Last Sunday – the one with the high winds and torrential rains – might not sound like the best weather for beagling. That’s the sports where, to quote the website of the Old Chatham Hunt Club, the organization that sponsored the event, “a wily rabbit leads an eager pack of hounds through a whirlwind tour of the countryside.”
But the weather was decent, if not quite ideal, for several reasons.
The first reason is that damp weather is apparently better to allow the hounds to scent the rabbit. And, as it turned out on this afternoon, other woodland creatures, too.
The second reason is that the Hudson Valley is beautiful in mist. And one of the rationales for tagging along behind a pack of dogs through fields and woods, occasionally tiptoeing over downed trees and side-stepping underbrush, is because the enterprise constitutes a reasonably low impact form of exercise.
And the final and perhaps most persuasive reason for beagling is that it culminates not with the cornering of a rabbit – if the average bunny is less clever than Bugs it’s not by much; the sport is one of chase and rarely capture – but with a sumptuous tea with open bar at the home of a generous hunt club member.
By the way, the Old Chatham Hunt Club was established in 1928 and is one of the oldest in the nation. It meets on Sundays in October, November, December and March.
On this afternoon it was held at the home of Robert and Diane Peduzzi. The Peduzzi property has the benefit of one of the best views of the Hudson Valley and the Catskill Mountains beyond as well as acres of fields that make for easy walking.
They also happen to be neighbors of mine. So I could take comfort in the knowledge that if things went terribly wrong – for instance, if the cyclonic winds in the forecast splintered trees and power lines – I could return home and resume my typical Sunday afternoon ritual. That’s lunch accompanied by the New York Times, followed by a profound nap.
The hunt attracted about ten dogs and as many humans. A modest turnout, though given the weather nonetheless impressive. We were led by Jack Kingsley, a club member who was pretty much everything you could ask for in a field master.
Starting with a handsome craggy face and matching disposition, he rallied us with a tender disciplinarian’s touch to get going. The faster we did so – though he never explicitly stated as much – the sooner we could retire to the Peduzzi’s home for refreshments.
However, failure to participate in the hunt doesn’t disqualify one from joining in the party afterwards. I was told the club has something in the vicinity of a hundred members. And a majority of them seemed to show up for the post-hunt festivities.
But first we followed the hounds, a bunch of beagles whose subtleties of behavior and group dynamics are apparently a thing of discussion, beauty and endearment among the club’s members.
There’s also a “whipper-in.” That’s a staff member who is the eyes and ears of the huntsmen and huntswomen, making sure the dogs stay focused on their mission. He also blows a horn to gather the dog’s attention. I don’t know how persuasive that is, but it sounds highly evocative, making one feel themselves part of a ritual that dates back to Merry Old England.
And while these animals are highly trained they also happen to be dogs.
I know from personal experience that no matter how cooperative a dog – not that ours is – or how many treats you secret in your clothing, a canine that spies a squirrel or finds something olfactory to roll around in typically refuses to listen to reason.
The dogs seemed to scatter and reassemble on multiple occasions in pursuit of a scent. When they finally found one the braying was something to behold.
The rules of engagement, as far as humans are concerned, call for them to stand back lest they interfere with the work of the dogs. They’re not supposed to interact with the hounds at all.
This is because dogs tend to be friendly, social creatures and are slaves for affection. Given the choice between a personality-free rabbit and an engaging person they might well choose the latter.