COLUMBIA, S.C. — A declawed, defanged bear is chained to a stake as hunting dogs bark and snap, trying to force the bear to stand on its hind legs. The training exercise called bear baying is intended to make the bears easier to shoot in the wild and it's only allowed in South Carolina.
Armed with new undercover video of four such events, the Humane Society of the United States is pressuring state officials to explicitly outlaw the practice, which the organization says is effectively banned in every other state. Animal rights advocates say it's cruel to the nearly defenseless bears and harms them psychologically.
Hunters say the exercise popular in the state's hilly northwestern corner helps them train their dogs on what to do when they come across a bear during a hunt.
But John Goodwin, the Humane Society's chief animal fighting expert, calls it "bear baiting" – a centuries-old bloodsport that is more for spectators' entertainment than instruction for dogs on what to do when they encounter wild bears.
"This isn't about training dogs. This is a competition," Goodwin said a news conference in Columbia on Monday in conjunction with the public release of the videos. "If this is their idea of training a dog for hunting, then they're sending that dog on a suicide mission."
State law on the issue is murky. Statutes banning animal fighting have a specific exemption for dog training. And while South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster says animal cruelty laws prohibit bear baying, he hasn't prosecuted any cases.
On Monday, a spokesman for McMaster's office said prosecutors were reviewing the videos.
The videos, which were filmed with hidden cameras by activists posing as spectators, show an adult black bear standing on all fours, its back to a 4-foot high wooden fence, tethered to the ground by several feet of chain. Crowds of a few dozen line the dirt pen around it.
The bear rises onto its hind legs as three hounds sprint toward it, which is precisely the point: Hunters have a better chance of killing a bear swiftly with a shot to its exposed underbelly.
The unleashed dogs bark, show their teeth and swat at the bear, which lunges to the end of the chain, then backs up against the fence.
Moments later, handlers pull off the dogs. A new team of dogs – most of them Plott hounds weighing about 50 pounds – soon takes on the roughly 150-pound bear. Dozens more will follow.
"We really view this as a throwback to the days of the Roman Colosseum, when people filled an arena as spectators to watch animals pitted against each other," said Michael Markarian, the Humane Society's chief operating officer.
Animals regularly died bloody deaths during the ancient battles Markarian references. But the Humane Society's videos show no bloodshed. Handlers need their dogs healthy for hunting, and the bear is needed for more exercise sessions.
Along with staging activities such as dog races and field trials, hunting groups hold competitions in South Carolina to see whose dog team can most quickly get the bear to rise up on its hind legs, or "bay."
"It's just training," says Brian Kelly, a hunting enthusiast who organized a bear baying in Greenville County in February. "There's no dogs that get in any conflict with the bear, and the dog does not get hurt."
Kelly said the bear is kept in a cage while dogs on 3-foot leashes bark at it, with judges rating the dogs on how well they pay attention to and become accustomed to being close to the much bigger animal.
That description isn't backed up by the Humane Society's videos, which clearly show the dogs and bear swatting each other. The dogs aren't on leashes, and one of them was injured after the bear slapped it, Markarian said.
The only time the bear is shown in a cage on-screen is in the bed of a pickup truck, either before or after the baying.
Markarian said bear baying is illegal in all states but South Carolina, though a review of some of those laws shows the ban is by default. North Carolina, for instance, has a law against keeping black bears in captivity except for zoos or for scientific research, but have no explicit ban on baying.
South Carolina's ban on animal fighting has an exemption that allows bear baying, as long as there is no "repeated contact" between the animals. When the attorney general was asked to weigh in on the issue in 2008, McMaster issued an opinion saying he views the practice as illegal under the state's animal cruelty law.
Bear hunting is permitted for two weeks each October in only three counties in northwestern South Carolina. Last year, hunters bagged 92 bears – the most ever recorded in a season.
For a limited time in 2005, the state Department of Natural Resources issued 38 permits to keep bears for baying, all for bears that were already in captivity as pets or in small zoos. Fourteen of those bears have either died or been let go, leaving 24 permitted captive bears, according to regional wildlife coordinator Tom Swayngham.
At least eight of those animals are used for baying in the three counties where bear hunting is permitted, Markarian said. But the same bear showed up in all the events taped by the group's investigators, he said.
The man identified by the Humane Society as the owner of that bear did not return repeated messages left by the AP. State records show he has permits for five black bears.
Animal fighting has history in South Carolina, where the mascot of the state's flagship university is a "Fighting Gamecock" with metal spurs. The state's agriculture commissioner pleaded guilty in 2005 to extortion after admitting he took a bribe to protect a cockfighting ring.
That led to a heated legislative debate about cockfighting, deadly contests between two roosters that have been illegal since 1917 but remain fairly commonplace. In 2006, Gov. Mark Sanford signed legislation raising penalties for cockfighting and outlawing hog-dog rodeos – events where dogs maul and maim hogs to subdue them – and other animal blood sports.
State Rep. David Hiott of Pickens County, one of the counties that allow bear hunting, said it's unlikely the Legislature will revisit a ban on bear baying.
If the Humane Society strikes out with lawmakers, it will ask wildlife managers to effectively halt bear baying by revoking the remaining captive bear permits, Markarian said.
"They can put a stop to this cruelty immediately," he said.
Humane Society of the United States: http://www.humanesociety.org/
National Plott Hound Association: http://www.nationalplotthoundassociation.org/