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A Fox Hunt at Westminster

By Amy Fernandez

One of the most interesting aspects of Westminster’s long history is the fact that its evolution parallels the evolution of the American dog show. The slick glamour that defines it today belies its kinky, homespun past. Along with an avalanche of technical and management disasters, early shows featured a panorama of bizarre spectacles as the club sought that perfect balance of audience appeal and hot competition.

One of the stranger spectacles staged for public entertainment took place in 1878, at Westminster’s second show. The first show had confirmed the importance of luring paying spectators. Although it was certainly successful in that regard, the show committee naturally wanted to try a little harder next time.

Along with the gun show, dog auction, and twice daily performances by a troupe of trained Poodles, they decided to stage an impromptu fox hunt on the floor of the Garden. This plan was inspired by an equally impulsive exhibitor’s decision to bench a fox along with his entries. The arena was cleared, the fox placed center stage, and several fine Foxhounds were led in, as the Times reported May 17, 1878. “The moment the hounds caught sight of their natural prey, they struggled madly to get at him, howling so that it seemed as though pandemonium had broken loose. The fox sat looking at them, entirely unconcerned.” Spectator delight matched the frenzied reaction of the Foxhounds, leading to an emergency show committee meeting. “Subsequently, it was determined to shut the doors, let both fox and hounds loose, and have a grand foxhunt.”

Unfortunately, by the time the fox’s owner was informed of this plan, he had traded it for a Harrier pup. The fox, being exempt from benching regulations, had been taken away by its proud new owner.

That unforeseen glitch necessitated another plan to replace the advertised entertainment which the audience was now expecting. A field trial demonstration was announced. The Foxhounds were retired and replaced by “a number of crack Setters and Pointers.” Bundles of straw were tossed about the arena and a pair of quail immediately took cover. “Unfortunately, for the success of the experiment, the ring had neither been cleaned nor disinfected”…moreover, no one realized that four-day-old straw from benches might pose problems. “The odor was consequently so powerful that it quite overbore the scent from the quail.” Dog after dog “was retired in disgrace.”

The committee conceded defeat and began leading the Gundogs offstage, when, as usual, the dogs saved the day. “If unable to point by scent, the dogs showed no lack of ability to do so by sight.” In the end, the audience got their money’s worth. As they were led away, one after another, these birddogs froze. “The poor little quail squatted in the dirt watched by a circle of rigid, quivering dogs; every head thrust forward, every eye bulging with eagerness every muscle set and every tail rigid.” Perhaps it was unscripted, but the Times reported that enthralled Westminster spectators “surrounded the ring gazing breathlessly at the picture, every countenance glistening with delight.”

Westminster long ago dispensed with unplanned spectacles like these. The show may be micromanaged and rigidly scripted, but the crowd reaction hasn’t changed.

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Posted by on Dec 2 2014. Filed under Current Articles, Featured. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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