Sharing space: Cats

Cats are amazing, just wanted to highlight that particular bias before we jump in…

The history of cats and humans

“The Cat that Walked by Himself”  by Rudyard Kipling tells of how the cat made a pact with woman and domesticated itself.  Whilst the just so story may not have been how things went down in terms of cat domestication, it’s not the kind of thing we have records of.  Instead we have to make educated guesses based on fossil and gene evidence.

We know that about 10-11 million years ago the ancestral cat split off into different species, ranging from the lions to tigers to jaguars and so on.  Then, 10,000 years ago, the domestication process took place.  This was around the same time that humans were settling down and the agricultural revolution was taking place.  Alongside the cat, other species were also being domesticated including cows, goats, pigs, sheep, chick peas, peas, lentils, olives, wheat and barley.  All of this was taking place in the fertile crescent, an area of land, predictably crescent shaped, which curves through modern-day southern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and northern Egypt.

It is theorised that as we settled into farming, and hence growing and storing crops that mice like, cats came closer and closer to human settlements.  Over time we realised they were good for keeping pests under control and they realised we were good for easy food sources.  And slowly they became domesticated.  But not all cats were tamable so it was particular types of cats that were the forerunner to the kitty cat we know today.  As with the domestication of the dog, pet cats are smaller than wild cats, probably because they don’t need to grow so big to survive.  That said, in all other ways, they are almost identical to wild cats, its just the scale that has really changed.

By 7500 BC, we know that cats were buried in human graves in Cyprus, an island where there are no naturally occurring cats so it is assumed that humans intentionally introduced them.

Jumping to ancient Egypt, we find cats being worshipped as symbols of femininity, fertility, pregnancy and motherhood.  Tom cats are depicted in ancient Egyptian art as a manifestation of Ra, the sun god, destroying the serpent of darkness.  We have Sekhment, a goddess with human body and lionesses head and Bastet, half hippo, half lioness.  We also find examples of cats being mummified as offerings to the goddesses.

By 1200 BC, at least the Egyptian aristocracy were keeping cats in their homes and when they died, cats were mourned.  If you were to harm a cat, you’d pay the cost and would likely get mobbed by a gang in the street.  Egyptians felt very strongly about their cats and when Persians attacked, they threw cats at the Egyptian city to demoralise them.

In Ancient Greece, ferrets were used for pest control instead of cats so there was a slightly different relationship to that of the Egyptians.  Cats were slow to expand out of the middle east but there is evidence of them being kept as pets in Greece.

By the middle ages, the reign of the cat was over.  No longer worshipped and revered, the cat had become a target of hatred.  The Christian church had made the cat a target, possibly as a scapegoat when they were trying to convert pagans to the new religion.  Organised persecution became to occur, justified by saying that the devil was in cats and they were killed en masse, such as in a village in Belgium where there was a regular fete involving throwing cats from a tower.  Cats were also burned alive and killed in other horrific ways.

There was also the association with witchcraft and cats suffered there as well.  At this point in history we were far removed from the cat as goddess and now in a time where the cat was the devil himself.  The cat, with it’s tendency to cross between domestic and wild realms, may have unsettled people at the time and challenged the natural law and separation of man and beast as they saw it.  The cat was also associated with unbridled feminine sexuality and, as happens still today, patriarchy likes to quash that as it threatens the system.

In the 17th century, it was identified that cats were a source of allergy and asthma attacks.

By the 18th century, the emerging middle class came to the rescue of cats and started keeping them as pets.

As science developed in the 1800s, animals were beginning to be seen in a different light.  Industrialisation meant they were no longer a commodity as such and we were able to start forming different relationships with them.  Industrialisation also meant that certain groups in society had more time to spend looking after pets and so pet ownership in general increased at this time.

Over the 20th century, developments in medication, in flea treatments and vaccines made it easier for us to bring cats into our homes and the burgeoning pet industry made it easier for us to meet their needs.  Interestingly the number of cats as pets overtook dogs in the mid 1980s, perhaps because more people were working longer and cats were seen as more amiable to that lifestyle.

Today, in the 21st century, there are millions of cat owners and cat lovers across the world and we are back to loving this wonderful creature.  So much so that the internet is filled with cat videos and memes.

Cats today

Cats today can be categorised into:

  • Feral and strays – in the US there are almost as many feral cats as there are owned cats
  • Outdoor owned cats, such as farm and barn cats
  • Indoor/ outdoor cats
  • Indoor only cats – purebreds tend to be indoor only

Cats are hunters.  They are obligate carnivores and they need to eat meat.  They are built to hunt.  So it is no surprise that when they can, they hunt and kill.  You might think that little sooty is not going to kill anything because she is an indoors only cat who is well fed but trust me, she’s probably attacked at least a spider or a mouse.  Anyway, because of this, when they get outside, they go after local wildlife, including species that we don’t want them to.  They don’t know that that yummy looking bird is endangered, they are just fulfilling their biological drive.

