Man’s oldest partnership is under fire…but why?
Big game hunting with dogs is under serious fire today, considered by many to be unsporting and, I suppose, too much of a sure thing. I can understand why the anti-hunters are against it; they’re against everything we do. I can almost understand why non-hunters question the practice; they have no background or experience, and, unfortunately, we hunters often lack the forums to properly explain it. What I really don’t get is why so many of us—we hunters—are against big game hunting with dogs. Here’s the really odd thing: Many of the most outspoken love hunting birds with retrievers and pointing breeds! I guess there is validity to Ernest Hemingway’s line that “birds and fish lie weightless on the conscience.”
Man’s best friend, Canis lupus familiaris, is actually a subspecies of wolf, and thus no matter how cuddly and fluffy, must be considered a predator. After centuries of selective breeding, dogs have the greatest morphological differences of any mammal on Earth, varying dramatically in size, color, coat…even skeletal structure and behavior. That said, man’s first domestication of the wolf was almost certainly to take advantage of the animals’ greater speed, keener senses and perhaps ferocity to aid in hunting. Early by-products were probably defense and early-warning systems for homes and villages and, later, defense of livestock.
Today, the dog remains man’s best friend, divided into hundreds of breeds for dozens of useful purposes ranging from simple companionship to highly specialized and trained service dogs. Among these, hunting remains a primary function for millions of this world’s estimated 400 million dogs. Dogs are used to assist the hunt literally throughout the world, a human trait that has transcended all cultures and ethnic origins.
Even in this arena, hunting dogs are highly specialized, a result of both breeding and training. In Europe single dogs are often used at heel for their keen senses, to literally “point” roebuck and other game. Blood-trailing dogs are in common use around the world and, where used, greatly reduce the incidence of unrecovered game. Hounds, terriers and an amazing array of mixed breeds are used to course, bay and tree a wide assortment of game depending on the area. Perhaps the most specialized dogs I have ever hunted with were Eastern Cape farmer Adrian Ford’s pack of cute little terriers, developed and trained to course only the tiny blue duiker through the dense coastal bush.
In much of the world, including North America, the tradition of hunting with dogs stems from Europe where dog hunting remains strong. Local sportsmen often hunt with a single canine companion, but that’s just the beginning. In Scandinavia moose are almost always hunted with dogs, both in organized drives and bringing individual animals to bay. The driven hunt remains a strong European tradition, with humans assisted by keen-nosed and noisier canine friends. In Germany last year, I participated in a large drive conducted by some 50 drivers and more than 70 dogs! Continent-wide wild boars are often hunted with dogs and in Croatia I hunted jackal with dogs.
Canine assistance in hunting wild boars seems almost universal—I’ve done it for bushpigs in South Africa; feral hogs in New Zealand, Argentina and the US; and for the real deal in Europe. It seems like the anti-hound folks have less trouble with that, perhaps because wild hogs aren’t cute and cuddly like bears and cats, and are certainly prolific and destructive.
Coursing deer with hounds was once extremely popular in the United States, especially in the thick southern swamps that, at the end of the 19th Century, held some of our last concentrations of whitetails. Although dog hunting is still practiced in the South, it’s not nearly as popular as it once was. Today’s deer populations have expanded out of the swamps into farm country, and properties are much smaller today, making it more difficult to manage and contain drives with hounds.
Hound hunting has a long tradition in this country, and was the preferred technique for such famous hunters as Daniel Boone, David Crockett…and, more recently, Theodore Roosevelt. During his Presidency, Roosevelt hunted bear and mountain lion with hounds, so he probably wasn’t in the least surprised when, in Africa in 1909, he hunted both lion and leopard with hounds. At that time, hunting the great cats with hounds was the preferred and most accepted technique, and Teddy thought it was “bully.”
By the 1920s the practice almost vanished, only to return in recent years. Here’s my spin on why: Dogs cannot survive in tsetse fly areas. As Kenya’s hospitable plains became settled, the great cats—and their hunting—moved deeper into fly country where neither livestock nor dogs could follow. That remained the status quo until fairly recently when leopard populations rebounded in the tsetse-free ranch country of arid Namibia and southern Zimbabwe. Ranch leopards in southern Africa have been hunted hard for a century, and are notoriously difficult to get on bait in daylight. Hunting with hounds provides a viable alternative to hunting at night, which is legal in some areas but has its own set of challenges.
At this writing, leopard hunting with hounds is no longer legal in Namibia, but remains an option on private and communal lands in Zimbabwe, and is also commonly practiced in Mozambique. Interestingly, it is also not legal in South Africa…but most of the packs that were used in Namibia and are still used in Zimbabwe and Mozambique come out of South Africa where they are trained on lynx and other small predators that are the bane of sheep ranchers. Hunting bushpigs with dogs is also a favorite weekend pastime for many local South African hunters of all races and tribes.
Elsewhere on the continent, the tsetse fly has provided an effective barrier against dog hunting, but there are exceptions. In the fly-free forest zone the pygmies have long hunted with dogs, and they are used today for bongo and other forest game. Likewise in Ethiopia and other parts of the continent, local hunters use dogs that may not look like much to our eyes—but they know how to hunt, and their masters know how to train them.
