Monday, November 13, 2000

Running after rabbits big sport for beagles

Fastest dogs of new sport gain notoriety

The Associated Press

        ASHLAND, Ky. — It's a scene straight out of a rabbit's nightmare.

        Floppy-eared beagles covering nearly every inch of ground — sleeping under trees, lounging in the grass and sitting in pickup trucks as they wait their turns to compete in one of the fasting-growing alternative sports in the nation.

        Every weekend, some 4,000 members of the American Rabbit Hunters Association gather on the outskirts of small towns like Ashland, dogs in tow, to see which one can unwind a rabbit trail the fastest.

        At any one competition, 20 to 700 tail-wagging dogs might compete, chasing cottontail rabbits and hares through briar patches, swamps and weed fields with boisterous barks and howls.

        The rabbits are always fast — and witty — enough to elude their pursuers.

        “Neither the rabbits nor the hounds are harmed,” said Gerald Bailey, president of the association. “It's a fun outdoor activity that the whole family can participate in.”

        Like fox hunting with hounds, guns aren't a part of this sport.

        “We insist that the events be wholesome,” Mr. Bailey said.

        Just how many dogs are involved in the sport Mr. Bailey has no way of knowing. Entries last year totaled 30,000 in 722 competitions, but each dog could have been entered more than one time.

        In the American Rabbit Hunters Association, top dogs are the Michael Jordans of the canine world. They're written about in the American Rabbit Hunter magazine. They're watched closely by other competitors. The best of them enter the Hall of Fame at the association's headquarters in Royston, Ga.

        “If they could write, I'm sure people would ask for their autographs,” said Gerald Melvin, whose dog, High Ball, won a competition on an abandoned coal mine outside of Ashland on a recent Saturday. “The best dogs really are that popular.”

        Unlike human athletes who run on manicured grass or artificial turf, rabbit hounds go through briars and bushes, jump creeks, splash through marshes and cross hills in their noisy pursuits.

        Mr. Bailey said the sport may be the only one in which the participants make more noise than the spectators.

        “The dogs are released into the field to find the scent trail of a rabbit,” Mr. Bailey said. “When they start barking, they can be heard over quite a distance. It's all a quest for bragging rights to settle that age-old question of who has the best dog.”

        Judges are assigned to run with the dogs on each of the hunts. When the dogs run through patches of thorns, so do the judges. If they run up a steep mountainside, the judges do, too.


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- Running after rabbits big sport for beagles