In the woods near Walterboro, Jason Finley was using a global positioning system to find his lost hunting beagle “Meatball.”
As the chase wound down, Finley was within 100 yards of the 12-year-old pet when he heard two blasts ring out.
Moments later, he found Meatball shot dead.
To Finley, the act was senseless and cruel. It also put to use a relatively new South Carolina hunting law meant to protect dogs, like Meatball, caught up in an age-old feud between rival human hunters.
In 2010, South Carolina lawmakers, frustrated by reports of hunting dogs intentionally being shot in the wild, passed the Renegade Hunter Act. Among other things, it made it illegal to shoot hunting dogs wandering on lands where they aren’t supposed to be.
It was drafted, in part, to head off what has been an ever-growing conflict between two sometimes rival sets of hunters — those who prefer using dogs to flush their prey, and “still hunters” who prefer stationary positions, such as perched high up in a tree stand.
A leading contributor to the feud in recent times, Department of Natural Resources law enforcement Capt. Gentry Thames said, is the shrinking number of available wilderness acres for both factions to use.
“It’s competition for space,” Thames said as he related stories of dogs not returning from hunts, or just their collars being found. Various Internet discussions of the debate have carried on as well, with opponents saying the dogs get hyped up, spoiling the atmosphere for other hunters and going after other animals.
Meatball’s killing was documented Dec. 1 in a Colleton County Sheriff’s Department incident report. Finley said he had been in the woods hunting with about six of his dogs when three of them, Meatball and two pups, ran off near the end of the day.
The three hounds reportedly had left the boundary of one hunting property where dog running was allowed, and crossed the road onto another hunt property where hunting dogs weren’t supposed to be.
Finley, a James Island resident who said he is a member of both hunting club sites, was attempting to find Meatball via a GPS unit linked to one of three collars the dog was wearing that day.
“Shortly after, he located his dog dead from a gunshot wound,” the sheriff’s department incident report said. It also said the alleged shooter was found nearby.
“The victim located the suspect, who advised that he thought it was a stray dog on the hunting grounds,” the incident report states. “That is why he shot the dog,” it also reads.
Ticketed in the shooting was Brian C. Sobolewski, 42, of Jacksonville, Fla. He was cited by DNR with a violation of the “Renegade Hunter Law” and released.
Last month, Sobolewski was found guilty by a Colleton County magistrate in his absence, giving up his $470 bond as a fine. He did not appear at the hearing, but reportedly will lose his hunting privileges in the state for a year.
Reached by phone in Florida, Sobolewski’s office referred questions to his attorney, who last week said he will ask the case be reopened and reheard.
Attorney Frank Keasler said Sobolewski did not violate the law, and that he had permission to shoot stray dogs on the property. Keasler described his client as an accomplished outdoorsman of high skill, and that Sobolewski was told that the club owners were trying to fight off an infestation of wild dogs. He had permission to cull, Keasler said.
“He thought it was a wild dog,” said Keasler, adding that Sobolewski wants to protect his good name as a hunter. “He knows the rules of the road,” he said.
Finley’s attorney, John Thomas Thompson of Charleston, doesn’t buy that Meatball could be mistaken for a wild dog, given that he was wearing three collars that day, something Finley noted to authorities at the time of the shooting.
“As a deer hunter, I’ve long recognized the conflict between still hunters and dog hunters, but what happened here is immoral, illegal and unacceptable,” Thompson said in a statement last week. He added that the incident is what the Renegade Hunter Act was meant to avoid.
One section of the law states “a dog that has entered upon the land of another without permission (being) given to the person in control of the dog shall not be killed, maimed, or otherwise harmed simply because the dog has entered upon the land.”
Anyone caught violating the section faces a fine of not more than $500 or imprisonment for not more than 30 days.
Thompson said he is exploring a civil court response to the shooting, but has not yet calculated a potential financial figure covering the loss of a trained hunting dog, years of food and veterinary bills and the “loss of affection” of a family pet.
One month after the shooting, Finley said he still can’t see the sense of anyone intentionally firing at something in the woods that isn’t considered legal wilderness game.
“He was just a good old dog,” Finley said of Meatball. “He didn’t bother nobody. He didn’t bark. There was just no reason.”
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.