In Australia, where cats are not native and the local wildlife has not had time to adapt and evolve to defend themselves from cats, cat curfews exist.

Cats were introduced to the area about 200 years ago by European settlers and bred and spread rapidly across the Australian continent and New Zealand. According to one estimate, the approximately 20 million cats in Australia kill around 75 million native animals a day.

Australia is thought to have one of the worst extinction records in the world, losing about 29 native mammal species since the European arrival. It now lists some 1,800 species as under threat.
The Independent (2015)


The cat as wildlife killer creates conflict between wanting to protect vulnerable species and wanting to let the cat carry out its natural behaviour.  Some people argue that all cats should be kept indoors to protect birds and other prey but this ignores the fact that cats will kill in the house, whether it’s a mouse in the kitchen or a bat in the loft space.  I’m not going to go into the details right now but cats are built to kill and their skills are pretty impressive!  If you want to know more about how cats hunt, or about cats more generally, have a look at the Cats in Context symposium.


Sharing space: Inviting animals into our homes

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”
– George Orwell

Over many thousands of years, we have let more and more animals into our homes to live with us.  And as we do so, the line between pet and humans continues to blur with dogs being taken to yoga, given shoes and coats and doggy day care and so on.

In the UK, in 2017:

  • 44% of all households have pets (12 million households with 54 million pets in total)
  • 24% of these are dogs
  • 17% are cats
  • 8% are indoor fish
  • 5% are outdoor fish

Pets provide us with comfort, they fulfil our need to be needed, we can interpret their behaviour as love and affection and who doesn’t want someone/thing that loves them unconditionally and doesn’t hold a grudge.

Animals comfort us, show us loyalty and joy and model forgiveness for us.  They are somewhat like children, somewhat like friends and in some cases somewhat like colleagues.  They meet our innate need for positive interactions.  One study even found that people with pets spend more time laughing than non pet owners… a sad fact for those of us with allergies…

We use pets to make ourselves feel better; in hospitals, care homes schools and therapy situations.  We use them to help children who are struggling to learn to read.  By reading to a gentle dog, they get the stress relief benefits of the pet whilst also having a non judgemental audience to practice and build confidence with.  We use pets in disaster relief to comfort victims.

Studies show that petting, playing and gazing at a pet releases oxytocin which helps us feel loved and nurtured and is good for our mental health.  Whilst on mental health, some people have said that having something which relies on you for its basic needs can be really helpful in motivating them to do things that their depression wouldn’t allow otherwise.

[Pet animals sometimes] “bear more than their natural burden of human love”
– George Bernard Shaw

The relationship between pet and owner forms a powerful dyad, especially in the case of dogs where strangers may experience you as a couple.  You are inextricably linked with your pet when it comes to your identity.  Animals can change how a human is viewed, for example a few studies have shown that when disabled people are out with helper dogs, they receive very different attention to when they are out on their own.

Pets are a way of showing that you are kind, caring and sociable and a study showed that a man with a dog in a park was more successful at getting dates or phone numbers from women than he was without the dog.  The pet also gives strangers a pivot around which to interact.  You can comment on what a lovely dog the stranger has or how good they are and break the ice and dog owners have been shown to spend more time with strangers in parks than those without.

Caring for pets however, does not automatically make you a nice person… The Nazi Party was particularly concerned about the welfare of animals.  When they came into power in 1933, they introduced a range of animal protection laws.  Mistreating your pets could see you in jail for two years.  The production of foie gras, docking ears and tails without anaesthesia and mistreating animals used in films were all banned.  Human slaughter was required for food animals and the treatment of animals was added to the school curriculum.  In 1934, they hosted an international conference on animal protection.  They were without a doubt treating and valuing their pets above Jews, practising humane killing for the animals and inhumane methods for humans. I haven’t read it but Animals in the Third Reich: Pets, Scapegoats, and the Holocaust by Boria Sax looks an interesting read on the subject.

The nature of pet ownership has changed considerably over the years… to be able to keep a pet, you need to know that food supplies are reliable and you need to have enough time for it, so this, for much of history, meant pets were for the higher classes.  The church denounced pet keeping in the middle ages, deeming it to be heresy as it blurred the line between humans and animals.  However, the ecclesiastical elite and nobility could defy this.  Lower classes were prohibited from owning certain types of dog, namely hunting dogs, presumably to protect the sport of hunting…

In the last 150 years, we have bred dogs for certain characteristics and the same continues today for a wider range of species.  In order to meet our own needs and desires, we are harming our allegedly beloved pets, causing breathing difficulties, joint problems, pain and much more.  I suspect we don’t even know the half of the damage we are doing to them through over breeding.  Pets are also subject to unnecessary cosmetic procedures such as tail docking, ear cropping and declawing.  They are shaped, like a commodity, to be most convenient to humans.

