The Bayin' of Their Existence

PATTY: Let's go, Snoopy, up and at 'em. It's a magnificent day for chasing rabbits. The air is clear, the sun is shining, the fields and woodlands lie open and inviting.

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.

The beagles, they're just hounds, but hunting runs in their blood. They have names like Arrow and Precious and Playboy and Butler, and rooting around with their noses to the ground and sniffing out bunnies is what they were bred to do. Some of them are better at it than others. Some--like Jupiter and Palestine--even came over from England.

In England, they kill thefoxes. Sometimes they'll even cut off their heads and tails and award the "mask and brush" to the first rider on the scene, which really riles the animal-rights folks.

But killing foxes is how the sport evolved. There were too many of them, and they raided the British farms and ate the lambs and scarfed the chickens. Farmers struck back with fox hunts, and once the gentry figured out how much fun thatcould be, they made a macho, status-screaming sport of it,being wealthy enough to breed fast horses and smart hounds.

And hounds is what they are. You mustn't say "dogs" when you're talking about the beagles, not unless you want somebody to correct you. The proper term is "hounds.'

The Paradise Valley beaglers say hunting with hounds is much more fun than just going single file down the same desert trails over and over. It's a chance to explore unknown territory. "It's a little like skiing, the exhilaration," says member Susie Shultz, a founding member.

The hounds generally start going nuts as soon as they see the beaglers in their tight-fitting breeches. "Even the horses get excited," Shultz says. Though they're not bred and trained for the job like the hounds are, the horses are breeds like Arabians and thoroughbreds.

In the field, riders assume their respective roles: the huntsman, who has the short, straight hunting horn that calls the hounds to action; the whips, who flank the pack to the sides and the rear and chase after stray hounds; and the field master, who leads the rest of the riders, the field.

During the hunt that precedes the beagle blessing, huntsman Susie Stevenson blows the horn, which lets the hounds know it's okay to start doing their thing. Susie's husband, Craig, is the field master, and he keeps the field at bay until sign of a scent is given.

The beagles cast themselves into a circle, one of those things that just come naturally to them, and sniff through the brush. They spread because, on top of running 40 miles an hour, the jack rabbits they're after can leap 20 feet at a time, and scents can get pretty scattered. The uniformed riders are quiet, careful to stay out of the way.

Eventually, one of the hounds finds something and starts barking, which the beaglers call "giving tongue." Sometimes they're false alarms, but the hounds know each other's voices and whom to trust. Prophet, for instance, not even 2 years old, is still learning the ropes, and no one pays much attention to him.

When the signal comes from an "honest" hound, though, another beagle inevitably will echo the discovery, and then a few more will chime in, and then the huntsman toots the little horn, and it's off to the races through cactus and bush and ravine. It happens pretty fast.

If they lose the scent, the hounds circle again and find it. Sometimes a rider sees the critter before the hounds do and shouts, "Tallyho!" A whole chase can run 15 or 20 minutes.

The hounds get a good line going on a rabbit in the opening hunt, but somewhere along the way, the one they call Precious takes a wrong turn, which no one realizes until the horn calls them all back to pack formation. It is halftime, time to hit the watering hole.

To get an idea of how incredibly disciplined the hounds are, imagine coming across a big pond in the desert after an hour of running around in the sun and being able to hold back until someone says otherwise.

The second they hear the word "water," though, it is everybody into the pool.

"Pack it up," Stevenson, the huntsman, says after a while, tooting her little horn. "Come on."

"We had a great run on a jack," Bohannan says to her husband, Bob. "But we lost Precious."

And then Precious' brother Pilgrim comes up limping, an invisible thorn lodged in his paw. He'll be soaking it in Epsom salts that night. He's the kind of hound that likes to keep scents to himself, and sometimes he'll take one of the youngsters with him on his own chase and not tell anybody.

Bad dog.
Especially when beagling is a sport loaded with etiquette. You'd expect nothing less from Britain, where it remains one of the great aristocratic pleasures, along with grouse shooting and fly fishing. Hunting families send their children to private colleges such as Oxford or Stowe that maintain beagle packs of their own. As part of their early studies, 19th-century girls were taught beagling as well as how to curtsy and enter a room like a lady.

Hunting beagles get their names from thefirst letter of either of their parents' names--one litter, for instance, the offspring of Brigand and Artless, produced the now8year-old hounds Arrow, Adobe, Angel and Ascot. Pilgrim and Playboy and Precious are all a year older; and one of Angel's pups, fathered by Pilgrim, went on to birth Prophet, the youngest of the pack.

