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This holiday season, many of you no doubt basked in the shared warmth of the same comforting customs that people have enjoyed for centuries during this festive and peaceful time of year: Sipping a warm glass of port, wearing your fanciest clothes, spending quality time with your friends and favorite animals in the great outdoors.
And, perhaps, if the eyes of Fortune shone favorably upon you, witnessing a canis latrans or (depending on geography) vulpes fulva torn to shreds by your hounds.
I am speaking, of course, of the traditional day-after-Christmas Boxing Day hunt, the spectacle of horse- and houndsmanship that has taken place across the world since plagues came in colors. While many of us kicked back on this leisurely holiday day-after with a giant bowl of sour-cream-based chip dip to catch the Corporate-Name Doesn't-Matter Bowl, the ruddy-faced sporting horsemen and their packs of baying hounds took to the fields in pursuit of yet another varmint.
You tell me which is the more uncivilized.
Ironically, across the pond in England and Scotland, where the stirrup cup and snorting steeds have been as much a part of Boxing Day as, well, boxing (of presents, not of ears), these are dark days for the hunt. Scotland banned hunting with hounds the summer before last, and England, by most accounts the birthplace of the sport (Bilsdale, in the Yorkshire Dales, don't you know), has been teetering on the verge of outlawing it for several years now. Opponents claim it is unfriendly to foxes.
As in most cases where politics crosses paths with sports and tradition, however, things are not as they first appear. In England, where the fox is considered a disposable pest along the lines of a groundhog or an Amway salesman in the U.S., the raging debate over the hunt -- traditionally the bastion of the upper crust -- is less about animal rights than it is an allegory for resentment against the privileged class.
In Scotland, meanwhile, thanks to a stallion-sized loophole in the new law, more foxes are reportedly being killed today than before the hunt was banned. Now that hounds may not "hunt" -- i.e., kill their quarry -- the dogs are used only to "flush" the fox into the open. At which point the animal is quickly plugged by a mounted marksman. Unfortunately for animal-rights activists who worked long and hard to eradicate the Scottish hunt, this is a far more efficient way to kill a fox than by pitting it against a pack of baying mutts.
Like tea and smallpox, the hunt was taken along wherever the British decided to subjugate the locals. Hounds arrived in America soon after the Pilgrims. It was a popular pastime.
Back when legislators were farmers and not attorneys, and the harassment and sporting elimination of wildlife was a more accepted form of leisure, many of this young country's first and finest lawmakers, including George Washington, were said to have enjoyed the hunt. Today there are an estimated 150-odd hunts in 35 states across the country. Depending on one's location, the quarry is either red or gray fox (in the East, generally) or coyote or the occasional bobcat (as you head west).
Colorado's longest-running hunt began trailing coyotes (known, for complicated historical reasons, as "Charlie") in an organized manner on horseback in 1907, with the kennels for the hounds located on what is now the eighth green of the Denver Country Club golf course. The first president of the Arapahoe Hunt was Lawrence Phipps, a rancher, horseman and future U.S. senator.
The hunt dissolved during World War I, but in 1929 it was revived by Phipps's son, Lawrence Phipps Jr., who had developed a fondness for the chase in England during the 1920s. Junior assembled the resuscitated Arapahoe Hunt in what is now Highlands Ranch, in northern Douglas County, with the kennels located on property currently occupied by a sheriff's office.
In 1987, the Arapahoe Hunt moved its operation to the old Lowry Bombing and Gunnery Range, southeast of Denver International Airport. The organization leases about 22,000 acres of rolling grasslands, cottonwoods and old oil wells from the Colorado State Land Board. Though a lifetime horseman, Lawrence Phipps III came late to the sport, after stints in college and the Army. But history and tradition were on his side, and when his father called a special board meeting of the hunt's officers in 1968, it was agreed that the scion should be a master of the hunt, too, and he remains so today.
A short while ago, amid unseasonably warm early-December weather, the Arapahoe Hunt celebrated its 75th anniversary with a three-day rush of activities. Naturally, this included daily hounding of the local coyotes.
Right, then. Bloody bits first.
Sports involving the pursuit of animals traditionally have not focused on live capture, and there is good reason they are collectively referred to as the "blood sports." This is true with the hunt, as well, although less so in the United States, where the chase is the thing, than in England, where the elimination of a fox is considered the proper end to a pleasant afternoon of posting. Still, no matter where you live, when a pack of hounds catches up to its quarry, there is only one possible ending, and after the coyote or fox is dispatched, the dogs are quickly called off.