>On Bulls and Other Beasties

>An interesting article in The New York Times, courtesy of my friend Mr. Thompson, addresses how bullfighting is coming to an end in Barcelona, and indeed throughout Catalonia. I must admit, when I am over there I do watch it on television and am fascinated by it. At the same time there is something horrific about it which I tend not to focus on while watching the dance-like artistry involved.

Some years ago “Honest Dog”, a now-defunct publication edited by Oxford friends, asked me to consider the issue of whether fox hunting should be banned in Britain. I did so in a monthly column I wrote for them entitled “E-mail from America” – a title paying homage to the late Alistair Cooke’s broadcast “Letter from America” on the BBC World Service. As I re-read my thoughts from that time, I find that they have not entirely changed, though in truth I do see the point in banning bullfighting, whatever the reasons behind it – nationalistic or animistic.

For your consideration, I reproduce my previous thoughts on this, and animal hunting in general, below:

*****

Honest Dog Magazine
April 2002
E-mail from America: Hounded
by William Newton

Admittedly there is a war going on, and perhaps most Brits would rather have an “Email from America” explain exactly what it is my country is up to at the moment, getting them involved in another potential imbroglio with Saddam Hussein – with all the obvious Homerian/Wagnerian/George Lucasian associations.

As I have never been one to do what my peers would, given the same situation, I thought it rather more fun to talk about an American perspective on the British practice of hunting with hounds. Certainly the honest-faced dog that is this publication’s mascot warrants that the pursuit for which he was bred at least be considered in the pages of the magazine whose standard bearer he is, before hunting legally (if not in practice) disappears into the annals of British history.

As of this writing, Tony Blair and his MPs have voted to ban hunting with hounds outright, while the Lords voted for a compromise allowing licensed hunts to continue. There are various types of this activity of course, not just the sort involving wearing pink and hearing someone shout “tally ho” while sipping champagne. However, as I am not conversant with the permutations of this practice I shall stick to the former sort described, as the one that most stereotypically reads “British” in this country.

If I as a non-Briton look at foxhunting, I cannot help but be appalled at the odds faced by the fox. Pursued by a pack of dogs trained for the very purpose of killing foxes, followed by human beings on horseback eager to egg on the hounds in the pursuit of their own amusement, the fox is afforded as little real chance of escape as Madonna and Guy taking Rocco and Lourdes for ice cream at McDonald’s on Oxford Street. The fox may try to hide, or use his wits to preserve his life, but there is no joy in a hunt without a dead fox somewhere at the end of it.

The inevitable comparisons and claims of animal cruelty are often made between foxhunting and bullfighting, but here the thinking is different since there is very little chance of the fox killing the rider. The bull is unquestionably goaded into attack, and the spectacle of the fight itself often strikes the first-time observer as some wretched survival of the savagery of the gladiatorial arena. There however the comparisons must end, for unlike in the pursuit of the fox, the bull has a natural physical advantage over the matador which can only be compensated for by the torero’s sword and agility. The transmutation of the bullfight into dance, flamenco, pasodobles, and the like, is no accident; there is a ballet-like quality in the recreation of Theseus’ struggle with the Cretan bull. And while the kill is the usual outcome of the corrida, a bull that fights well and cannot be killed is saved and used to breed other bulls. A matador who kills badly is booed and berated by the crowd, often ruining his chances of ever fighting again.

Here in Pennsylvania the traditional justification for foxhunting rings true, though the circumstances of hunting are different. In the U.K. foxhunting evolved in part from an attempt to control the spread of the animals through the countryside, where they often wrecked havoc on the farms and poultry of the populace. They took over from stag hunting when the population of wild deer became scarce. In my part of the world by contrast, the presence of vast, ancient forests and lakes in relatively gentle mountain ranges alongside growing suburban development means that the natural habitat of deer decreases annually and confrontations between man and nature occur with greater frequency. Deer dart across highways and are hit by cars; they wander into back yards and dig up flowers and shrubs or are attacked by dogs. And with a loss of habitat deer would starve if their numbers were not culled through a controlled, licensed period of deer hunting. Similar outcomes have been predicted for Exmoor, if hunting with hounds is outlawed in England and Wales as it has been in Scotland.

In the cases of both deer hunting and bullfighting, the outcome of the kill is at least more obviously beneficial to man than mere pest control. Deer and bulls are eaten; their body parts from hides to hooves used for various purposes. The fox at best can expect to be fed to the dogs who hunted him once he is dead, perhaps his tail will ornament a trophy case, and the hounds themselves have no higher understanding of themselves because of the event. On some level one would prefer they had extra bowls of kibble. No, the problem with banning foxhunting is that it has little or nothing to do with the ongoing debate about animal rights, and more to do with stripping away the perception of privilege in a place famous for paying excessive attention to it.

It has already been observed by many, including rural police officials, game wardens, and zoologists, that a ban on hunting with hounds is likely both unenforceable and potentially detrimental to native animal populations. So why do it? Politics of course. Beyond the champagne socialist politics there is an inescapable sense, however one feels about the practice of hunting with hounds in itself, that banning the activity in Britain has more to do with taking something away from someone out of spite or jealousy than for the good of the animals affected by this practice. As my grandfather often said about those who decried the existence of the Spanish aristocracy: “No quiere? No puede.”

Traditional rural pursuits where everyone knows their place and is quite content to enjoy what life hands them are an alien threat to urban, cosmopolitan Britain. When you look at the MP’s who voted FOR the ban, the handful from the Tory party were led by Anne Widdecombe. Yipes! Had this been a sincere attempt by both parties to reconcile an emerging sense of legitimate ecological concerns and natural preservation alongside the economic base activities of rural areas, most Americans would still have been somewhat amazed at the ban, but would have understood. The fact that as of this writing things are at an impasse only tells us that you are as politically divided as we are on exactly who you are as a people and where your country is going. And the division, in the US as much as in the UK, can be seen to be between town and country.

What the result of this harsh division of interests may be, as Britain’s affordable urban housing market collapses, immigration legal and otherwise continues to climb, and the gap between traditional ways of life and modern commerce further widens, remain to be seen. Hunting with hounds debacle I suspect, is only a preview of coming attractions.

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