SNOOPY: If it's such a magnificent day, why spoil it for the rabbits?
--from You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown
Let us pray," the minister says.
Thirty people are standing in a semicircle around a restless pack of beagles in the desert brush of the far north Valley.
They do this every year, after the opening hunt of the season. They sing a hymn and bless the beagles. As if running around on horses chasing jack rabbits in Phoenix wasn't weird enough.
It's a warm Saturday morning in November. The hounds submit to the ritual because they don't have much of a choice, not when two uniformed riders are posted at the ready with small whips. The pack shuffles and fidgets, pressed to the fence like people waiting for a bus in the rain, tongues flapping, tails straight as car antennas.
"O, God," the Episcopal priest intones, "bless these animals that You have created. Give these hounds good voice, keen nose, swift legs and a strong heart. Let these Your creatures give You praise by using the natural gifts You have given them."
The beagles have been putting those natural gifts to work since they were puppies, trolling through kitchens. But as specially bred hunting hounds, their nasal skills were destined for greater things. Now they nose around at the behest of an organization known as Paradise Valley Beagles, folks who fashion themselves after their British forebears in the art of hunting with hounds.
Erase those silly images of red-coated men on horseback shouting "tallyho" across lush, green pastures. Chasing foxes through bog and briar has become instead the pursuit of bunnies through greasewood and arroyo. The Paradise Valley Beagles have brought 18th-century England to Arizona.
Starting in late fall and continuing into early spring, the members take their hounds to desert locations throughout the county, stopping only when the approaching summer brings an abundance of inhospitable rattlesnakes and javelina. In the summer, some beaglers go to Flagstaff, where the High Country Hounds bound through the forest after coyote.
The Paradise Valley Beagles began in 1983 when horse-riding enthusiast Margaret Bohannan imported, for one crazy day, the hunting traditions of her native Wales to the Southwest.
During the beagle blessing that follows today's opening hunt, she speaks in a lilting accent as she tells the story of St. Hubert, the patron saint of hunting, a wild man who partied and chased women and then passed up church on a Good Friday to go hunting instead.
Out in the forest, Hubert met up with a stag with a crucifix between its antlers, and the little guy on the cross said something like, "Turn to the Lord, or thou wilt fall into the abyss of hell!"
"He was transformed," Bohannan says. "The only bad thing was that he gave up hunting and wining and dining."
So now whenever a member of the group takes a spill off a horse, he gets a St. Hubert's medal. All the riders want one. You have to wonder if all that falling has more to do with the prehunt tradition of swigging from a stein--a stirrup cup, they call it--of apricot brandy.
St. Hubert adequately recalled, the feisty beagles are loosed from their tight formation to mingle with the folks. Bohannan has her hands on Palestine, who just came over from England in August and is nipping at her heels. Palestine is in, shall we say, that time of the season. "She's a bitch," Bohannan says proudly to the onlookers. "We're going to make puppies with Palestine."
The Blessing of the Hounds is followed by the annual Champagne Potluck Beagle Breakfast, and the people lounge on lawn chairs with a meal of homemade casseroles and pastries served off fox-hunt-patterned tablecloths.
It's a proper occasion, one befitting the British-style hunting outfits worn by club members. The whole ensemble can run more than $400--the fancy green $200 coats, the $100 boots, plus breeches and helmets and scarfy stock ties. The green coats signify a hunt conducted with beagles instead of foxhounds, and they have gold buttons bearing the club emblem--the initials PVB with a saguaro in the middle. Under those coats are vests of Buchanan plaid, fabric worn by the Bohannans' ancestors. One man wears a red coat he brought out from his fox-hunting days in North Carolina.
Beagling enthusiasts are not your average gas-station attendants or tree trimmers. While the members are not the gentry of Great Britain, this group includes a doctor's assistant and an executive headhunter, riding instructors and oil-product distributors, a retired mortgage banker and a Mayo Clinic surgeon, and others. They are people who love their mounts, who met through horse shows and have license plates like GITI-UP. They are out for the thrill of the chase and a chance to whoop and yahoo into uncharted territory.