Come to think of it, Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt also hunted jaguar with dogs on their 1913-1914 Brazilian expedition. Although calling and baiting were also practiced, the majority of jaguar hunting was done with dogs and, in remote areas, remains the preferred method for dealing with cattle-killing tigres. In Argentina, and I suppose elsewhere on the continent, the puma is primarily hunted with hounds just like up here. Feral hogs, as everywhere, are often hunted with dogs, but down there dogs are also used for capybara and peccary. I hunted both with dogs in northern Argentina, and on one little drive for peccary was surprised—and delighted—when a good brocket deer burst out in front of me.
In Australia, the Aboriginals continue to hunt with their dogs, and the European settlers use dogs as did their European ancestors. Unlike North America, there are no native large predators, so in Australia and New Zealand the primary uses for sporting dogs are birds, small game and of course the plentiful feral hogs. I must admit little knowledge and almost no experience with dog hunting in Asia—but it’s certainly present. Bird dogs are commonly employed (including for birds up to capercaille), and in Russia lynx, bear and wild boar are hunted with dogs.
SELECTIVE…BUT NOT A SURE THING
There seem to be two primary arguments against using dogs for big game: First, that it’s somehow not “sporting” or fair chase. Second, that it’s cruel for both the dogs and their prey. I’ll try to answer the first one now, but before I do that, let me raise a third objection. Hunting with hounds is different, and it isn’t for everyone. I am not a houndsman. Raising, training and maintaining an effective pack is more than a hobby; it’s both vocation and avocation, and almost a lifestyle. You and I, as the “hunters,” are not really the hunters at all. The hunt belongs first to the dogs, and second to the people who trained them. In this kind of a hunt we are more observers than active participants.
Despite what its opponents say, hound hunting is not universally successful. I haven’t taken a cougar over hounds since 1980 and have no great desire to take another, but I have a great spot for one in our Kansas place, and Donna would like to take one. We’ve tried twice recently, once in Nevada and once in British Columbia, both good cat areas…but so far, no cats. Sometimes scent conditions aren’t right, sometimes a good track can’t be found…and no matter the game, when a fresh track is started there is no guarantee that the animal can’t outwit or evade the dogs. Leopard hunting with dogs is especially under attack, but those are done on dry ground where scent conditions are the most difficult. I’ve had leopard chases that failed, and I’ve been on unsuccessful hunts. Likewise with black bear hunts with dogs.
There is one other aspect to hound hunting that its opponents tend to overlook: Done properly, legally, and ethically it is one of the most selective of all hunting techniques. Unlike most methods, there are actually two clear chances to walk away: First, when you see the track. “Strike dogs,” typically with the keenest scent, are kept leashed until a track is found and evaluated. There is simply no reason to turn the dogs loose on the track of an animal one doesn’t want to take. Second, when the animal is treed or bayed. It is always possible for a pack to cross tracks, and it’s also possible for a “medium-sized male track” to turn into an oversized female—but it’s also possible to gather the dogs and walk away. That is admittedly more difficult when an animal bays on the ground rather than trees, but with a well-trained pack it can be done (and, no, it won’t ruin the dogs).
On a recent cougar hunt with outfitter Bruce Ambler, we actually walked away from two cougars. The first, on the second day, was actually a big male. But it was getting dark by the time we reached the tree, out of camera light and questionable as to shooting hours. So we gathered the dogs and walked away, hoping to find the track again the next morning. Several inches of fresh snow scotched that notion and at the end of the hunt we had no cougar. But we also did three chases for lynx, only one successful, and two successful chases for big bobcats.
What about the notion that it’s cruel both to the dogs and the animals they pursue? As to the first, this is what these dogs do. It’s what they live for. In any pack, dogs that lack the spirit and the desire are removed. In our world they’re found other homes with other jobs, but a pack is a team effort. They work together and support each other. They do get hurt now and then…and they’re taken care of and go right back to it. Wild boars are among the worst on dogs. They’re fast and courageous, and treeing is not an option. This seems to be okay. Using our war dogs in a variety of roles seems to be okay. Using dogs for cats and bears seems to be less okay. In all cases, that is what the dogs have been bred and trained to do…they love it, or they wouldn’t do it. It’s unfortunate they can’t voice their opinions.
As for cruelty to the prey: Nature is cruel. Starvation is cruel. Like it or not, we humans have impacted all ecosystems and all wildlife populations. Out of necessity we have appointed ourselves stewards of the wild; in our man-altered world a true balance of nature is almost impossible; we have to assist with management of both prey species and predator…and certainly with the feral populations that we have created. Though no more automatically successful than any other technique, hound hunting is especially effective for certain species…and, in most cases, more selective. With a fleeting glance at distance it’s very hard to properly judge a bear or cougar. Up close with dogs, there should be no mistakes and there should be no wounded loss. Those strike me as sound tradeoffs. In today’s world, when a quota or legal season is established, the intent is to harvest a certain number of animals for specific reasons. Hound hunting is thus as effective a management technique as a hunting technique. I am not a houndsman, but I defend it…and I have a real problem understanding hunters who do not.–Craig Boddington