The relationship between pet and caretaker and their identities is an interesting one and is explored in Actions Speak Louder Than Words although I may return to the topic myself at some stage.  The paper looks at things like naming of our pets, our presumptions about what their species or breed means in terms of their identity and how the caretaker shapes the pet’s identity.

Whilst dogs might on the whole be more popular, I’m going to kick off with a look at my favourite pet, the cat.

Sharing space: Living alongside wild animals

This is yet another huge area for discussion so I’m going to look specifically at how humans and elephants live together as well as lions and humans.

It is easy for those of us in Britain to look to Africa and feel shocked and appalled that lions and elephants are being killed.  And in some cases I think this reaction is justified but as I mentioned when I was talking about canned hunting, some of this is down to the inevitable conflict between local human populations and animal populations.


Elephants are huge and powerful animals which often travel in herds across historic migration paths.  As human populations continue to expand and spread out, they are encroaching into elephant habitat and building across these traditional routes.  In addition to this, elephant habitat is shrinking as we destroy it.  This means that elephants and humans are living closer together than ever before and this brings inevitable clashes.

Elephants and humans are competing for land and for food, elephants are trampling through and destroying crops, they are eating the crops because they’re hungry and the food is there.  But the same plants are needed to feed the humans and are farmers’ livelihoods.  As such, when elephants threaten to destroy their crop, they try to drive them away because their entire crop can be destroyed overnight which has potential to lead to financial ruin.  But scaring the elephants means they get scared and attack.  Or they kill or injure humans as the elephant tries to run away.  Elephants do not eat humans so it is generally when they are afraid that they will hurt us.

Elephants need a lot of space as they are huge and attempts to relocate them having been very successful.  A herd of elephants needs hundreds of square kilometres of land to sustain them.  And with an ever growing and sprawling population this is hard to find and the elephants are not very good at staying where we want them to.

In India, the people living near elephants have an incredibly complex relationship with them.  They love them, they worship them, and in the past it was seen as a good omen to have an elephant on your farm – a sign of a divine blessing and a good harvest.  But today, as elephants become more commonplace in fields, fear and hatred has crept into the relationship.  And this is understandable.  Elephants raid fields, destroy homes, hurt and kill people and inadvertently cause chaos just by being there.  People are frustrated and angry and they have had to change their way of life because of the elephant.  There are children who don’t go to school every day because if an elephant is nearby it is not safe to walk there.  People no longer feel safe going out after dark either.

  • In India 100-300 people (depending on the report you read) are killed by elephants each year
  • In Kenya, over the last seven years, 200 people have been killed by elephants
  • In Sri Lanka, about 50 people a year are killed by elephants

It is not surprising then that some of these people call for elephant culls.  But there are ways of reducing elephant human conflict which do not harm the elephant, most of which involve trying to steer the elephant away from villages.  These include using natural deterrents such as chilli and tobacco which the elephants doesn’t like.  Planning farms in such a way that they are easier to defend.  Growing food the elephants don’t like but which there is market for – I think sunflowers are one such crop.  Better fencing.  Early warning systems.  And bees.  I find this last one an interesting idea – it is said that elephants do not like bees so having a fence system which has bee hives at regular intervals keeps them away.  It also means that honey can be harvested and sold along with other by products of beekeeping.


Lions kill livestock and people, and people then retaliate and kill the lions.  And lion numbers decrease.

As with elephants, some of this conflict occurs because lions and humans are geographically closer due to habitat loss and fragmentation and desertification.  The lines between lion and human land are blurring and overlapping.  And there is less food for lions so when they see an easy meal, they take it, regardless of whether the cattle might have human owners or not.  And then humans try to fight back.  They might try to shoot the lion or poison it.  But the carcasses laced with poison may be eaten by other carnivores, or it might wipe out an entire pride of lions.

It is important to note, that like we saw with foxes, the damage done by lions is often overestimated.  In fact more livestock is lost to disease and drought than to lions, and lions are not the only predator responsible for killing livestock – leopards and hyenas are also responsible but shoulder little of the blame and retaliation.  I wonder if this is because lions as seen as top predator, as king of the beasts and hence remind us that we are not top of the food chain?

In terms of reducing lion human conflict, a number of methods have been tried primarily aimed at keeping the lions at bay.  These include noise, use of lights at night, better fencing, setting out farms so they are easier to protect and having adults protect the livestock not children as it seems that lions can tell that children mean they stand a better chance at a kill.  Having dogs to act as early detection and warning systems is another way of reducing livestock loss.  As is education, in particular, if we can learn where and when the lions travel, we can try not to get in their way.  Similarly, there are other ways we can reduce human vulnerability, for example by what colour clothing we wear, which would hopefully reduce human deaths and hence retaliation kills.  Wildlife tourism and compensation schemes are other suggested ways of moving away from seeing lions as pests.

