Some call it sport, others call it animal cruelty, and now Florida wildlife regulators call it illegal.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted unanimously Wednesday in Pensacola Beach to outlaw the practice of using hunting dogs to chase foxes and coyotes inside large fenced areas called fox pens.
Opponents say the chases, which can go on for hours day after day, too often end in brutal attacks and even deaths along a fox pen fence line.
Many pens don’t have the proper permits and break the rules by not vaccinating their animals or blocking access to spots where coyotes can hide.
Backers of the chases say all pens are not bad, and that they are a link to a proud heritage of fox hunting in Florida.
The Conservation Commission has had a policy of allowing the pens since 1988, but the agency faced increasing calls to crack down on the pens amid complaints from animal activists and after an undercover investigation found a black market for foxes and coyotes to stock pens.
Commissioners emphasized that their decision was not a blow to hunting — hounds can still chase foxes and coyotes on open land — but was about preserving the ethic of “fair chase.”
“If we debase the method (of hunting), we debase hunting and if we debase hunting we debase an integral part of conservation in America,” commissioner Brian Yablonski said.
Fox pen operator Billy Melvin, of Panama City, wasn’t buying it.
Melvin, 50, said the nearest spot he could hunt with his dogs is 80 miles away and, unlike using fox pens, risks his dogs getting run over on a highway or inadvertently trespassing on private land and getting stolen.
“What you’re telling me is my fox hunting is over, something I’ve been doing since I was a teenager,” Melvin said.
Melvin was among 12 people arrested in November 2009 after the 10-month undercover investigation by the Conservation Commission.
He was charged with buying four coyotes from an unlicensed person and with possessing coyotes without a permit. The charges were dismissed after Melvin performed eight hours of community service and paid a $200 fine, court records show.
Melvin told commissioners that the coyotes he bought from undercover officers are still alive and well in his North Florida fox pen.
Fox pen operators have until the end of January to decide what to do with the foxes and coyotes in their pens.
The options include getting a permit to keep the animals as pets, selling them to licensed exhibitors or wildlife rehabilitators or euthanizing them.
Fox pen operators might not be willing to give up so easily though.
A Tallahassee lawyer representing a Florida houndsman said he expected a lawsuit over the ban that would seek to have fox pens compensated for a loss of property rights.
And on Wednesday, state Rep. Greg Evers, a Republican representing parts of the Panhandle, said the fate of fox pens was the bailiwick of the state Legislature.
He said the rule enacting the ban is “vague and overly broad.”
“This is big government coming down on the people,” said Evers, who is running for the state Senate.
Wednesday’s ban makes Florida a good example for other states across the Southeast that still allow fox pens, said Jennifer Hobgood, Florida director for the Humane Society of the United States.
“It’s a strong action, it’s a commendable action,” Hobgood said.
In February, the Conservation Commission shut down the fox pens while the two sides tried to work out new rules for regulating the pens.
During those talk, fox hunters rejected the idea of using muzzles on their dogs, saying it would limit their air supply and ability to get enough water during hunts.
Fox Hollow Pen operator Bill Puckett, of Barberville, Fla., said his pen was one of the first in Florida, used muzzles successfully and should be able to stay open.
“God in his infinite wisdom gives us second chances,” his wife, Julie, told commissioners. “I’m hoping (FWC commissioners) will find it in their hearts, like God, to give us a second chance to run our dogs with muzzles.”
The Conservation Commission abandoned new regulations as unworkable in June and moved toward a permanent ban.
Florida Houndsman Association secretary Mack McLeod said the decision has “pretty much devastated our sport,” which he said has been misunderstood.
“We’ve been pretty much made out to be a bunch of criminals,” McLeod said.
Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/.