The Bayin' of Their Existence

What do you call it when rabbits are chased across the desert by hounds which are chased by horses which are ridden by well-to-do people who fancy elaborate hunting garb? Beagle-mania.

The desert itself is changing, too. Riders say they encounter more dumped trash and old tires and mattresses than they used to. And, in one spot they found last year outside Apache Junction, they end up going straight past the rusted-out vehicles in squatters' front yards.

That happened just last week, on another warm Saturday morning when the hounds caught a good line on yet one more frisky bunny. Turned out to be a pair of them, and when they split, Pilgrim took a couple of hounds in one direction while the rest headed the other way.

The jack hopped up right in front of the second group and bounded away in giant leaps, leading the pack in a big arc for a good half-hour, which was long enough to lose a couple of hounds along the way. The rabbit never had its ears down, meaning it wasn't trying too hard, just enough to stay ahead. Finally, it got too hot, and the hounds tuckered out first, the way they nearly always do. They'd had enough. They were pooped.

The horn tooted and they packed it in, and, naturally, they'd lost track of Precious again, and finally she showed up, blood streaming down her back leg. Somewhere in the brush, she'd gotten into it with a javelina. The same thing happened to Pilgrim last spring, only he got it much worse, in the neck. Precious' punctures were small and at the tail end, which were no doubt painful, but at least not potentially fatal.

Precious was treated by the retired Mayo surgeon in the group, and Margaret Bohannan carried her back to camp on her appaloosa. At 9 years old, perhaps it's time for Precious to retire.

A beagle puppy has the nose, and it has the voice, but it doesn't know what to do with them. For six months, a hunting beagle pup is "walked out," meaning it's farmed out to a volunteer household to learn how to get along with people. After months of playing with the kids, chewing up things and digging up the carpet, it's time to go back and see if it's worthy of joining the pack.

The young hounds learn by example their first year out. They learn which scents to follow by feeding off the commotion of the others. They're trained to avoid rattlesnakes; electric collars are fitted to give them shocks when they show the slightest interest in a pet gopher snake placed in front of them.

Some of the young ones excel and go on to lead hunts, most often giving tongue before the rest. It's a lot of running around and answering to people with whips, but it probably beats life as a humdrum household pet.

Hunting beagles live for the hunt and the pursuit of happiness. It's what they were bred for.

"The British say you have to catch [to make it worthwhile]," huntsman Susie Stevenson says at her home, where five of the pack's beagles fidget the night before another hunt. "But our hounds don't catch, and they're always ready to go. Listen to them--they're out there now, talking. They know they're gonna hunt tomorrow.

"Their nose rules their world.

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