CHARLOTTE — John Edwards was so haunted by the image of dogs chasing and killing foxes and coyotes in staged hunts that he promised to do something about it.
Along with a coalition of wildlife groups, Edwards is pushing North Carolina officials to ban so-called hunt pens — fenced-in preserves where dogs track foxes or coyotes for sport. Sporting groups say the preserves are a needed way to train hunting dogs and deny accusations of abuse or cruelty. They say the enclosures have good cover and provide escape areas for game.
As part of the campaign, wildlife advocates have started a petition drive to draw attention to controlled hunting preserves. They hope to raise enough public awareness — and outrage — to force the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to outlaw them.
"It's going to be a tough, tough battle," said Edwards, a member of the North Carolina Wildlife Advocates. "The organized groups of individuals who own the dogs really make up a powerful lobbying group."
Controlled hunting preserves are used to train dogs to pursue and catch wild animals. Operators of preserves keep foxes or coyotes in cages on fenced-in land. During hunting competitions, the caged animals are set loose and then chased by dogs. During competitions, judges often score the dogs for their speed, efficiency, persistence and aggression — the more aggressive, the higher the score, Edwards said.
"We want this heinous, barbaric blood 'sport' banned as is dog fighting and cock fighting in the U.S.," the petition said. "In those two illegal activities, it is one on one. In hunt pens, it is packs of dogs after a coyote or fox."
And when the dogs find the animals, "there is no escape."
Controlled hunting preserves are legal in at least 19 states, including North Carolina, which has 129.
The state legislature in 1989 legalized controlled hunting preserves. The Wildlife Resources Commission oversees the operations.
In 2009, legislation banning hunt pens failed. But Edwards and other wildlife advocates say they won't give up. A key this time will be informing people about the practice, he said.
Bill Lea, a wildlife activist and nature photographer, and other wildlife advocates recently met with Gordon Myers, executive director of the state Wildlife Resources Commission. They discussed several issues, including banning controlled hunting preserves. Lea said he asked Myers to support their efforts, but that Myers refused to take a stand.
"Here you have a wildlife agency and you would think they would be somewhat caring about wildlife in the state. They outlawed cock fighting and dog fighting, so why would they not outlaw this?" Lea said.
Myers said it's up to the state legislature to make any changes.
"Much of the opposition to controlled hunting preserves is focused upon the principle of 'fair chase,'" he said in an email. "Fair chase is essentially the lawful pursuit and taking of wild animals in an ethical manner in which the hunter does not gain unfair advantage over the animal being pursued."
Sporting groups, meanwhile, say controlled hunting preserves are necessary to help train dogs.
"They insinuate with their language animals are being chased in small areas and subjected to abuse. No ethical hunting dog owner would do this," said Keith Loudermilt, president of the North Carolina Sporting Dog Association.
He added: "Grounds typically have good cover, and in the case of fox enclosures, escape areas are provided for game. No hunting dog owner that I know would release game from a cage in front of dogs. The goal is to keep our game healthy and alive. A dead animal is difficult to replace."
Project Coyote, an advocacy group that promotes coexistence between people and wildlife through education and science, is helping with the North Carolina campaign.
Spokeswoman Camilla Fox said her group was part of a coalition that successfully outlawed controlled hunting preserves in Florida in 2010. Project Coyote is now trying to do the same in Indiana and Virginia.
"Most people are completely unaware that this practice exists, and when they found out about it, they are shocked, horrified, and don't want it allowed," she said.