Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

Cruel Sports

by Henry S. Salt

On no subject that affects the attitude of man towards the lower animals is there a more widespread humanitarian feeling than on the question of sport. The vivisection controversy, as might have been expected, has evoked a far stronger and more passionate expression of opinion; but if a poll could be taken, I believe that sport would be condemned by a larger number of persons than could be mustered on any other humanitarian issue. Nor is it difficult to see why sport, at any rate in its more objectionable forms, should be thus widely deprecated. For whereas on other lines there has been a considerable amount of humane progress during the last thirty or forty years, which has taken visible effect in legislation—as, for example, in the rules and restrictions concerning cattle-traffic, knackers’ yards, vivisection, and the general treatment of all animals recognised as “domestic”—there has been no corresponding improvement in the modes and methods of sport. Since the Acts of 1849 and 1854, there has been no further mitigation of our national love of “killing something,” with the exception of such measures as the Wild Birds Protection Act of 1880, an enactment of a close time which was perhaps framed more in the interests of the sportsman than the quarry. Still worse, the Bill for the Abolition of Pigeon-Shooting, which was carried in the House of Commons in 1883—a sure sign of the tendency of popular opinion—was thrown out by the Lords, by which action a specially barbarous form of sport has thus been unduly prolonged. The position is therefore a very peculiar and anomalous one, for while humane feeling has steadily progressed, legislative action has obstinately stood still, and since the prohibition and gradual disuse of bull-baiting, bear-baiting, badger-drawing, cock-fighting, and the cruel sports of our grandfathers, nothing more has been done to satisfy the undoubted growth of humanitarian sympathies. We shake our heads in pious horror at the cruelties perpetrated forty years back, yet we are absolutely powerless to stop present brutalities which are quite as intolerable to humane thinkers now as were bull-baiting and badger-drawing then.

It is my purpose in this paper to speak of immediate practical issues rather than of abstruse ethical problems, of certain cruel sports in particular, and not of the practice of sport in general. But for the sake of consistency and principle, a few words must first be said on the larger and wider subject—the inhumanity of seeking amusement and recreation in the death or torture of sentient and highly organised animals. In a civilised community, where the service of hunter and trapper are no longer required, sport is simply an anachronism, a relic of barbarous savagery which time will gradually obliterate; and already, even among those who defend the practice of vivisection on the ground of its alleged utility, there are many who admit the utter folly and wantonness of thus making a pastime of unnecessary death-dealing. In the words of the Chartist poet, W. J. Linton:

“I know not that we have this absolute right
Over all animal life for human use;
But this I know, the slaying in mere sport
Without or skill or danger, without need,
Moves my abhorrence. I were shamed to own
A nature so ungentle, yes, so base.
A gentle and a manly game, forsooth,
Your amateur butcher’s!”

The fact that “manliness” and “gentleness” are the two qualities assiduously claimed by sportsmen, seems to indicate that sport, or “amateur butchery” as it is more properly called, is not only cruel to the victims of the chase, but ruinous to the mental capacity of the gentlemen who indulge in it. What could be more flagrantly and miserably unmanly than for a crowd of men to sally forth, in perfect security themselves, armed or mounted, with every advantage of power and skill on their side, to do to death with dogs or guns some poor skulking terrified little habitant of woodside or hedgerow! The thing is so utterly despicable—so ludicrously and pitiably mean. It can hardly be doubted that this comical aspect of modern “sport” will more and more force itself on the attention of all persons who are gifted with a saving sense of humour, and that our poverty stricken caricaturists will some day relinquish their immemorial threadbare witticisms over the blunders of the hunting-field and the shooting-box, to discover that the subject of sport is rich in comedy of a hitherto unsuspected kind—the essential silliness of the habit of sport itself, and the amazing absurdity of the arguments used by its apologists.