As I said at the start, it is easy for those of us who live in the UK to cast judgement over elephant and lion killing, and other species who are also in conflict with humans but we don’t have to live with the consequences.  In these cases, the hunting debate is intensely complicated and it does not feel like it’s my place, that I’m not informed enough, to make any kind of judgement about the ethics.  It seems that prevention and deterrent work is a good way forward but if a lion was getting close to my child I don’t know how I’d react.

Aside: if you want to find out more about these two magnificent creatures, including symbolism and their roles in myths and religion, have a look at my animal spirit posts:

October’s Poems

As we will see over the course of this month, animals feature heavily in literature and poetry is no exception.  We write about animals, about animals and us and use animals as metaphors to say things which otherwise would be very difficult.

Phillip Larkin, 1977, The Little Lives Of Earth And Form

The little lives of earth and form,
Of finding food, and keeping warm,
Are not like ours, and yet
A kinship lingers nonetheless:
We hanker for the homeliness
Of den, and hole, and set.

And this identity we feel
– Perhaps not right, perhaps not real –
Will link us constantly;
I see the rock, the clay, the chalk,
The flattened grass, the swaying stalk,
And it is you I see.

This ties in nicely with the question about whether humans are animals, in this case Larkin is looking more broadly and declaring that humans are a part of nature, not apart.

It has a nice lyrical feel to it and shares a similar message to that of Wordsworth, both valuing nature and seeing humans within nature. It also places value on a simpler way of life, one that is concerned with day to day needs.  Like Wordsworth, Larkin draws the readers attention to the little, every day things – the rock, the clay, the chalk – and imbues them with greater significance and meaning.

If nature erected walls, Tanya Cliff

I enjoyed this poem alongside some of the themes I’ve looked at this month.  In particular it chimes strongly with one of the articles I read about humans and nature.

It casts nature in the role of an artist and asks what she would chose to leave out of her masterpiece.  Inevitably, whilst Cliff doesn’t answer the question explicitly, the message is that humans would be the ones kept out.

This poem also reminded me of the dingo fence.  It is a huge fence in Australia which is designed to keep dingoes out of certain areas.  Work on it was started when British arrived and started trying to control the world they found themselves in.  Up until that point, Australians had been living alongside dingo and whilst I’m not saying it was an easy relationship, it was one which accepted other lifeforms.

The Fox, Simon Armitage, 1996

The discussion around the poem in the Independent article probably says most of what I was going to so I won’t!  When I first read the poem, I didn’t know that there is a constellation called the fox and that knowledge really helped.  It actually features in a collection that is focused on the stars so reading it in context probably adds a lot.

I like the honest humanness to this poem.  The starry, sky fox comes down to the earth and so close to our own lives that we could “hit it…with a stone”.  But instead of revering it or romanticising it, Armitage tells of the damage the fox has done whilst also emphasising the physical proximity of man and fox.  The violent, unforgiving ending, harsh as it may seem to the reader is one which echoes our wider feelings of nature and our impact.  We seem to be emotionally disconnected and apathetic towards death of animals and even extinctions pass us by, mostly unnoted or uncared about, with the exception of those animals we deem particularly cute.

What we lose, Kate Tempest

This is one of those apparently simple poets which I return to over and over.  The premise is that as we get older, the gulf between humans and animals grows wider.  As I’ve already mentioned a bit, children’s books are filled with animals and we befriend these characters and they help us navigate the world as we grow up.  And then, one day we turn around and find ourselves disconnected from nature.

I read Tempest’s poem with an air of sadness but as I said, it’s deceptively simple, so I can’t point to any words or images which show this, it is just a feeling that comes through the poem.  It leaves me with a heavy, regretful feeling.  And a longing to return as much as possible to that childhood state.

On being eaten by a snake, Susan Wicks, 1994

I don’t really like sharing poems when I don’t have copyright so where possible I try to link to the poem (except where they’re older poems which are absolutely everywhere).  Normally I can find a version somewhere but not this one…

Knowing they are not poisonous
I kneel on the path to watch it
Between poppies by a crown of nasturtiums,
The grey-stripe body almost half as long
As my own body. The formless black head
Rearing, swaying, the wide black lips seeming
To smile at me. And I see
That the head is not a head,
The slit I have seen as mouth
Is not a mouth, the frilled black under-lips
Not lips, but another creature dying; I see
How the snake’s own head is narrow and delicate,
How it slides its mouth up and then back
With love, stretched to this shapelessness
As if with love.  The sun stroking
The slug’s wet skin as it hangs
In the light, resting so that even the victim
Must surely feel pleasures, the dark ripple
Of neck that is not neck lovely
As the slug is sucked backwards
To the belly that is not belly, the head
That is merely head
Shrinking to nameable proportions.

