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A proposed state law aimed at shutting down puppy mills could wind up snuffing out a cherished way of life for the area’s foxhunters, beaglers and basseters. Does this privileged pack have enough clout to take on the governor?

As the Radnor Hunt ballroom fills for a mid-July meeting of the visiting Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s Dog Law Advisory Board, Gov. Ed Rendell’s handpicked appointees are surrounded by photos of the club’s masters through the ages, original oil paintings of hunt scenes—and agitated protestors. The board starts late, wasting the first hour with administrative protocol before squeezing in, or silencing, a smattering of speakers. Bottled water costs a buck; the torrential rain is free.

To reduce feedback from an iffy microphone, growling audience members are sent to the corner of the room. The baying has begun.

The Rendell contingent is here to solicit public opinion on potentially sweeping dog law changes. And for his part, lobbyist Evan Heusinkveld, the associate director of state services for the Ohio-based U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance (USSA), says the proposed regulations are “devastating” and full of “red tape.” When he suggests the state’s behind-closed-doors, agenda-driven draft violates the Sunshine Law—which requires public officials to conduct legislative business in public—Jesse Smith, Rendell’s special deputy secretary for dog law enforcement, rules him out of order and claims the microphone.

Then Smith recognizes 19th District State Sen. Andy Dinniman, a former veteran Chester County commissioner. Dinniman doesn’t need a microphone to be heard. With nearly 100 soaked acres of Radnor Hunt’s plush fenced pastures behind him, it stops raining. Then he makes himself perfectly clear: His constituents want their way of life preserved.

“The word is passion,” he says. “Do you hear the passion? Look at this land behind me (visible through wall-length windows). It’s some of the most beautiful open land in this country, spared from developers and preserved and defended by the people in this room. This land is special. It makes us unique. This land is who we are, but it would’ve never been preserved without the commitment and passion of foxhunters, beaglers and basseters, who control the ethics, traditions and values of this county.”

There may be 2,600 licensed kennels in Pennsylvania, but this is the Main Line, home to some of the state’s finest sporting kennels. The board toured some of those that morning—namely Mr. (Plunkett) Stewart’s Cheshire foxhounds in Unionville, Radnor Hunt’s foxhounds and the Ardrossan Beagles (once kenneled at the Villanova estate of the late Robert Montgomery Scott). Another, Skycastle French Hounds, a pack originally from Chester Springs, has flourished since the late 1940s.

Really, what reception did the governor’s advisory board expect? At times, the meeting bubbles forth with a rather undignified dose of Main Line panache. A voice yells to Smith, “With all due respect, would you sit down and shut up.”

Opponents, who favor hunting and land preservation, say it’s People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and animal-rights activists in general who are driving—and may have even written—the 67-page proposed revision. The changes, they argue, are drastic and unrealistic.

In effect, they would end the kenneling of sporting dog packs, along with field trials, dog shows, breeding and more. Revisions that may have set out to shut down puppy mills, they say, have evolved into an orchestrated attack on all kennels. “Your intentions speak loud and clear: You’re after all of us,” says Malvern’s Jim Scharnberg, who is beginning his 20th season as master of Skycastle’s rough-coated basset hounds.


State officials say the PETA rumor is totally false; input was more broad-based. The goal of the standard two-year regulatory review is improving the health, safety and welfare of kenneled dogs. As for the Sunshine Law, they say it doesn’t apply to the writing of regulations, which they argue won’t end the practice of hunting with dogs. In fact, unless 26 or more dogs are owned or kenneled during the course of a year, a kennel license isn’t required, according to David Kennedy, assistant counsel for the Department of Agriculture, the office that drafted the regulations through its Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement and Office of Chief Counsel.

“This is the smoke they’re blowing to lull people into being quiet,” Scharnberg later argues. “Jesse Smith said in an e-mail to the USSA that the new regulations would affect all dog owners. The whole matter is hazy, which seems to have been the purpose of the crew setting this up.”

