The Unventilated Alternatives to Foxhunting

Just weeks after the boxing day foxhunting traditions riled up the anti-hunt lobby – and at a time when celebrities like Ricky Gervais are weighing in on the foxhunting debate – I am reminded of a video that surfaced last year courtesy of The League Against Cruel Sports (LACS).

This anti-foxhunting propaganda titled ‘What if it was you?’ tries to elucidate the perspective of a hunted fox by showing a red-headed woman running  for her life in the ominous presence of an imposing, off-camera threat that later materialises into the raucous noise of a pack of hounds. Such a depiction is abjectly deplorable in its cheap prod to empathy, anthropomorphic hideousness, and  scientifically-grounded irrelevance to the foxhunting discourse. Expert vets repudiate the notion of terror and fear that the video depicts in one clean, irrefutable swipe of scientific reason. Comparative neuroscience and psychology have demonstrated that wild animals lack the complexity in their mental functions to experience fear, much less harbour a concept of death, in the same way you and I do. LACS don’t simply ignore this fact but put forward the antithesis as deserving real consideration; they paint the picture of a helpless creature who is even less equanimous than we might aspire to be in such a situation, and in doing so employ a mindless ignorance for a substantial body of important scientific research.

It might strike a devastating blow to us personally, to imagine being chased and hunted, because generally when we leave our homes we don’t have to be mindful of such threats. But when a fox ventures from its den, or any wild animal exposes itself to the unforgiving pulse of mother nature, it is in a genetically codified state of perpetual alertness. It’s evolutionarily hard-wired to try and escape death. The way this video tries to conflate survival instinct with extreme fear is a detestable means of pandering to the existing biases of the uneducated anti-hunting lobby. When videos like this gain so much support through odious disinformation, they risk muddying what is a serious debate that affects the genuine suffering of animals. LACS should have more integrity than to employ these tactics for political influence, but their track-record proves wishful thinking a futile practice.

The often cited omission in the anti-hunting rhetoric is any serious consideration of the alternatives to foxhunting; one often hears arguments against the barbarism of foxhunting but rarely a substantive argument for its practiced replacements. LACS themselves have agreed that there is a genuine necessity for population control, but naively believe that the hunting legislature accommodates this need sufficiently. So consider for a moment what a video might look like if it portrayed those methods that have replaced hunting. Forget the purported psychological toils of being chased and envisage the same women in the LACS video – the same red coated fox-proxy – innocently exploring outside, striding gleefully when she is suddenly shot. Perhaps, through the panic of fearing for her life, she is able to seek cover, but all her attempts to survive, all the will for consciousness she can muster, merely elongates her suffering as she wrestles futilely with inevitable death. I need not elaborate on the corollary terrors of being trapped, poisoned or snared; I trust you can imagine the horror for yourself. It is still somewhat unconscionable to anthropomorphise in this way, but if LACS can get away with it, we should be permitted to meet them on their own level and entertain the same demagoguery – at least with something as unnatural as being shot, the reality for human and fox is altogether more compatible.

I’d ask anyone swayed by this video to consider the real-life alternatives to hunting – not just in this manner but in the genuine context as experienced by real quarry species – as the science in this area pushes us to some important conclusions.  Imagine the strains felt by a fox who is trapped, for example. Animals experience actual fear when subjected to foreign environments and unnatural uncertainties. Being incarcerated in a cage through the night, or subjected to transport and relocation, especially when wounded, is what actually causes extreme distress. They are much calmer and comfortable in their everyday habitat; running from a predator is not so alien and thus a much less terrorising  experience. This brings us to the necessary discrimination of natural selection. Wildlife management is not about the number of pests or predators killed, it’s about the health and vigour of the remaining populous – nothing is more receptive to the weak and slow than specially trained hounds. This is such an integral point, seemingly ignored in the anti-hunting discourse, so you’ll forgive the inability to exercise any brevity.

