Most hunters value their canine companions both at home and in the field, and couldn't imagine a life without them. Nevertheless, shelters across the country are claiming that many sportsmen are discarding their dogs after hunting season.
Animal shelters in the Mid-Atlantic and South brace themselves at the beginning of every year for an influx of hunting dogs, including hounds, beagles and Labrador Retrievers. The problem is especially evident in rural areas where hunting with dogs is common. In states like North and South Carolina, where coonhunting is popular, the hounds used for the sport regularly find their way to shelters after the close of the season on January 1.
In other states, shelters know January as "beagle season," when volunteers see an avalanche of the popular rabbit-hunting breed. Shelter officials say the animals appear to have been set loose, since they show clear signs of being previously owned. In a January 2012 article, one North Carolina shelter worker said 60 percent of the dogs on her property were hounds bred for hunting.
Compounding the problem is that hunting dogs are rarely neutered or spayed, as many hunters believe this lessens their abilities. The dogs then easily reproduce, and owners dump the excess animals at a nearby shelter or in the wild. Some breeders and puppy mills will even produce litters marketed towards hunters, then rid themselves of the animals that don't sell.
This flood of neglected hunting dogs is overwhelming animal rescue groups. Many dogs that survive the wild and make it to the shelter must ultimately be euthanized in order to make room. Other unlucky dogs may even be sold to laboratories to be experimented on.
Shelter workers accuse hunters of willfully neglecting the animals when they don't meet expectations, or become old, ill or injured. Hunters will allegedly remove a dog's collar and leave it to fend for itself. Animal rescuers also claim hunters will send out large groups of hounds to pursue game, and not follow up when only a fraction of the dogs return. The dogs that are left are prone to starvation, sickness or being struck by a vehicle.
Certain state and county agencies dispute these claims. In response to reports from a local animal shelter, the Brunswick County Animal Services in South Carolina said they see little evidence that hunting dogs are abandoned, adding that the animals are far too valuable to freely dispose of. A trained or carefully-bred hunting dog can sometimes be worth thousands of dollars.
However, caring for a sporting dog can also cost thousands of dollars a year, and shelters suspect that some hunters are unwilling to pay that hefty price tag during closed season.
The majority of sportsmen decry abandoning dogs, and insist a small minority of hunters are to be blamed. Many worry not only about the neglected animals, but if their irresponsible owners will trigger a public backlash on dog hunting, which is a proud tradition in many states. Traditional types of dog hunting, such as that of deer, mountain lions and bears, are facing more and more controversy.
It is against the law to abandon a dog in most U.S. states, with animal cruelty laws ranging from a hefty fine to prison time. Occasionally a culprit is caught and charged. However, like in most cases of dog abandonment, the original owner usually escapes justice, leaving only the animal to face the consequences
Shelter workers may blame irresponsible hunters for homeless dogs, but they say the burden may fall on honorable hunters and the public to adopt them. While some of these dogs may be good in the field, most are too traumatized by their abandonment and medical treatment to ever hunt again. But animal rescuers stress that even if a dog isn't good at hunting, they can still make for loving, loyal pets.
If you ask the families who've adopted these dogs, the hunters who ditched them really missed out.