The sportsman’s claim of manliness is comical enough, but what shall be said of his still more marvellous assumption of humanity? “If we stay fox-hunting,” said the writer of a recent typical article in London paper, “foxes will die far more brutal deaths in cruel vermin-traps, until there are none left to die.” How tender, how considerate, this disinterested regard for the welfare of the animals! It is the merciful sportsman who, to save a noxious species from extermination, has stepped in and “preserved” it, and who now demands in return that the grateful fox shall be content to be hunted and worried and dismembered for the amusement of his gentle benefactor. This humane characteristic of sport may be aptly illustrated by a passage in De Quincey’s grimly humorous essay on Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts, in which he affects to regard murder, as the sportsman regards sport, in the light of an exalting and ennobling profession. “The subject chosen,” says De Quincey, “ought to be in good health, for it is absolutely barbarous to murder a sick person, who is usually quite unable to bear it. And here, in this benign attention to the comfort of sick people, you will observe the usual effect of a fine art to soften and refine the feelings. From our art, as from all the other liberal arts, when thoroughly mastered, the result is to humanise the heart.” Even such is the plea of the “humane sportsman.”

All sport, then, in so far as it implies the destruction of sentient beings for the purpose of mere amusement, must be condemned as quite incompatible with any civilised ethic. “Sport is horrible,” says Lady Florence Dixie.1 “I say it advisedly. I speak with the matured experience of one who has seen and taken part in sport of many and varied kinds in many and varied parts of the world.” But as there are gradations of inhumanity in sport, as in all other cruel practices, and as humane reform, like all other reform, can only come by instalments, it is of great importance to show how a practical step may be immediately taken, without attempting to solve the further questions which only a more educated public opinion can decide. And this brings us to the main subject of the present paper—that particular class of “cruel sports” where legislation has too long been delayed.

It so happens that the distinguishing feature of these practices is quite clear and unmistakable. By far the meanest, most cruel, and most demoralising forms of sport at present tolerated by the law, are those which consist in the shooting, hunting, or baiting of certain so-called “wild” animals, which are not pursued or killed in a true state of nature, but are first captured and confined in some cage or enclosure in order that they may be afterwards turned out and worried for the amusement of the assembled “sportsmen.” Pigeon-shooting, together with all kinds of trap-shooting, is a well-known example of this debasing class of pastime, and, as was shown by the division-list of the House of Commons as long ago as 1883, is viewed with strong public disapproval. “The offence made punishable,” said Lord Balfour, when he introduced in the House of Lords the measure for the prohibition of pigeon-shooting, “was not the shooting at a bird, but the shooting at a bird out of a trap or other contrivance. There was a marked difference between confining a bird in a trap for the purpose of shooting at it, and seeking it in a wild state.”

Again, take the case of rabbit-coursing, that common half-holiday amusement of colliers and other working men. The cruelty is admitted by every one who has witnessed the scenes to be horrible.

“The rabbits, often half-starved and with their legs broken, are huddled together in a sack, with no more consideration than if they are so many bundles of wood, brought on to the course, and turned loose to be chased by greyhounds and other dogs. Often they are dangled before the noses of the dogs so as to give them the scent. Seldom do the dogs kill them outright. Sometimes their legs and ears are bitten, their skin torn away, and even their bowels torn out. Sometimes, too, the starter or referee will poke out an eye with his finger or stick a pin in it, so as to blind the animal on one side and cause it to run towards the side of the dog which the bookmaker wishes to win.”2 Numerous other testimonies might be cited to corroborate this account. The Vicar of Cardiff, not many months ago, wrote in the columns of the South Wales Daily News, on the subject of rabbit-coursing, that “it is utterly impossible to exaggerate the hideous details.”

Stag-hunting, in all cases where the stag is taken from a park or paddock, disantlered, carted to the “meet,” and turned out to be mobbed and worried in a strange country (often in a semi-urban district where barbed wire fences and other death-traps abound) must be classed in the same dismal category as rabbit-coursing and trap-shooting. It is, as Mr. Frederic Harrison recently described it, a “disgusting tomfoolery.” I need not waste words on proving the utter brutality of this sport, for even sportsmen themselves are beginning to be ashamed of it. “If we look at this fiction of chase,” said the Field (September 3, 1892), “from an unprejudiced standpoint, we must admit that it is only prescription and usage which enable us to retain it in our sporting schedule, and to tolerate it as legitimate. Strictly speaking, it stands on the same footing as bull or bear baiting, both of which have had to go to the wall under the influence of what is called the march of civilisation. . . . . Nothing but the prescription and ægis of royal patronage has saved it from being consigned to limbo, like bull-baiting and bear-baiting. If any one in the present day were to capture badgers, aniseed them, and turn them out in the open, with five minutes’ start of a scratch pack of terriers, we fear there would be a fearful outcry in much of the press against the depravity and cruelty of such a pastime; and yet the badger could take better care of himself, when brought to bay with his back in a quickset hedge, than can the dishorned buck of modern stag-hunting, that ‘soils’ in a river or shelters in a cowshed; and the badger is more wild in nature than the park-reared deer.”