This is one poem in a collection about Wicks’s illness and was written during a reprieve, something which I feel really adds to the reading of it.  We start with the declaration that the snake is not poisonous, perhaps a statement about the respite from her illness?  The start of the poem talks of bodies; she kneels, there is the grey-stripe body, her own body and a formless black head.  As someone who has chronic illness, I enjoyed this last image in particular.  Illness can certainly feel like a formless thing.  Especially if it is undiagnosed or unpredictable or unreliable – you cannot manage or fight with something formless.

And then, the poem pivots.  The midline sentence end takes us from what she sees to her realising that what she sees is not how things are. Another parallel with illness – I regularly doubt my own health, thinking I’m not as bad as I am, or seeing through the eyes of depression which do the opposite of rose tinted glasses.

From here, we discover nothing is as it first seemed.  She also shapes this image of a snake eating a slug into something sensual and dreamy.  There are a lot of s sounds – “slides it’s mouth”, “slugs wet skin”, “slug is sucked” – which add to this sexuality and echo the hissing sound of the snake.  The event ends with the “dark ripple of the neck” which feels to me like a metaphor for an orgasm which is followed by the “head shrinking to nameable proportions”.  Obviously this has one particular sexual interpretation.  But returning to the running symbolism of illness, to be able to name your illness is powerful and to have it in suitable proportions makes a huge difference.  The formless, intangible, overwhelming beast has become something you can handle and label.

I found the snake in this poem a fascinating metaphor.  Snakes are associated with the medical profession and with healing as well as with change and transformation.  There is also an element of the unknown, most of us in the UK don’t regularly see snakes or interact with them.

Canned hunting and motivations

Having looked at hunting in the UK and the law, I want to look at why people hunt and the highly controversial world of canned hunts.

Canned hunting

Canned hunting is hunting where the animals are almost certainly going to die because the odds are stacked against them.  The success of the shooter is virtually guaranteed with some venues offering a no kill no pay policy.  These hunts charge the clients to kill an animal without the concept of a fair chase.  Animals may be shot in cages or within fences, they may be shot at feeding stations and the animals may be tame or semi-tame or even sedated to ensure the hunter is successful.  I find this disguistin and I really do not understand the motivation here.  Interestingly, many people within the hunting community don’t agree with canned hunting either.

Canned hunts are turning hunting “into this caged, paid affair and it bears no resemblance to what hunting is, was, and could be. Like so many things in our world, people want to buy the product (the trophy) rather than experience the process (meeting the animal on its own terrain).”

– Ted Kerasote, quoted in Canned hunts: Unfair at any price

Grouse shooting can be considered a form of canned hunting but here I’m more focused on the hunting of bigger animals, killed primarily as trophies.

There are a couple of key ways that canned hunting takes place.  In the US there are landowners which set up nice hotels with chefs and gun ranges.  Local and exotic animals are kept on the land and the client essentially choices from a menu the animal they would like to kill.

The exotic animals are often bought from breeders, are surplus zoo animals or retired “entertainment” animals which are no longer valuable. This means they are accustomed to humans, they are used to spending time near us and in many cases humans means food.  These animals may either be kept in cages until the time of the hunt, or are fenced in (in larger areas) with regular feeding stations so it’s easy to predict where the animals will be.  The vehicles used to feed them are often the same ones that bring the hunters in so they are associated with food and not fear.  The animal might have been sedated in order to get them into the hunting pen or may be old and in pain and unable to really run away.  Once you have made your inevitable kill, your carcass can then be taken to the onsite taxidermist so that your trophy can be prepared for you.  Depending on what you have killed, you may get to eat some of the meat but this doesn’t seem to be an important part of the experience.

In Africa, canned hunts work in a very similar way except of course the local animals are the exotic animals.  In both cases, animal welfare concerns around the keeping of the animals must be considered.  They are often kept in overcrowded and unsuitable cages with inadequate access to food and water.  And when they do get “released” they are shortly going to be slaughtered.  And not necessarily cleanly, because canned hunters are not necessarily skilled marksmen.  Other concerns include the stress on other animals from the sound of the shots.

Whilst the trophy is a key part of canned hunting, it is important to differentiate between trophy hunting and canned hunting.  The latter is rigged in favour of the human and is undeniably unfair.  The former includes “fairer” and more traditional hunts such as going after wild stags in their natural habitat.  I’m not saying I agree with either but the fairer hunters are a little more equitable and from what I can tell, the hunters are more likely to eat the meat and do not expect guaranteed success.  I can see that there is a lot more skill involved in this and thus the sense of achievement is higher.  I don’t see how you can feel proud or like you’ve really experienced a hunt in canned situations.  There is nothing noble, honourable or even challenging about canned hunting, instead it is an extreme example of man seeking dominion over beast.  As one hunter put it in a documentary with Louis Theroux, it comes down to money, if you have the money, you can shoot it.  And he went on to explain that it doesn’t matter about the species.  If he had enough money, he’d kill an elephant. It was all about money.  There was no consideration for the endangered status of the species.  This feels like a very easy way to kill an individual, or even destroy a population, arguably too easy.

