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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Tally Ho! Time to Hunt Humans

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 21, 2013

I’m watching a show just now in which one of those snarky British television personalities travels hick America and makes fun of redneck ways.  Back in England, this is what used to be the heart of the fox-hunting season.  So the two things reminded me of a story I wrote a few years ago in England, with this update: Now that Mitt Romney‘s no longer running for President, hunting humans could just be the perfect philanthropic way to give minimum wage employment to undeserving runners from the 47 percent.  Here’s the story:

bloodhound pack

It was an idea guaranteed to appeal to local foxes:  Put 30 or 40 English gentlefolk on horseback and send them hallooing across the countryside behind a pack of frantically baying hounds.

But have their prey be a human being.  Get the Queen of England herself to join in the fun.  Let the foxes, who are bored with this victim business anyway, become spectators, shouting encouragement and advice to the field:  “Fine day for hunting, no?  Got a glimpse of your quarry just now.  Big strong redhead in a Gore-Tex jogging suit.  Went that way.”

The remarkable thing is that the proposal caught on with humans, in a modest sort of way.  At least five packs in England now hunt humans, according to Horse and Hound, the weekly hunt journal.  For a cap fee of 15 pounds, an outsider can, for example, join the Windsor Forest Hunt on a Saturday when the weather is fair to hunt down three upstanding citizens of the placid Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, or Surrey countryside.

Hunting humans is of course different from hunting foxes.  Among other things, it requires bloodhounds rather than foxhounds, as they have more experience in this line of work.  Over the last 600 years, the breed has acquired a reputation for fierce pursuit of sheep thieves, cattle rustlers, and other fugitives.  The notion that bloodhounds sometimes tear a victim to pieces has given them a ghoulish, man-hunting image.  With their inflamed eyelids, loose dewlaps and slobbering lips, they also look the part.

Hunting with bloodhounds has prospered, according to William Loyd, joint master of the Windsor Forest Hunt, because it is a more practical way of hunting in the modern world.  He is not talking about overpopulation and all that.  No, the problem with the more traditional foxhounds is that no one can control where they go because no one controls the fox they are pursuing.  This becomes awkward when the fox leads hounds and horses through winter crops, livestock, or a new suburb, or when, in the blind delirium of a hot scent, the hounds launch themselves onto a national motorway.  Since the 1950s, fox hunters have thus been abandoning territory within five miles of motorways and in developing areas.  Bloodhound hunts like the Windsor pack, which was founded in 1971, have moved into these openings.  They have been able to do so because a human runner, given a 20-minute head start, can lead a bloodhound pack on a carefully mapped-out two- or three-mile route, skirting all such modern hazards.  Moreover, says Loyd, ”

We don’t do anything ghastly like killing a fox in the middle of the market.”

In truth, they do not kill anything.  The English gentry, while still known to dote on dogs and to disparage foxes, take a strong line against tearing the local citizenry to pieces.  The five hunting packs do not let their bloodhounds bite, much less kill.

Indeed, the hunters would have a hard time getting them to bite.  Bloodhounds have mellowed.  They retain their keenness for human scent, but over the course of a century or more the fierceness has been bred out of them.  Bloodhound fanciers tend nowadaysto deny that fierceness was ever a bloodhound trait.  When the hounds of the Windsor Forest Hunt catch their quarry, mayhem is so far from their minds that they generally lick him.  “When the runner is found,” writes one follower of the hunt, “he is not torn to pieces, but greeted by dozens of wet tongues!  A wonderful sight!”  The hunt ends not in blood but in slobber.

For Loyd, this is a source of satisfaction, of course, but also of mild chagrin.  A former fox hunter, he worries that traditionalists “think we’re cashing in as a soft alternative to fox-hunting” and he tends, as a matter of form, to denounce animal rights protesters.  Still, he is aware that squeamishness and unrest about blood sports are increasing, and he does not ask followers of his hunt indiscreet questions about their lily-livered sympathies.  Queen Elizabeth herself abstains from the foxhunt.  But hunting with bloodhounds has earned her approval.  On one occasion, the Windsor Forest Hunt met by invitation in the royal park surrounding Windsor Castle and she joined several members of the royal family in the pursuit.  The Windsor pack has also won commercial support.  Quaker Oats supplies dog food (it is wise, if unsporting, to keep the hounds well fed) and features a bloodhound on its labels in Britain.

Finding victims is also a semi-commercial proposition.  The Windsor pack offers volunteers what Loyd discreetly terms “a small financial reward, as it were.”  Andrew Jennings, a 13-year-old from Bracknell, is a regular.  The rules call for him to wear an old t-shirt or other article of clothing for 24 hours beforehand and to avoid bathing.  The shirt gets tied to a stake at the starting point and serves as a scent object for the hounds.  Jennings then jogs off on the prescribed route, with the aim of getting to the finish just ahead of the hounds.

Bloodhounds are somewhat slower than foxhounds.  They also have “an unfortunate knack” for getting their hind ends stuck halfway through a hedge, Loyd says, and when this happens they “tend to give up and just moan.”  They are, finally, more sensitive than foxhounds.  Lilo Loyd, who is joint master of the Windsor pack with her husband, says that a sharp word or a crack of the whip causes them to “get sulky and stop working.”  This sort of hunting requires patience; it is terribly democratic.  But left to their own devices the bloodhounds are mad for the scent.  They hunt directly where the runner has gone, or on a parallel course a few feet away when the wind has caused the scent trail to drift.  As the hounds come closer and the scent gets warmer, they go faster and they bay wildly.  Followers of the hunt describe this as “beautiful music.”  But to the runners, it is “eerie, a most unearthly sound.”

Jennings says he has never pretended at such a moment to be Sidney Poitier escaping from the bloodhounds in “The Defiant Ones.”  And though he sometimes runs in the clumsy rubber boots known as “wellies,” which are the English equivalent of leg irons, he has never felt like Paul Muni in “I Was A Fugitive From The Chain Gang.”  Indeed, he sometimes indulges the bloodhounds.  Near the end, he may pause to let them catch up, so spectators can see him dash to the finish just ahead of the pack.  He notes that not all the spectators are human.  He often sees a fox along the route.  Usually it will run away, out of habit.  But sometimes, he says, a fox will sit down at a distance and simply watch, amazed but evidently content.  It is a scene worthy of a typing exercise:  “THE QUICK BROWN FOX SITS ON THE SIDELINES AND CRIES, `TALLY HO.'”

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