There is not the least doubt that public opinion, while as yet divided on the question of field-sports in general, strongly reprobates the barbarous practices above mentioned, and favours their speedy repression. But the existing law is utterly powerless to repress them, and for this reason, that the protection accorded by the Acts of 1849 and 1854 includes none but domestic animals, so that the carted stag, the bagged rabbit, and the caged pigeon, being legally regarded as ferœ naturœ, may be shot, or hunted, or torn to pieces, or even burnt alive, with impunity. Let me give two typical instances. In 1877 a prosecution was instituted by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in a case where a hind had been worried for more than an hour and fearfully mutilated by the hounds. The most ample evidence was available, and the skin of the animal (which may been to this day at the office in Jermyn Street) was to be produced by the Society’s officers; but it was all to no purpose—the magistrates dismissed the case on the ground that a stag is a wild animal and outside the pale of the law.

So, too, as regards the coursing of rabbits. In a case tried at Tynemouth, in December 1892, the magistrates were fully satisfied with the evidence adduced as to the ill-treatment and cruelty, but they were compelled reluctantly to dismiss the summons on account of the “wildness” of the rabbits, although the unfortunate animals had been five or six days in captivity before they were turned out! An appeal was carried to the Court of Queen’s Bench, but this was dismissed by the judges with an emphatic statement that the appellants had no legal ground for their contention.

It is perfectly evident, then, that unless the grossest cruelties under the name of “sport” are to be permitted to continue unchecked, there is need of further restrictive legislation, and that the object of such legislation must be to afford protection to those animals which though at present nominally ferœ naturœ, are practically in a state of captivity and dependence on man. The Home Secretary has expressed himself as personally in favour of some such humane reform, for in replying to Colonel Coulson in September 1892, on the cruelties of rabbit-coursing, he wrote that “he would be glad to see the law strengthened so as to deal with the subject, but that experience shows that there are great difficulties in the way of legislating at once effectively and impartially against the more brutal development of sport.” The word impartially contains the gist of the whole matter. Rabbit-coursing, pigeon-shooting, and stag-hunting, together with all similar recreations, have this one common characteristic with differentiates them from ordinary forms of sport. They deal with a captured animal, and not a bonâ fide wild one; and therefore, whether regarded from an ethical or legal standpoint, they ought to stand or fall in unison. It is impossible to demand that the working-man’s amusement, however brutal it may be, shall be suppressed by laws, without at the same time demanding the suppression of the corresponding aristocratic practices of stag-hunting and pigeon-shooting. These are no doubt the “difficulties” to which Mr. Asquith alludes, and very real difficulties they are.

For the question is further complicated by the awkward fact that, among the ten or twelve tame-stag-hunting establishments which exist in this country, there is one—the Royal Buckhounds—which is carried on in the Queen’s name and sanctioned and subsidised by the state. Undoubtedly, therefore, it would try the ingenuity of the astutest politician to legislate “effectively and impartially” against the brutalities of rabbit-coursing; for it would be necessary either to prohibit rabbit-coursing only, and so incur the just reproach of attacking the poor man’s sport while tolerating that of the rich, or to prohibit stag-hunting also, in which case the proceedings of the Royal Hunt would be made punishable by law! This dead-lock is clearly indicated in a letter recently addressed to the Home Secretary by the Committee of the Humanitarian League: “The existence of the Royal Hunt as a national institution immensely increases the difficulty of all humane legislation. It cannot be wondered at that working-men, when taxed with the cruelty of rabbit-coursing, should refer to stag-hunting as affording them at least a comparative justification. FOLLOWERS OF HER MAJESTY’S BUCKHOUNDS AND OTHERS, was the heading of an advertisement issued a few months ago by a provincial Terrier Coursing Club, on an occasion when a plentiful supply of rabbits was ostentatiously guaranteed. It would be difficult to imagine a more significant comment on the demoralising influences of the Royal Sport.”

