The various methods of taking the lives of animals may be divided into two classes. First, the slaughter of animals for actual use or by reason of actual necessity. This is done by professional slaughterers, such as hunters, game-killers, vermin-catchers, butchers, fishermen, and all who kill animals, that they may themselves live. The second class will comprise that amateur slaughtering of animals, the object of which is the excitement thereby gained, rather than any actual need; though in any case the animals would probably be killed.
It is of this second class only that we have now to speak, for it is in this class only that ‘Sport’ can be placed, and here we find the true meaning of the name ‘Sport’ is the excitement derived from the conquest and acquisition of animals, and especially from the fact that their life is at stake. To illustrate the truth of the definition, let us now consider some of the chief ‘field sports.’ Firstly, in the case of shooting and fishing, we find that the sportsman has as his primary and immediate object the slaughter or capture of the animal pursued. But why is it that English gentlemen devote so much time, labour, and expense to an object which could be equally well effected by paid game-killers or fishermen? Why not leave the deer to be stalked by butchers, the partridges to be shot by poulterers, and the salmon to be netted by fishmongers? And here we see the very soul and essence of ‘Sport.’ The capture or killing of the animal would in itself be uninteresting enough, did not its danger and its struggles to escape give a zest to the proceedings. It is in uncertainty of the affair that the sportsman finds his pleasure. An ox brought to the slaughter-house can hardly be said to be in danger of death, for his death is already certain, and the butcher has none of the feelings of a sportsman. But were the ox, by some happy accident, to escape into the street, and were the butcher to pursue at full speed, then we should at once have, for the time being, a perfect example of ‘Sport.’
But there is another and more pleasing element which contributes to the popularity of field sports, and that is the skill of the sportsman. Those who practice fishing and shooting of course acquire greater dexterity of hand and quickness of eye; and the greater the skill of the sportsman, the greater the pleasure he derives from the sport. Thus a certain dignity is lent to what would otherwise be obviously brutal and degrading. When sk ill and exertion are joined to excitement, a sense of manliness is produced, and the sense of cruelty is partially forgotten. The present age, though barbarous enough in many ways, is not an age of sheer and simple cruelty. Bear-baiting and cock-fighting are no longer tolerated; for in these the danger of the animal is the sole source of delight: the sportsman has no means of showing his skill; the quarry has no hope of escape: it is not ‘sport’ according to the present meaning of the word. For the same reason an outcry is now being raised among sportsmen against the palpable cruelties of pigeon-shooting, and the indiscriminate slaughter of pheasants in the modern battue.
We now come to the most famous of all our national sports, Hunting. It may seem somewhat treasonable to speak against this amusement, which is looked upon almost as a sacred duty by most of our country gentlemen, and is undoubtedly very popular among the vast majority of Englishmen; nevertheless I must give it as my decided opinion that it is by far the most cruel of all our field sports, and one that will be looked back on with detestation by a future age. In the case of shooting and fishing there is at least this excuse, that the animals killed are supposed to be useful for eating. But in the case of hunting it is widely different. Foxes are not only useless in themselves, but a cause of constant expense and trouble to farmers, so that in a civilized country it would be desirable to exterminate them altogether. But this the huntsman will now allow, and woe betide the audacious farmer who ventures to shoot a fox! The fox was evidently destined by divine providence for this special purpose, to provide ‘sport’ for true-born Englishmen, and the essence of the ‘noble sport’ is, as we before remarked, the danger of the fox, the agonizing uncertainty between life and death, which inspires the minds of the pursuers with a pleasant excitement, dignified by the skill and exertion of the pursuit. It may seem mawkish and sentimental to condition so popular a sport, but I venture to assert that it is thoroughly cruel and degrading, a sign of the brutality not of individual huntsmen but of the age in which we live. Those who approve of hunting on the grounds that it contributes to the manliness of the national character, have still to show that men are justified in putting animals to a cruel death for the sake of such manliness, which might, undoubtedly, be equally well acquired by other means.
The sport of bull-fighting, if introduced into England, would no doubt increase the activity and agility of those engaged in it, yet even the dullest country gentlemen would protest against so detestable a custom. Nothing but inveterate prejudice prevents them seeing that hunting can only be justified on the same grounds as bull-fighting, viz:—that the lower animals are wholly given over to man, for life or death, tortured or preservation. And if we may kill foxes by running them to death, why should we not kill dogs by the process of vivisection? The idea that the ‘sport’ is justified by the labour of the pursuer, and the possible escape of the pursued, is after all the purest fallacy. It could be no consolation to the fox to know that his tormentor is out of breath, and all that he can gain from the possibility of escape, is an agonizing uncertainty far worse than death itself.
For these reasons we consider ‘field sports,’ and especially fox-hunting, to be cruel and barbarous. The root of all the evil is the belief that animals are ‘beasts that perish,’ and that they are therefore to be regarded as the mere possession of man. On no other supposition can field sports be justified; and as we recognize the fact that animals share the same nature as ourselves, in exact proportion we shall treat them kindly and with gentleness. As civilization increases, cruelty must die out.
Nor need we ever fear that the vigour of our national character must stand or fall with our field sports. Instead of thus degrading themselves by the slaughter of birds, beasts and fish, our youths can always devote their spare time to riding, driving, cricket, rowing, and the like, and to the truly ‘noble’ sports of the playing ground and gymnasium.
The Food Reform Magazine, Vol. 2 No. 4, April-June 1883