos unfold. For them, it seems to me, drive-by hounding was a sadistic spectator sport. To give the Globe reporter some credit, they reminded me of one ancient tradition – the Roman Colosseum.
Last September, Grace Benninghoff of VTDigger went on one of these drive-by houndings with Butch Spear, the President of the Vermont Hounders Association. Almost predictably, Grace and Butch watched the hounds chase a sow and her cub across the road in front of them. With a reporter present, Butch, then acting the epitome of compassion, said they wouldn’t harass the sow and her cub any more that day. I never saw that compassion in June or July when hounders were harassing sows and unweaned cubs in Greensboro. But VTDigger was never here, either.
I used to hunt rabbits with a beagle named Sam. I didn’t need a GPS device: we always knew where Sam was. Later in life, I got an English Setter named Tory. Tory pointed at everything from pigeons to grasshoppers. She wasn’t much of a bird dog, but she did turn out to be a great fishing dog. Maybe someone like Michael Vick would send dogs like Sam or Tory out to brawl with bears. Real hunters wouldn’t, for the sake of their dogs, as well as the bears.
In Greensboro our select board decided it was time to do something about this problem. Today, if someone releases hounds in Greensboro, when it is reasonable to anticipate that the dogs will be crossing any posted lands, they must first obtain the landowners’ permission or be subject to fines of up to $200. It was small town, grassroots government at work – a genuine, “ancient” Vermont tradition.
[David Kelley is a member of the Greensboro Select Board.]