In the end, the final regulations must be sent to the state’s Independent Regulatory Review Commission—which, in a 21-page report, dubbed the first draft flawed—and the House and Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs committees by April 15, 2009. Before that, the regulations will be redrafted twice more, Kennedy says. Additional time for comments, including a public hearing, will follow each draft.

But like others, Wanda Borsa—who has a pack of hunting beagles in New Freedom that rivals Ardrossan’s—isn’t buying it.

“You probably thought we’d roll over on our backs like weak, submissive puppies,” she says before Smith asks her to wrap things up. “Well, we’re not rolling over. We’re unified. We’re the employers, and we will fire at the voting box. That’s when citizens hand out pink slips.”

AS PROPOSED, THE CONTROVERSIAL changes for kennels revolve around a one-size-fits-all approach. The regulations don’t recognize breed-specific diversity or kennel types. Also, owners would be required to exercise dogs individually, on a leash, for 20 minutes a day. As of now, training (hunting) or even walking in the woods as a pack doesn’t count as exercise. Activity in pens—as newly prescribed according to size, weight and veterinarian approval—isn’t exercise. Also, dogs are not to exercise on grass, in mud or in wet weather.

There are specific temperature requirements: If a kennel falls below 35 or creeps above 85, owners would need to bring their dogs indoors. “PennDOT workers and roofers would like the same,” jests John Gibble, president of the Northeast Beagle Gundog Federation and an advisory board member.

Increased record keeping—logging daily exercise, sanitation, feeding and medical care—and the cost of compliance, whether in rebuilding a kennel to meet new code or in new hires, could be damning enough. Skycastle just painstakingly converted a portion of a bank barn into kennels; its runs measure 50 feet long by 8 feet wide. Radnor Hunt built its current kennels for $85,000 (initial estimates topped out at $140,000), but if the proposed regulations were to go into effect, passing inspections would be iffy.

“We love our hounds,” says Stock Illoway, a former president of the National Beagle Club (which oversees the nation’s foot packs) and the joint master of the Ardrossan Beagles with Francis B. Jacobs. “The 34 years I’ve hunted have been the greatest joy in my life. We’re not a puppy mill, so how is their destiny tied to ours?”

At first, Illoway was leery of publicity. “There are strong forces working in this state to restrict activities such as ours,” he says.

“Organizations such as PETA and HSUS (the Humane Society of the United States) are always looking for a way to attack [us].” In May, Rendell’s office unveiled an online database (agriculture.state.pa.us/padoglaw) where the public can access every kennel’s inspection records. Scharnberg says he’s begun getting what amounts to hate mail. One letter asked him to describe his kennels and how he does business. He’s getting hounded. “We’ve been put on the radar screen,” he says. “If anything happens, any damages at that kennel, I’ll sue the department of agriculture. It’s really starting to annoy the hell out of me.”

Frank H. “Terry” Griffin III, master of foxhounds at Radnor Hunt, suggests the proposed regulations and paperwork are more restrictive and anal retentive than those for daycare centers. And anyway, he argues, the state could shut down puppy mills with existing dog laws. “We keep telling them this is an enforcement and [dog warden] training issue,” he says. “But to tell us how to care for our animals is absurd. It’s our existence. If we didn’t care for our hounds, we couldn’t do what we do. If this continues, it amounts to an anti-hunting effort.”

 


With 1.3 million hunters in Pennsylvania, the board’s Gibble says, “We’re a class unto ourselves—and we expect to be treated as such.”

Both fox hunting (on horseback) and pack hunting (on foot) are entrenched in this region. A foxhunter’s quarry is the fox. In foot hunting, a pack of hounds—typically beagles or bassets—is directed by its master to diligently circle an area in pursuit of a cottontail rabbit. A staff following on foot contains the pack. A master’s horn and voice commands both hounds and staff. For sportsmen, the ongoing challenge remains finding suitable open space to hunt.