Arguments for canned hunting include the importance of income into communities, although this has been shown to often not be the case.  Despite the cost of a kill ranging from roughly $10,000 for a hippo up to $42,000 for an elephant, reports suggest that less than 5% of hunting revenue goes to the local area.  Conservation is another key argument, the idea that if hunters are killing specially bred animals, they aren’t killing wild ones and this sort of makes sense, except illegal hunting has been shown to occur alongside legal hunting.  And as these animals aren’t part of the wild population they don’t add to conservation efforts.  Perhaps the biggest argument that I’ve heard over and over, in UK hunting as well, is that it is traditional, that it is a way of life.  And if this was subsistence hunting I would give this some weight but it isn’t.  This is not purposeful hunting.  This is not hunting for food or because the animals in question are threatening us.  This is hunting as a tourist industry for rich, mostly, American travellers.

In the context of the African canned hunts, the conversation is more complicated because it is not always easy or appropriate for the business owners to look to other ways of making money.  For example the infrastructure may not yet be suitable for photo tourism etc.  And I don’t know enough of the details to discuss this.  I do know that Africa is often referred to as a single entity but it is such a diverse continent and each country must find their own, place appropriate, way forward.  What works in one place may not work in another.

Moving away from canned hunting, but before we look at motivations, I want to end with a note about non commercial hunting in Africa.  Apparently far more lions are killed by cattle herders protecting their livestock and families than by trophy hunters.  This is a very different motivation and one which I feel differently about to tourist hunting.  And the solutions for this are going to be very different.  We need to look for ways in which people and animals can live alongside each other, looking with a long term perspective.

I hope to look at wild animals and humans, such as the lions above, and domesticated animals, primarily pets. The way we live alongside these different categories of animals is so different and yet to some degree the line between them is an arbitrary one.

Why hunt?

Those people who are for hunting have their own take on the subject.  In the case of birds in the UK, it’s claimed that landowners involved in “field sports” are more likely to conserve and reinstate woodland, hedgerows, to plant shrubs and to coppice trees.  They also argue that wildlife benefits, and as we’ve seen this is true, but it’s also at a cost to other wildlife.

There is also the argument that the shooting and hunting industries bring money into communities where it is much needed.  We’ve already seen that this is unlikely to be the case in canned hunts in Africa and when it comes to canned hunts in America, yes some money will be bought into the area and jobs will be created but from what I can tell, the hunting lodge is a self enclosed complex so local shops etc will only benefit if they can sell to the lodge.  So local artisans are unlikely to see any of that money although catering related businesses may do.

We’ve already seen that pest control is not an argument that stands up to scrutiny.  But even if it was, it’s been shown that killing foxes doesn’t actually reduce the population, they fill to fit the space as it were.  Also a Scottish study in 2000 showed that only about 1% of lambs are lost to foxes and a 2003 British study estimated that foxes save crop farmers about £7 million a year.

Another, often cited, justification is that organised hunts brings the community together.  Obviously this is immediately excluding anyone who is against hunting from the community and given the stats we saw, I suspect it divides the community more than anything.  David Bowles says that illegal hunting is connected to rural crime, giving the example of criminals using the cover of a hare hunt to scout out a farm and see what’s available to steal.  Apparently a crack down on illegal hunts in Oxfordshire (I think) has led to reduced rural crime.  This suggests that hunting isn’t really bringing the community together at all.

Having said that, I can see that the hunt would bring those involved together.  The combination of the thrill of the chase and the adrenalin rush that engulfs the hunters probably does help to bond the group.  But surely there are other ways?  Perhaps these groups would like to try abseiling or paragliding or other extreme sports where they only risk their own life?

And you can’t look into the two sides of hunting without the word traditional popping up.  Yes, it may be traditional, although grouse shooting only dates back to the mid 1850s, but so is bear and bull baiting and slavery.  Tradition is not a solid argument for any activity or belief.  We must continually question our traditions and ensure that they are relevant to today.

If you are interested in the reasons why people might participate in illegal hunting, Angus Nurse’s talk on Motives for Wildlife Crime is worth a watch.  A very brief summary of reasons:

  • Profit driven, considering hunting to be a low risk high reward crime
  • Wildlife seen as a resource, a victimless crime, denial of injury
  • Not seen as a serious crime, denial of criminality
  • Social factors – social pressure, tradition, part of the culture, bonding aspects, identity expression
  • An excise of power, thrill of the chase
  • A way to challenge and resist the law

I can sort of see why these factors might motivate certain individuals although I’m not agreeing with it.

If you’re interested in this intersection between humans and animals, there is an interesting collection of talks from the Winchester Hunting Symposium which took place towards the end of November 2015.  And Adam Hart wrote an article for the BBC the same year which discusses hunting and conservation.

Hunting in the UK

As a disclaimer, in most situations, I am against hunting.  For the purposes of this aspect of my project, I have tried to get behind the motivations and opinions of people who do hunt, including watching a number of documentaries which are either neutral or on the side of the hunters.

