Authorities have seized dozens of animals and charged 18 men from four states with releasing trapped foxes, coyotes and bobcats into fenced enclosures to be chased down by dogs.
The suspects — 15 from Alabama and one each from Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin — face jail time and fines of as much as $225,000, said Allan Andress, chief of enforcement for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
The arrests on Monday capped a two-year undercover investigation and resulted in the seizure of 55 foxes, 25 coyotes and two bobcats, Andress said.
Trappers allegedly captured animals and transported them to Alabama to be placed into "fox pens," which ranged in size from about 40 acres to several hundred acres, Andress said. Operators charged dog owners about $25 to release a dog into the pen, where the animal then chases down a fox or coyote for sport.
"It's simply for the pleasure of the hunter to have his hounds do well," Andress said.
No patrons of the operations were arrested, Andress said.
Operating a fox pen isn't illegal as long as the prey gets inside on its own and has a reasonable chance to escape, Andress said. But capturing animals and placing them inside the pen to be hunted is illegal.
Officials said the investigation included agents from Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
One of the men accused of illegally importing animals into Alabama, Harold Widder of Antigo, Wis., denied trafficking in wild animals. "These are ranch-raised animals," he said.
Widder faces 45 counts of illegal importation of animals, officials said. Each count carries a maximum sentence of 30 days in jail and he could be fined $225,000.