It is for this reason, and not because stag-hunting is of itself more cruel or demoralising than several other kinds of sport, that the Humanitarian League has been agitating since 1891 for the protest which had previously been raised only in an occasional and desultory manner, has brought the movement to the verge of a successful issue. At the time of writing, the Government’s decision still unknown; but whatever the immediate decision may be, it is not probable that so decayed an institute as the Royal Hunt, disliked as it is by the Queen herself (this we know on unquestionable authority), disliked by public opinion—disliked, in fact, by everybody except those who profit by it—will survive many more seasons of unremitting exposure and criticism. I can assure Lord Ribblesdale and his sporting coadjutors, those modern Sir Galahads who (to quote Mr. Edmund Tattersall’s delightful expression) “ride to save the deer for another day,” that their chivalrous deeds will no longer be done in the dark, but that henceforth they will enjoy the constant attention of a growing public indignation.3

A possible temporary compromise may be found in Lady Florence Dixie’s ingenious suggestion that the Royal Stag-hounds be converted to the Royal Drag-hounds. From a purely humanitarian point of view, there could, of course, be no objection to this arrangement; but, although the cruelty to the stags would be thus avoided, it is scarcely likely that the nation will for any length of time be willing to pay a large annual sum for a Royal Drag-hunt, which would exist simply for the pleasure of some idle gentlemen and the profit of some Berkshire traders. There is not the remotest chance that any such items of expenditure will find their way into a new Civil List at the commencement of a new reign.

Let me return for a moment to the question of the legislative prohibition of certain cruel sports. The Home Secretary, in his correspondence with the Humanitarian League, expressed his willingness to consider carefully any practical suggestions with a view to legislation, and a short Bill has accordingly been drafted with the object of extending the protection of the existing Acts to those animals which, if not actually domesticated, have at least been taken from a wild into a captive condition, or even (as in the case of the Ascot stags) bred and reared in captivity. The simplest method of effecting this result appears to be to extend the definition of words domestic animal so as to include the stag turned out from a cart, the rabbit from a sack, or the pigeon from a cage; and the Bill is therefore framed on those lines. I subjoin an epitome of it, from which the parliamentary jargon has been for the most part eliminated, so that I trust it may be intelligible to my readers.

A BILL to amend the Acts (12 & 13 Vic. cap. 92 and 17 & 18 Vic. cap. 60) for the more effectual Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

WHEREAS it is enacted (12 & 13 Vic. cap. 92, section ii.), That if any person shall cruelly beat, ill-treat, over-drive, abuse, or torture, or cause or procure to be cruelly beaten, ill-treated, over-driven, abused, or tortured any animal, every such offender shall for every such offence forfeit and pay a penalty not exceeding five pounds:

And where it is further enacted (17 & 18 Vic. cap. 60, section iii.), That the word animal shall in the said Acts mean any domestic animal of any kind of species whatever, and whether a quadruped or not: And whereas the said provision in the last-named Act has failed to effect the sufficient prevention of cruelty in the case of certain cruel sports and amusements:

Be it enacted that the words domestic animal shall in the said Acts and in this Act be taken to mean and include any stag, deer, hare, rabbit, fox, otter, pigeon, or any animal of any other kind or species whatever, whether a quadruped or not, which has been captured and kept in confinement in any paddock, stable, cage, or other enclosure, and thereby removed from a veritable state of wild nature; and it shall be an offence against the aforesaid Acts to turn out any such animal from or in any paddock, stable, cage, or other enclosure, for the purpose of hunting, shooting, baiting, or in any way worrying and abusing the same for sport or amusement.