Deer stalking would be a very fine sport, if only the deer had guns

– W. S. Gilbert

There is a spectrum of different hunting activities:

  • Hunting for food is, in my mind, justifiable provided it doesn’t cause unnecessary pain and suffering. I’m not sure that anyone who eats meat can object to “good” hunting.
  • Hunting to manage wildlife populations is a more complicated area. I can see both sides of this particular debate and I think ethics would depend on the species, the setting and whether culling the species actually affects populations.
  • Hunting for sport. This is the area I’m focusing on here and I cannot find a justification for it.  It is a “sport” where the aim is to torture and kill living beings for pleasure.  In some cases, this is the only outcome as the animals, for example foxes, won’t be eaten at the end of it.  Within hunting for sport, we have yet more nuances and, perhaps the most morally outrageous of these is canned hunting which I will expand on later.

Before I leap into the discussion on hunting, I wanted to share some statistics from a 2016 Ipsos Mori poll:

  • 84% of people thinking fox hunting should remain illegal
    • 84% of people in rural areas think fox hunting should remain illegal
    • 73% of conservative voters think fox hunting should remain illegal
  • 88% of people thinking deer hunting should remain illegal
  • 91% of people thinking hare hunting should remain illegal

As an aside, 3/4s American’s support the right to hunt.

Hunting in the UK

Hunting for sport started life as a royal and elite sport with the first recorded fox hunt with dogs being recorded in 1534.  By the late 1600s, dogs were being specifically trained for hunting.

In 2004, the Hunting Act was passed in England and Wales.  This was highly controversial and recent attempts have been made to repeal the law.  Basically, the act bans the hunting of mammals with dogs except in various circumstances.  It also sets out where you can hunt and what you are allowed to use.  In addition to being illegal to hunt, it is illegal to knowingly allow your land or dogs to be used in illegal hunts.  The penalties are a maximum fine of £5,000 and confiscation of hunting paraphernalia however a lot of people feel that the law goes unenforced and sophisticated work arounds means that hunting illegally continues.

Hunting with dogs

New ways of hunting have been found or old ways continue under the pretence they are meeting the criteria for exemptions.  This includes artificial scent hunting using fox urine, “exercising the hounds” or hunting for “research and observation”.  The species which are hunted in the UK using dogs are hares, foxes, deer and mink. The first three are native species, the latter has been in this country since 1920, and so we should be including them as part of our conservation efforts, not killing them.  Not only are they species worth protecting in themselves, but they play important roles in ecosystems.  For example foxes keep rabbit numbers in check which means less crop destruction.

Criticisms of hunting do not just focus on the animal being hunted but raise concerns about habitat disturbance and destruction and animals which get caught in the cross fire.  Hunting with dogs involves a lot of people (hundreds in the case of stag hunts) and a lot of dogs (30 to 40) travelling at speed through the land and not adhering to paths and roads.  This alone is going to cause damage to the land – that’s a lot of hooves and paws grinding up the soil – but there are also spectators who travel by car or quad bike behind the hunt.  Paths become eroded and whilst the hunt is occurring, they become obstructed.  Imagine being a casual walker who suddenly finds horses and hounds running towards them…

Hedges get destroyed, nature reserves are entered, streams and rivers aren’t even out of bounds.  Cases have been recorded where hunts have trespassed on land including farms (with animals subject to stress) and protected areas such as a Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Sites of Scientific Interest.  If these hunts were being carried out for pest control reasons, an argument some hunters use, then they would not be trespassing on farmland where they know there will be animals.  You cannot justify fox hunting by saying they have killed your lambs if you then let your dogs loose near livestock.

Animal disturbance is another concern.  Hunts often disturb wild animals, and we’ve already seen farm animals are not safe either.  They can do this by scaring them when the hunt is on but hunters also interfere with shelters and kill certain animals if they will affect the hunt.  For example, in fox hunting, dens and setts are blocked up to prevent the fox from hiding in them.  These include badger setts which have been recorded being blocked up with stones and wood, even if there were badgers in them (presumably no one checked? or cared?).  Blocked setts have been found with badger cubs dead inside as well as setts where the badger has had to dig their way out.

A less noted aspect of the hunt is the impact of the sheer number of dogs.  A lot of areas have laws which mean dog walkers have to keep dogs on a lead to prevent them from disturbing animals, people and the environment.  This applies even if you have one tiny, incredibly well behaved dog.  So why is a pack of dogs allowed to circumvent this?  And we have to note that crowd mentality applies to dogs as much as humans – get that many dogs in one place and they are going to be very difficult to control.

The dogs are perhaps an overlooked victim when it comes to hunting.  They have been bred over the years specifically for hunts and those that do not do well in training may well end up killed.  The same being true for older dogs who no longer hunt well or who develop health issues.