Picture the scene: a poor fox has caught mange, or has wounded itself on a fence, or both; crippled, disabled and on its way to starvation it rests underground. I say rests, the sad reality is it suffers. A trained terrier comes along, digs away and flushes out this fox that bolts with a purpose, still ingrained with a sharp survival instinct in its increasingly listless state. It is not chased in terror and fear until it gives up overwhelmed and exhausted – it is simply doing what it and everyone of its ancestors has done in the wild since green pastures first blossomed with fauna. Now under the current 2004 Hunting Act that several thousand people have signed a petition to continue enforcing – the hound’s owner is legally bound to shoot this fleeing fox. It is highly likely that this fox is to be further wounded, further condemned to suffering, punctured in the midriff or pierced mid-thorax, its misery compounded. OR the fox could be relieved of its pains by a highly trained hound who applies a force to the neck in the swiftest motion of certainty, no wound to seep and ache, not a moment more of insufferable agony. If you have any doubts about how humane this method is take it from the experts at the The Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management who explain that shooting can only be as certain as death by hounds “when a close or point blank shot is applied directly to the cranium.”

Nothing could possibly replace the capacity of 20, 000 highly skilled hounds, out in the countryside a few times a week, 6 months a year, to relieve the weak, sick and suffering foxes from the stranglehold of a slow death. If the League Against Cruel Sports have their way, the hounds won’t even be able to flush out the foxes that are innately hard-wired to retreat underground when they’re injured. Not even the relative respite of a shotgun would be offered; the parasitic mange has a few more days to spread among the territories, infecting and further corrupting the integrity of the species as it goes. An appeal more to practicality than sympathy might also be worth mentioning; the fox with the bad eye sight or lesser spatial awareness who ran into the fence or other obstacle – though destined, in some wider sense, to eventually fall foul to the ‘survival of the fittest’ – won’t immediately pass on the negligent genes and give hereditary disadvantages to any cubs! And in this way, nothing can replace the ability of hounds to selectively improve the health and well-being of the population over generations, as this fool proof form of natural selection works its necessary magic. Meanwhile, under the beloved and beatified hunting ban it’s totally legal – and by default encouraged – that a crude, indiscriminate shotgun should cull the fittest of foxes, those adorned with a gene pool brimful with cunning, those set to pass on their pace and skill to April’s offspring, those who carry a majesty and speed in abundances too rich for even a hound to overthrow!

The end-game is not merely to repeal the ban but see wildlife management liberated from the misinformation and biases that plague politics. Let’s get rid of the kind of illogical toff-trapping and animal harming laws that mean you can hunt a rat but not a mouse. That dictate if you flush a fox with the two terriers permitted, shoot it, wound it, and in its struggle for survival it returns underground, you can’t flush it out again and put it out of its misery. The end-game is for no animal to be killed needlessly, for necessary population control to be done with tact, in line with the evidence of scrupulous research that informs reasonable regulations and always with concern for both creature and countryside. No unjust suffering at the hands of  the elite adorned in red, or through anyone else at any time. If a fox or any other quarry MUST be killed (for pest, predation or population control) it is imperative we all get on board with doing it humanely. Interestingly, labour MP Lord Donoughue put forward a plan for such a considered reform to the act a few years ago but was sadly, through incrementally refutative discussions, shot down; not even he was afforded the dignity of a swift end!

The future of countryside management and exactly how to regulate humane hunting methods are unclear, but what is for sure is that the current legislation has little genuine regard for cruelty towards animals: do not kill it with trained hounds that expert vets unanimously agree are the most humane control mechanism. Instead, gas it. Trap it. Snare it. Shoot it half-dead and let it bleed out. Up to 60% of Foxes are wounded in the latter manner by shotguns, whilst hunting leaves no damaged survivors. Before you unfairly twist the foxhunting discourse with an appeal to human concepts of fear and death, before you make ingratiating prods to empathy, before you impetuously support such dreadful legislation and before you defame hunting with stamps of barbarism, check the facts.

 

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