The hounds' collars are all imprinted with the Bohannans' phone number, so none of them has ever been lost for good, not even in the earlier days, when hunts were as chaotic as a Jerry Springer Show. But if an AWOL dog like Precious doesn't return by the hunt's conclusion, the riders will leave a piece of someone's clothing at the site, and the hound will often sniff its way back to that spot and wait.

These desert hounds are pretty talented when you consider the scenting conditions. In England, they say the scent's bad if the fog lifts. Here, if a fog lifts, it's usually because the group is out of apricot brandy. The best times for hounds to catch a scent in the desert are after a rain or in the early morning before the sun burns it off. That being the case, the Paradise Valley beagle hunts start at 8:30 a.m. and last a couple of hours.

So, with intermission finally over, Stevenson sounds her horn again, and the beagles scatter into silent arcs, working the ground in front of them, snuffling through the dirt.

They don't last much longer, though, because everyone from the horses and riders on down to the hounds is pretty much out of shape. They have to work up to the three-hour marathons that come later in the season.

The British can't imagine that the Paradise Valley Beagles never kill a thing, "but actually, we're quite delighted about that," Margaret Bohannan says.

And besides, club members point out, beagles usually aren't fast enough to actually catch a rabbit. Everyone has a good time, even the rabbits.

Those hares are pretty wily: Sometimes they'll just squat down and lie there and watch the beagles run by. If there are two of them, they might split up and divide the hunt. Sometimes the rabbit will be ahead in plain sight while the beagles run around looking for the scent. Sight is not their principal attribute.

Once, a jack popped up in the middle of the pack and basically trotted right through in the other direction. The hounds were allso stunned that they just sat there with dumb looks on their faces and watched it goby.

Margaret Bohannan came to Arizona 25 years ago and met her husband, a mortgage banker from Ohio, during an organized fox hunt they used to have down in Sonoita. Another pack, the High Country Hounds, still hunts coyote near Flagstaff. Sometime in the early Eighties, the Bohannans thought it'd be a hoot to get everyone on his horse on New Year's Day for a morning of hunting the way she knew it in Wales.

They began with four hounds: Ambush, Anchor, Playfair and Padgent. They took a coyote pelt and dragged it through the desert north of Shea Boulevard, then put the thing in a tree. Then 200 people on horses, with Bob Bohannan as the field master, rode excitedly after the hounds, who were going full cry. "It was very dramatic for a hunter," Margaret Bohannan says.

But most of the riders had never been on a hunt, and it was frenetic. Etiquette was nonexistent, and Bob Bohannan didn't stay close enough to the riders, and the horses, not used to galloping with such abandon over the countryside, were jumping all over the place.

"The New Year's hunt was outrageous," remembers robust riding instructor Kris Denton. "I believe I jumped my doctor. We came to an arroyo, and her horse stopped, and mine didn't, and as I went over her, I said, 'Sorry, Judith!' I won a medal."

The Bohannans figured it was so much fun that they ought to start a pack, and, with the help of a British friend who gave them a couple of hounds from the Britannia Beagles--the official pack of the British Royal Navy--they started breeding one.

Membership in the Paradise Valley Beagles fluctuates between 50 and 60, with dues of $75 for singles and $125 for families. The group belongs to England's Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles, and is recognized by the National Beagle Club.

And, now that the hounds are better trained and riders know to stay out of the way, hunts are more sedate and orderly. But in those early days, wild-goose chases and calls from Carefree reporting stray beagles were not uncommon.

Just the same, back East, where most hound hunting occurs, they say beagles are the breed of the future. Development has spilled into the forests and marshes of places like Florida and Kentucky. As a result, the tall, long-range hounds once used to hunt deer are giving way to beagles because they're easier to control and less prone to roam off onto someone's private property.

States have started designating actual "short dog" area restrictions, and beagles are an easy answer.

The Paradise Valley Beagles are finding areas they hunted a decade ago disappearing. One spot was at Pima and Indian Bend roads, where now stands a giant shopping complex known as the Pavilions; another was Tatum Boulevard from Union Hills all the way up to Dynamite, which has made way for development. The club used to be able to go out and hunt almost anywhere, but no more.

Old grazing areas are best because they're flat and there's not much cactus. But with all the hunting areas diminishing, the group is having to take the hounds farther and farther out of the Valley and worrying about things like wandering onto ranches and Indian reservations.

For instance, the group is in the process of checking out a potential site near the White Tanks that looks pretty good. The bad news is, the hounds could be chasing bunnies right through the middle of paint-ball games.

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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Marc Ramirez