by H. S. Salt
On the 9th of May last the House of Lords discussed and rejected a bill which practically aimed at the direct abolition of pigeon shooting, though introduced under the circuitous title of the “Cruelty to Animals Act Amendment Bill.” The arguments of those who supported the measure were directed chiefly to show that there is something peculiarly base and demoralising in pigeon shooting, which distinguishes it from other sport; while their antagonists contended that there is no real distinction between this and other kinds of sport, and that the proposed legislation is merely the thin end of the wedge which would finally destroy the immemorial resource and recreation of true-born Englishmen. “If it was cruel,” said the Earl of Redesdale, “to shoot at a pigeon with intent to kill it, so it was cruel to shoot at partridges and pheasants.”
Now no humanitarian will be likely to desire the prolongation of pigeon-shooting merely because it is no worse than other shooting: by all means let the thin end of the wedge be inserted, if the butt end cannot be used for a single crushing blow. But it must be admitted that, from a logical standpoint, Lord Redesdale, and those who voted with him, had decidedly the better of their inconsistent though well-meaning opponents. The fact is that all sport is essentially the same in principle, and one cannot logically and rationally condemn one branch of it, without condemning it as a whole. Nothing could have been more feeble than the well-meant argument of the Archbishop of Canterbury, that this particular sport of pigeon-shooting “did not belong to those sports which were so dear to Englishmen, but to a class of sport which was passing out of use,—that of preying on the sufferings of confined animals.” For first, it may be pertinently enquired, how is it more cruel to prey on the sufferings of a confined than an unconfined animal? And secondly, even if we admit that it is more cruel, did not the Archbishop himself perpetrate the very same enormity though not under the name of sport, when he dined that same evening, and preyed on the sufferings of some confined ox or sheep which had suffered at Deptford that he might feast at Lambeth? I think it will be found by anyone who thoroughly considers the matter, that it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to find a logical standpoint for condemning the cruelty of any particular branch of slaughter as distinct from the rest; if we wish to be consistent, they must all stand or fall together.
The essence of so-called “sport” consists in the excitement derived from the pursuit and killing of animals. It seems that there are two warring instincts in men’s minds; one, the brutal passion, which prompts them to pursue and slaughter innocent and helpless creatures, a passion which, unfortunately, has been so strengthened by centuries of habit, that in some persons it is engrafted like a second nature; the other, the gentler and surely not less natural feeling, which bids us pity, sympathize, and save. I believe that this latter instinct is destined eventually to triumph over the former, and its triumph would be the speedier, were it not that certain attendant circumstances combine to throw a fictitious charm over our national field-sports, and so prevent us from realizing the great cruelty that underlies them. In hunting, for instance, that most popular of all field-sports, the pleasant surroundings, the excitement of the “meet,” the beauty of the country, the strength and speed of the horses, and the skill of their riders, make men forget the nature of the detestably barbarous and unmanly business for which they are met. Well does Sir Thomas More exclude hunting from the pleasures of his model people in “Utopia.” “Nor can they comprehend,” he says, “the pleasure of seeing dogs run after a hare more than of seeing one dog run after another; for if the seeing them run is that which gives the pleasure, you have the same entertainment to the eye on both these occasions, since that is the same in both cases; but if the pleasure lies in seeing the hare killed and torn by the dogs, this ought rather to stir pity, that a weak, harmless, and fearful hare should be devoured by strong, fierce, and cruel dogs.” Such a sight ought, indeed, to stir pity and indignation; but thoughtlessness and custom can do much to banish these emotions from our minds.
Again, in the case of shooting and fishing, it is strange that English “gentlemen” should love to do the work which should be done (if done at all) by the butcher and fishmonger. Here too, as in hunting, the skill of the sportsman lends to the sport a seeming charm, which it would not otherwise possess. Yet the essential point of the sport does not lie in this exercise of skill, but in the fact that the animal’s life is at stake; sport is none the less sport when enjoyed by the poor man, who clumsily “pots” a black-bird, than by a noble lord, who dexterously brings down a snipe or woodcock. However brutal and degrading a habit may be, there is sure to be no lack of skill in carrying it into effect, when it once becomes systematized and established as a regular practice; but it is absurd in the highest degree to argue that because there is such skill, the habit itself is justifiable. We read in French history that during the Hugenot and Catholic wars, when there were savage reprisals on both sides, the young nobles had become so accustomed to bloodshed, that they made a fashion of ferocity, and practised graceful ways of striking a death-blow! One can imagine how indignantly these young warriors would have repelled the notion that they were common murderers, and have shown (by an argument exactly similar to that of our modern sportsmen) that they slaughtered their victims not for the sake of killing them, but for the pleasure of graceful swordmanship.