And we haven’t even spoken about the animal that is being killed.   In some cases, foxes are caught before the hunt or even bred for the hunt and then released on the day.  This again means we are not looking at pest control.  It also brings up issues around the care and welfare of the fox when it is in captivity.

A well respected report carried out in 1997 shows that deer experience stress when they are hunted and that they are not adapted to the endurance required of them.  Unfortunately similar research hasn’t been carried out on other hunted animals but it is hard to see that they could be considered cruelty-free.  Often the animals are chased for longer than they would be by predators, they are not killed instantly but are instead subject to harrowing by dogs and postmortems have shown animals have died by disembowelling.

Bird shooting

Perhaps the original canned hunt, grouse and pheasant shooting… In the grouse shooting season, about 500,000 grouse will be killed, not to mention all the other birds which are shot each year. It is estimated that about 40% of these are injured and do not die immediately, instead they are wounded and then chased by dogs.

In the case of pheasant shooting, the birds are bred for the purpose and there are huge concerns over the quality of life they have on these farms and how they are transported to the shoot.  So they don’t even get a good start in life.  It also makes them easy targets, something I’ll discuss more when I look at canned hunting outside the UK.

The moorland is managed to essentially be a grouse farm.  Grouse don’t do well in captivity so instead the businesses involved in the shoot have to manipulate the landscape to maximise bird numbers.  In these areas, the grouse population is 10-100 times higher than it would be if left unmanaged.  Animals that are not wanted or which could cause disruption to the shoot are snared.  This might include mammals or birds which eat the eggs, young or adult grouse.  The nests of these predators are also destroyed.  Medicated grit is used to treat grouse for parasites and to kill birds of prey.  Advocates of the industry argue that species benefit and there is no doubt of that – the grouse population does of course do well and so do birds with similar needs but others are significantly detrimented by the activity.

Management techniques affect more than just local birds and animals.  Burning the heather affects flora and releases carbon dioxide and also increases flood risk as burning damages peat forming blanket bogs.  A high population of game birds results in shorter grassland and lower floral diversity as well as having a negative impact on the ecosystem.

And at the end of the day, this time and effort is all for a hobby for the few who can afford to participate.  It is a rich persons day out which is subsidised by the tax payer and is expensive and exclusive.

Next time I’ll be looked at why people hunt and the industry of canned hunting outside of the UK.

Tarka the otter

Tarka the otter, Henry Williamson, 1927

“He was called Tarka, which eas the name given to otters many years ago by men dwelling in hut circles on the moor.  It means little water wanderer, or, wandering as water.”

This is one of the books I’ve been reading this month and I love it.  I read it as a child but rereading it has been a beautiful experience.  I have a physical paperback copy which means I have to read it slowly, no more than a chapter at a time, because of my hand pain. And this is extending the deliciousness of the language and the writing.

Williamson did not write Tarka as a children’s book but it became popular with children and hence it is marketed that way today. I know some people are put off and don’t read children’s books, or only do it with adult covers but this really is a book for all of us.

It is a portrayal of nature which is both beautiful and brutal.  Williamson makes an excellent use of language and it contains a number of regional specific words which enhance the imagery.

“Iggiwick, the vuz-peg – his coat was like furze and his face like a pig’s”

We have words like ragrowster, aerymouse (a bat), dimity (twilight), yinny-yikker (noisily aggressive) and yikkering.  These tug at my heart in a way that alternatives might not.

We hear the animals calling in wonderfully onomatopoeia:

Hu-ee-ic…. Skirr-rr… cur-lee-eek… aa-aa…

This is not an anthropomorphic tale, it is an otter’s eye view of the landscape and the characters within it.  And yet, we feel we know the animals that weave in and out of Tarka’s life.  Part of this is the marvellous names that the creatures are given.  There is Old Nog, the white owl, and Halcyon the kingfisher.  There is Deadlock, the otter hound and the old dog otter Marland Jimmy.  There are degrees of anthropomorphism but it is not heavy handed and the animals don’t speak.  Because of this, it is imbued with a strong sense of reality and is a great example of writing from the senses.

Williamson wrote a nature journal from his childhood so it is perhaps no surprise that Tarka is so real.  He also sought out hunting experts for advice and to ensure accuracy and rewrote the manuscript 17 times.

“Twilight over meadow and water, the eve-star shining above the hill, and old nog the heron crying kra-a-ark! as his slow dark wings carried him down to the estuary.”

As well as conveying a strong connection with nature, Tarka also reveals to the reader Williamson’s close relationship with the landscape.  He moved to Devon in 1921 and his intimacy with this place comes through in his writing.  For context, otters were hunted as vermin at this time and their population wouldn’t decline until the 1950s.  This means that the text is not one about the danger to the otter population and is not intended to influence this practice.  But he did have a strong influence, inspiring writers such as Rachel Carson, Ted Hughes, Roger Deakin and Kenneth Allsop.

This book is a treasure and if you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it for a long time, please do!