Foot-pack season runs October-March. It’s centered around twice-a-year, four-day national pack hunting field trials for beagles and bassets in Aldie, Va. In season, Sundays are official hunt days (otherwise, packs hunt informally as Skycastle does on Wednesdays and Saturdays). Skycastle’s territory is Pickering Hunt Country, rolling acreage covering 15 square miles in Chester, Berks and Montgomery counties. Pickering’s bounded on the east by Route 202, north by the Schuylkill River, west by Route 10 and south by business Route 30.

This region boasts some 20 foxhound or foot packs, three-quarters of which are unregistered so-called family or farm packs—like Kimberton Hunt, one of the oldest, founded in 1870. Those registered include two basset packs, Skycastle and Philadelphia’s Murder Hollow Bassets, and three beagle packs, Ardrossan, Apple Grove in Unionville and West Dublin in Bucks County. Registered foxhunting packs, whose territory is governed by the Masters of Foxhounds Association, include Radnor Hunt, Cheshire, Huntingdon Valley, Pickering Hunt and Andrews Bridge.

Also of note, the Bryn Mawr Hound Show is the nation’s oldest “complete” outdoor event of its kind. Plunkett Stewart was one of its founders in 1914. Held the first Saturday after Memorial Day at Radnor Hunt, the show draws 35-45 packs—more than 500 hounds. Another, the Virginia Hound Show, was started in 1934 by William duPont Jr., then president of the American Foxhound Club. It runs Memorial Day weekend.

For aficionados, the showing of hounds—“window dressing,” Scharnberg says—is secondary to hunting them. “It’s about seeing how they work,” says Scharnberg.

A WEEK AFTER THE soggy run-in with the state at Radnor Hunt, more rain has left behind a humid summer morning. So far, it’s business as usual for Skycastle French Hounds. Summer’s for training younger hounds by pairing them with veterans. Today, Scharnberg has a bitch pack of seven.

Two-year-old Roguish is coming out of heat, so Scharnberg left the males behind. “They’d be following her,” he says.

Roguish shows her age. She’s dashing in and out of hedgerows and “doesn’t quite get it yet,” says Scharnberg.

Quarry, a 2-year-old from a different litter, nabbed her first rabbit last fall. The sport is about the chase, not the kill. But “either the rabbit gets down its hole, or it gets ’et (British for ‘ate’),” says Scharnberg, who doesn’t mince words. “I’d rather it gets down the hole and breed some more.”

Last season, his full pack of 16 Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen (small, low, rough-coated hounds from France’s Vendee region) captured 100 rabbits, six fox and 15 raccoons. “It’s a very healthy hunting machine that hasn’t been messed with,” Scharnberg says.

Organized in 1948, Skycastle marks its 60th season next fall. Under Elizabeth Streeter, it was a private pack on her 340-acre Chester Springs estate. When she died, her son, Nicholas Streeter, asked Scharnberg to take over. That was December 1987. “He didn’t want to give up the hounds, or have hunting disappear,” Scharnberg says.

Skycastle’s now a subscription pack. Along with a treasurer and secretary, Scharnberg sits on a nine-member hunt committee. The membership—80 strong—pays annual dues. Some, like Bryn Mawr’s Paul and Gillian Wiedorn, began their involvement in the early 1970s, when the pack was smooth-coated and English. Then Mrs. Streeter began experimenting with French hounds.

Scharnberg imports mainly through one breeder, Pierre Salaun in Normandy. While the breed has the size (30-40 pounds and 14-14 1/2 inches high) and appearance of a pufftur (show puppy), it possesses the agility and might to “jump a 5-foot wall and wear down a deer,” Scharnberg says. One of two lines he maintains descends from a seven-consecutive-time French grand champion.

Potential mothers (some arrive at a young age; others are bred here) are selected for their skill as hunters and their disposition. Mischief threw five tri-colored (white with black-gray and tan) pups May 1. Her litter’s names all begin with “S.” Litter mates share names with an identical initial letter. A 2003 litter resulted in Oarsman, Otter, Orchid and Osprey.

The Wiedorns have three retired Skycastle hounds at home: Dalesman, 15, Hoodwink, 11, and Artful, 9. Dalesman’s sister, Doubtful, will retire to Scharnberg’s home after this season. Another sister, Dervish, died in May. “Our three remind me of the Marx brothers,” Gillian says. “They’re comical, and have so much character.”