Nothing short of a measure of this kind will properly meet the requirements of the present position—a position which, as I showed at the outset, is logically and practically untenable, inasmuch as the private moral feeling of the community has for the past forty years been steadily outstripping the public enactments of the law. The legal condemnation of those particular cruel sports to which I have directed attention would for a time satisfy the just demands of humanitarian reformers, and would bring the Prevention of Cruelty Acts of 1849 and 1854 into a line with modern sentiment. If our opponents insist on denouncing this proposed legislation as “the thin end of the wedge,” and on sounding the tocsin for a general rally of the sporting brotherhood, that is their own affair; but the public are not likely to be hoodwinked by this very transparent manœuvre. For every instalment of social reform is, in a sense, the thin end of the wedge, the principle of reform itself being progressive and continuous, and there being no point at which finality can be justly demanded by one party or honestly promised by the other. No sensible reformer will desire that human legislation should precede the existence of a strong public opinion; but we assert that in the present instance this condition has already been fulfilled, and that further legislative action has long been overdue. For the rest of the matter, those more genuine sportsmen who (to their credit, so far as it goes) hunt or shoot in the open, instead of trapping their quarry before they maul it, must look ahead and set their houses in order. They will not ultimately strengthen their own position by “retaining on their sporting schedule” (to repeat the words of the Field) such forms of sport as can only be tolerated by the influence of “prescription and usage.”

The new humanitarian and democratic feeling of the present time is a growth with sportsmen, like all other predatory classes, have yet to reckon with; for it is altogether a different thing from the old-fashioned “philanthropy,” or “kindness to animals,” as the case might be, which is now intellectually, if not externally, on the wane. The older humanitarianism was, and is, a somewhat conservative, orthodox, and pietistic form of benevolence, which regarded the objects of its compassion, whether “the lower orders” or “the lower animals,” with a merciful and charitable eye, but from a rather superior standpoint of irreproachable respectability. It lopped assiduously at the branches of the tree of human suffering, but had no real insight into the underlying economic causes which are at the root of that suffering. It condemned the ill-usage of animals, and in particular vivisection, as cruel and inhuman, but it did not even consider the vast ethical vistas opened out by the new phase into which the animal question, no less than the human social question, has been carried by the new democratic ideal and the discoveries of evolutionary science. It still believes that poverty is a heaven-ordained evil, which may be mitigated, but not eliminated from society; and that there is a great gulf fixed between the dominant human race and the so-called “brutes,” which were created for the use, “but not the abuse” (it is careful to add), of man. In a word, the older humanitarianism is a survival of a kindly, benevolent, but utterly unscientific mode of thought, which is as certainly doomed to be presently superseded and extinguished, as is, for example, the Manchester school of laisser-faire politicians.

The new humanitarianism, on the other hand, see clearly that the day of the beneficent “Superior Person” is past, and further, that specific practices of tyranny and cruelty can only be successfully combated on the ground of a broad democratic sentiment of universal time-honoured idea of a hard-and-fast line of demarcation between white man and black man, rich man and poor man, educated man and uneducated man, good men and bad men. Equally impossible to maintain, in that light of newer knowledge, is the idea that there is a difference in kind, and not in degree only, between human and non-human intelligence. Democracy has become a necessary and essential element in every vital philanthropic spirit that animals have a chance of obtaining their due share of that immunity from tyrannical ill-treatment for which even men have so long struggled in vain.

Meantime the legal prohibition of the more brutal forms of sport is a small but absolutely indispensable step in the course of progressive civilisation.

1 The Horrors of Sport; Humanitarian League Publications, No. 4. 1892.
2 Rabbit-Coursing: an Appeal to Working Men. By Dr. R. H. Jude.
3 A memorial asking for the discontinuance of the Royal Hunt has just been presented to Mr. Gladstone. It has received representative signatures of the most varied kinds, including those of the Lord Chief Justice, Frederic Harrison, Dr. Newman Hall, Dr. J. Clifford, William Morris, Professor F. W. Newman, the Assistant Bishop of Peterborough, Canon Scott Holland, the President of the Secular Society, John Burns, Walter Crane, the Hon. Auberon Herbert, W. M. Rossetti, & c.

Published: Westminster Review, 1892