The excuses offered by sportsmen, in justification or palliation of their pursuit, are indeed so remarkable, and occasionally so ingenious, as to deserve special attention. We are often reminded by the writers in Land and Water, and other sporting journals, that field-sports are “national,” and hence it is concluded that they are praiseworthy; it being conveniently ignored or forgotten that there are such things as national errors, as well as national virtues, and that the error of a nation is even more calamitous than the error of an individual. Another amusing justification of sport is that the animal has “a chance of escape,” and therefore there is no cruelty; as if an agonizing uncertainty were better than a speedy and merciful death! Again, it is often asserted that shooting, fishing, &c., must have a beneficial effect on the sportsman, because they bring him into contact with nature among the woods and streams. It is not to be doubted that the contact with nature must in itself be beneficial; but could it not be obtained without the slaughter of birds and fish? and can those men be true and perfect lovers of nature who frequent her paths only that they may deal death and destruction among her harmless children? The dynamiters who cross the Atlantic to blow up an English town, might on this principle justify the object of their journey by the assertion that the sea-voyage brought them in contact with the exalting and ennobling influences of the Atlantic.
But the crowning absurdity of the sportsman’s arguments, an absurdity which beats any of the fallacies to be found in Sydney Smith’s “Noodle’s Oration,” is the wonderful, the unparalleled assertion that sport lends to the character a special kind of gentleness and humanity! The true sportsman, like the true soldier, is never cruel. He is merciful, chivalrous, thoughtful, tender-hearted, sympathetic. These qualities are the result of the practice of sport. They are not (as might at first sight have been imagined) acquired by butchers, for the butcher’s trade is not “sport;” they are the glorious possession of those unselfish individuals who devote a life-time to hunting, shooting, and fishing. I have several times heard this plea gravely advanced as a justification of field sports, so it may be worth while to point out (with apologies to my readers for an apparent insult to their reasoning abilities) that it is not much credit to a sportsman, who systematically commits the cruelty of taking away harmless lives for his own idle recreation, to be able to urge in self-defence that he does not needlessly torture his victims. Possibly not; but what then? At best, this limitation shows that a sportsman is not quite such a ruffian as he might be. It is difficult to be serious in refuting such arrant and disingenuous nonsense, so I will conclude with a short quotation from one o£ De Quincey’s best known books, his essay on “Murder, considered as one of the Fine Arts.” In this essay he humourously treats of murder—much as the sportsman affects to regard sport—as an honourable profession, giving scope to the highest art and dexterity of handiwork, ennobling the character of those who practise it. I recommend the careful study of the following passage to those who believe in the exalting influences of sport.
“The subject chosen [i.e., for the murderer to operate on] 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.”
Mutatis mutandis, we have here the very words of the advocates of sport. The humanity of the sportsman is, we suspect, closely akin to that of Tom Tulliver, whom George Eliot describes in the Mill on the Floss as “a young gentleman fond of animals—fond, that is, of throwing stones a:t them.”
There can be little doubt that the chief strength of sport lies, not in the ridiculous arguments often put forward by its votaries, but in the fact that the institution of the slaughter-house is still regarded by a vast majority of people as necessary and indispensable. There is, of course, a difference between killing animals for food, and that amateur slaughtering which is dignified with the title of sport; the former may conceivably be justifiable, the latter can never be so. But still there is so much similarity between the two, that it is almost impossible to get people to think of them separately. “If they were called upon to put an end to pigeon-shooting,” said Earl Fortescue in the debate in the House of Lords, before alluded to, “they might next be called upon to put an end to the slaughter of live stock.” They might, indeed. Those who detest cruelty will not cease to call for its abolition, in whatever form it may manifest itself. Sport is perhaps the most silly and vulgar of all forms of cruelty; but we must not be surprised if it lingers on until men have learnt the folly and brutality of slaughtering animals for food. As long as animals are regarded as merely “the beasts that perish,” there will be all sorts of cruelty in the way they are treated by men.
Published: The Food Reform Magazine, Vol. IV No. 1, July-September 1884