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HILLSVILLE — An effort to criminalize using dogs to chase foxes kept in pens is one bill that animal advocates can lobby for with their state legislators, said the Virginia state director for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
Laura Donahue recently visited Hillsville with Casey Pheiffer, senior director of wildlife policy, to talk about ways that those concerned about the rights of companion animals and wildlife could make a difference by participating in political processes.
Donahue talked about Humane Society legislative priorities in front of the Virginia General Assembly this year related to the practice of fox penning. Pheiffer called it “the last legal blood sport” in Virginia.
Meeting at the Carroll County Public Library with 18 advocates from the region, Donahue noted that an active fox pen exists just 10 miles away.
A proposal dealing with fox and coyote pens arose at the 2012 General Assembly session.
The bill, introduced by David Marsden of Burke in the state senate, would have made it a misdemeanor “for any person to erect or maintain an enclosure for the purpose of pursuing, hunting, or killing or attempting to pursue, hunt or kill a fox or coyote with dogs.”
Additionally, it would have criminalized the hunting or killing of a fox or a coyote in such an enclosure with dogs.
The Virginia Senate referred this bill to the committee on agriculture, conservation and natural resources, and the committee held it over for consideration until the 2013 legislative session, which begins in January.
Donahue noted that getting involved in the legislative process might be as simple as a phone call or e-mail to a delegate or a senator.
“The good news is there’s a way to be an advocate that doesn’t take a lot of time,” she said.
As someone who has attended legislative sessions, Donahue knows that there are also special interest groups on hand trying to roll back animal protections each year.
Virginia legislators have approved some strong laws when it comes to animals, Donahue said. HSUS rates Virginia having one of the best anti-puppy mill laws in the country and the anti-dog fighting laws are tougher than the federal government’s.
Legislators can’t possibly read all 3,000 or so bills that arise before the General Assembly each session, so they listen to the advice of lobbyists and special interests. Those groups are highly motivated to share how they feel about legislative proposals.
“You have as much power as those suited lobbyists in the capital,” Donahue assured the animal advocates.
Many times, passage of a bill could come down to how many phone calls that a delegate or senator has gotten for or against it.
Tracking all the bills involving animals in the General Assembly will give advocates the opportunity to lobby for or against a bill with phone calls and e-mails to their representatives.
While it may seem overwhelming, Donahue said she’s here to help the grassroots animal activists.
Advocates should consider talking to their legislators when they are home before the session even starts up, she said. With the compressed schedule, the legislators will no doubt feel more relaxed when advocates bring up a bill ahead of time.
Do your research. Tell legislators your stories, but be concise, Donahue said. Be prepared to meet with them anywhere and anytime.
Don’t hesitate to give legislators kudos when they deserve it. Send them letters stating your position.
“Maybe don’t show them your pet pictures on your first meeting,” she said, drawing laughter.
As the Virginia representative of the Humane Society, Donahue can point to the 330,000 members and supporters of the organization in the state when speaking on animal issues.
“We have so many people who care about animals, but if they’re not speaking up, if there not being a voice, it’s like they're not there, right?” she said.
While Humane Society members want to see Virginia’s exotic animal laws upgraded — particularly on primates and constricting and venomous snakes kept as pets — Donahue and Pheiffer spent much more time speaking about the practice of fox pens.
As the name implies, fox pens are fenced areas where the owners release wild animals for dogs to chase.
Virginia has a proud hunting tradition, but “this is not hunting,” Pheiffer said.
Pens have to be at least 100 acres, but foxes don’t have much of a chance to hide or get away, she said.
Having 40 of these fox pens is a huge gap in a state which is rated sixth in the nation for animal protection laws, she said. “This is so against everything Virginia usually stands for.”
People use pens two ways, either leaving a dog there for a short period to run or having competitions with multiple dogs.
It’s actually the larger fox pens that take more of a toll on animals, because those typically have more events, Pheiffer said. Those pens need more foxes to hunt.
This leads to owners stockpiling foxes, feeding them dog food, she said. The smell of the food can attract bears in the pen, which also get attacked by the hunting dogs.
Animal advocates in Florida managed to get the fox pens banned, but it took two years with all kinds of attention, including speaking at public meetings, writing letters to the editors and getting stories in all kinds of news media.
Legislators in Virginia ordered state officials to study the fox pen idea between the 2012 and 2013 sessions, Humane Society officials said.
It’s important for the delegate and senators to hear from supporters of the law.
Donahue noted that the 2013 session of Humane Lobby Day is planned for Jan. 23 in Richmond.
If animal advocates can combine their voices, they can reach their legislative goals, Donahue said.