At 69, Scharnberg’s contribution is the continued celebration and preservation of the tradition he, and those kindred, have empowered to endure. “I know, I know,” he tells his hounds before heading out to hunt cooperative acreage off Route 113 in East Pikeland Township. “I promise we’re going hunting.

 


Scharnberg is accompanied by the Wiedorns, along with his second wife, Marsha, her 18-year-old daughter, Gwen Knight, and Unionville’s Lisa Booth and her children, Laura, 14, and Nick, 12. Like the others, Paul Wiedorn, 76, a retired industrial engineer, wields his whip, which is used to manage the hounds without hardly ever making contact. “You get your thumb on there, and when you come down (he demonstrates), that’s a sonic boom,” he says from beneath a soft safari hat. “It’s one of those sacred things. It’s part of the ambiance, the lore.”

Scharnberg’s commanding his hounds: “Try back … Daphne, back over … Huic (pronounced hike)! Beeeep, try in now. Who-oop! Try in here now … Iris, drawback. Try in. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Good hounds. Wind ’im in there. Yeah. Yeah.”

Iris was a two-hour stake trials winner last fall, like her mother, Dervish, in 1999. “If she’s out here on the edge, there’s not a damn thing in there,” Scharnberg says. “They won’t stay in. Nothing’s moving. We have to start up a [cottontail] scent (humidity kills it).”

He whistles, then follows his hounds 10 feet into briars and thickets of poison ivy and oak. He whistles again, “Good girl, Iris. Dig ’im out! Where are they? Wind ’im in here!”

“Jim gets into the worst of it,” Gillian says. “We usually sit on the outside.”

Before she married Scharnberg, Marsha had never been involved in the sport. The two met at a Sadie Hawkins dance after their spouses died. This fall, Marsha’s daughter left for the University of Aberdeen in Scotland to major in archaeology; otherwise, she’d be getting involved in township government. Of the proposed dog law changes, she says, “They’re absurd. We’re not stupid. By proxy, they’re trying to shut us down.”

With his horn, Scharnberg calls his staff to an open pasture, then moves ahead alone. His hounds, which are held back by the staff’s whips, cry. “God forbid Jim goes on without his hounds,” says Lisa Booth, whose whip brings up a stream’s worth of morning dew. (In the winter, you see smoke.)

“I think they’re actually cussing him out,” Gwen adds.

Then Scharnberg blows the horn, and the staff urges, “Hie to Jim.” The hounds hurry to hunt a swamp area, then drink before their master confesses that, after almost two hours, they’ve been outsmarted—again. “Let’s head back,” he says. “This is fruitless.”

“The rabbits have more sense than the people to stay cool in their holes,” Gillian says.

“Back (pronounced bike),” Scharnberg instructs the hounds. “Leave it.”

Daphne’s eating a mouse. Then there’s one last briar hedgerow the hounds can’t resist.

“Wind, wind, wind ’im in here,” Scharnberg says. “Go in. Pick ’im out of there. Don’t let Magpie get ahead; she cheats. She cuts off a rabbit and ruins it for the rest of the pack.”

Then there’s “speak”—a yelp—and the rest of the pack comes on cue. They’re on a line, but it’s tenuous. “Are they speaking up that end?” Scharnberg asks his staff. “Try in.”

In the end, Marsha Scharnberg is the only one who sees a cottontail—it ran down the driveway of a farmhouse—before she heads back to arrange a tailgate tea on the hood of the Scharnbergs’ 2002 crimson Subaru Outback. “I tally-hoed (the signal after a cottontail sighting) but, oh well,” she says.

The car’s crimson matches the club’s collar on its livery—a green coat, gray vest, black cap and white canvas pants, for “formal hunting,” Jim says.

The Subaru’s license plate reads GT BK (for “Get Back,” a common command for both hounds and humans). The tea is “a little less formal, but it’ll be delicious,” Paul Wiedorn promises.

“Come on out, come on,” Scharnberg says, retrieving his partial pack. “Good girls, Daphne, Iris. One, two, three, four, five, six … one more. Mischief! Leave it! If she smells something, it’s like trying to get a limpet off a rock.”

Holding a cold tea—Gillian Wiedorn’s specialty, flavored with mint picked from the fields near the kennels—Scharnberg’s hands reveal decades of scars from briars and puppy teeth. “I’m clean today,” he says.

“For what I went through, not one cut.”

“He didn’t do his job, I don’t think,” Paul concludes in jest.

The hounds pile into the Subaru, a temporary kennel. Iris is in the driver’s seat. In the passenger seat, Quarry is so bored—or disappointed by the hunt—that she’s ripping through a stack of plastic cups. It’s a quick tea, then a 20-minute ride back to the kennels to exercise the other nine on a 310-acre, circa-1790 preserve in East Brandywine Township. “No hunting,” Scharnberg continually reminds the hounds.

And they listen.

Those who did hunt are now “singing” on the benches in their kennel. “They all get their turn,” explains Lisa Booth, heading uphill through mown mead strips in the back pasture, then into near-shoulder-height wheat sheaves. An hour later, the hounds cool off in the East branch of the Brandywine Creek, where Relic and Robin, Roguish’s litter mates, briefly go astray.

Scharnberg has written or edited four books on hounds and hunting. He even babbles like a hound—and Booth says he knows hundreds of hound songs.

“The first time I went out seven years ago, others told me I must be insane to follow a bunch of hounds on foot,” says Booth, who rides horses. “But the next thing you know, you’re addicted. [Jim’s] calling you and asking you to do things, and you say, ‘Sure.’”

 


MEANWHILE, THE MORNING OF Skycastle’s hunt, the state’s Jesse Smith, who before Rendell tapped her was the board president of the Humane Society of Harrisburg Area, becomes the quarry of the State Attorney General’s Office. Under her tenure, according to the Harrisburg Patriot-News, she allegedly promoted her clinic as a “no-kill” shelter, then oversaw temperament testing that led to euthanizing 40 percent of the 7,433 animals there in 2005—this among other violations.

“Interesting baggage,” concludes Scharnberg.

Even the non-voting dog law board she oversees seems doomed. Its members didn’t write the new regulations, but as one attendee at the Radnor Hunt meeting explains, they’ve been left holding “a stinky bag of crap.”

David Kennedy, whose office drafted the regulations, wasn’t at the July meeting. Neither was the board’s Douglass Newbold, a Radnor Hunt member and a former foxhunter who served on a “kennel conditions committee” that met separately from the advisory board.

“The governor’s heart is really in this,” Newbold says. “It’ll all come out alright, but what’s disappointed me is seeing all these special interest groups that are stuck in their own mire. For those who say they care about dogs, they’re appearing like they don’t.”

One of the board’s eight at-large members, Marsha Perelman, has been aligned with the national ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) for a decade and is now with Main Line Animal Rescue in Chester Springs. She says the draft was written in a “vacuum” and promises a “responsive” revision. “I regret the over-reaction,” she says.

The board was scheduled to hear from two final stakeholder groups, hobby-show breeders and large commercial breeders in September and October, but both meetings were postponed so efforts could be concentrated on collating existing responses and writing a second draft. A record 16,000 written comments—mostly positive, Kennedy says—poured in during an extended 90-day public feedback period that ended in March.

“Act on the puppy mills,” says Sen. Dinniman. “We hate puppy mills. Shut them down. Don’t deal with what’s good, but rather focus on what’s wrong. Unless you live here, you don’t understand the importance of this land and the people who live on it. Where else in the nation could you find people voting to raise taxes to save this land?”

As things move forward, Russell Jones, master of Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds, would like the board to focus on two words: communal and commercial.

“Our living arrangements differentiate us, and we don’t buy and sell dogs,” he explains. “Use that standard—and get a better set of regulations. For now, we’ll take you on your word that you’re not opposed to hunting. But if you don’t listen to us, it won’t be the last time you hear from us.”

 

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