Animal Aid

McKelvey - A Victim of a Callous Code

By John Bryant

Clare Balding, BBC sports presenter and horse racing enthusiast, revealed the classic mind-set behind much abuse of animals, when, on the BBC’s One Show she said of the Grand National, ‘The race has risk, but it is not cruel. Cruelty is something you inflict with purpose’. (See for McElvey's story) This is precisely the modern mantra of the fox hunting lobby – of which Clare Balding is a member. Having been banned from hunting wild animals with dogs, they take those same dogs to the same places at which they know full well the hounds will find foxes (because they are traditional locations for hunting and preserved for many decades as ‘fox coverts’) and then claim that it is an accident when their dogs find, chase and savage a fox to death. They plead that they have laid a trail for the hounds to follow, and that it’s not their fault if the hounds divert onto a fox and ‘accidentally’ savage it to death. Of course, it makes no difference to the suffering foxes whether the hounds who chase them down and tear out their entrails are participating in a lawful or an unlawful activity. And, clearly, the fact that the hunters see absolutely nothing wrong in urging dogs to chase and dismember wild animals, means that they don’t see why they should obey the law of the land, despite it being the product of the will of the people and a democratically elected government, whose long-term policy and election manifesto pledged action against hunting with dogs.

Because Clare Balding is a supporter of blood sports, it’s no surprise that she also sees nothing wrong with horse racing – a sport that races to death more than 400 horses a year, and, as several scandals have proved, often treats even famous equine ‘heroes’ with callousness and contempt once their racing value has diminished. The same applies to the greyhound racing industry, where the tradition is that the most talented dogs get a brief period of celebrity until they begin to slow up through age or injury, and then are passed down through ‘flapping’ (unlicensed tracks) until destroyed, dumped, or handed into the tender care of poachers.

Clare Balding’s statement, ‘Cruelty is something you inflict with purpose’, reveals her ignorance of the law relating to animal welfare. The 1911 Protection of Animals Act and its successor, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) 2006, make it clear that a conviction for cruelty does not rely on proving intention. If the owner or keeper of a domestic animal, either by an action or a failure to act, causes the animal to suffer unnecessarily, he or she is guilty of an offence. The AWA goes further in that a person who knew or ought reasonably to have known that his (or her) action or failure to act would be likely to cause an animal unnecessary suffering, is guilty of criminal cruelty. A high proportion of the prosecutions brought by the RSPCA for cruelty involve simple neglect of animals rather than the deliberate infliction of suffering. For instance, a person who goes away for a holiday leaving their animal without proper care and attention is guilty of cruelty, despite the fact that the owner did not physically inflict pain on the animal. Similarly, if a person abandons an unwanted puppy or kitten at the roadside, it an offence of cruelty even though the offender didn’t actually inflict injury on the animal. What’s more, the fact that someone rescues the animal before it suffers does not prevent the ‘dumper’ being prosecuted and convicted of cruelty.

If the owners of horses enter them in a race so gruelling that it is known full well that a high proportion of horses, through fatigue or mistakes, will fail to complete the course and that some horses will be maimed and killed, it is at least arguable that those owners have committed an offence of cruelty. The fact that the horse may complete the course unscathed is largely a matter of luck. After all, if a person threw his two dogs off a cliff and somehow one survived unscathed, it would be a nonsense to suggest that the owner was only cruel to one.

The Grand National is, of course, less dangerous now than throughout most of its history (from the late 1830s). Some enthusiasts even complain that the race is now too tame, despite the fact that the course kills one or more horses most years. The point is that recent improvements to the course have been inspired, not by the concerns of race-goers, but by the protests of animal rights campaigners and the nagging of the racing authorities by the RSPCA. The fact remains, however, that horses have been and continue to be sacrificed for the human ‘pleasures’ of gambling and socialising and for the spectacle of 40 horses being driven with whips around a course that only the bravest and luckiest of horses can negotiate.

The Mail on Sunday report of binge drinking and yob behaviour at the Grand National, including the abuse of animal welfare observers, and the jeering at falling horses, is a reminder of the links between racing and true bloodsports – those involving setting dogs on other animals. The Grand National’s founder (the race was first run under that title in 1839) was a Liverpool innkeeper who ran the Waterloo Hotel in Liverpool, and who three years earlier also founded the infamous annual Waterloo Cup hare coursing event. In its heyday, up to 75,000 bloodsports supporters (described as ‘snobs and yobs’ by coursing officials) attended the Waterloo Cup to revel in gambling and the life and death struggles of hares (previously captured and transported to the fields of Altcar for the event) set upon by powerful and speedy greyhounds competing in pairs to get their teeth into their hare.

The last Waterloo Cup was run in 2005, having been outlawed by the Hunting Act, and once again animal welfare campaigners were jeered by drunken hare coursers who threw bottles and dead hares at their opponents. Only police intervention prevented protesters being badly beaten when coursing supporters charged at them. David Cameron's pledge to restore this arena of violence to the nation is to his eternal shame.

During my term as manager of the Ferne Animal Sanctuary in Somerset, we were subjected to years of terrorism by local hunt supporters, included threats, hanging dead foxes and badgers on our gates, the repeated smashing of our field gates, shotgun attacks on our telephone cables and even chain-sawing through an eighty-feet high beech tree to leave it teetering across our drive. The reason for the persecution was because we protested about the hounds of the Cotley Harriers invading the sanctuary in pursuit of foxes, attacking and terrifying sanctuary animals and rampaging over the sanctuary’s property and philosophy. Attacks by hunt supporters on anyone they perceive to oppose their abuse of wild animals are common, whether the victims are hunt monitors with video cameras, anti-hunt Members of Parliament or even the police employed to keep mobs of angry hunters from invading the House of Commons.

There is no mystery about why people who are violent towards animals can also treat humans the same way. In a famous 1931 book entitled The Art of Beagling, Captain J. Otho Paget advised new hunt followers: ‘In hunting, whether it be of fox or hare, every follower should identify himself with hounds' aims and give his entire sympathy to them. If he allows himself to sympathise with the hare, his pleasure in the chase will be neutralised and he might as well go home at once.’

Paget's words are the revelation behind people united in jeering a fallen horse, cheering the sight of a screaming hare stretched between the jaws of two dogs, fight fans cheering as a boxer pummels the head of an opponent, fighting-dog fans delighting in the savagery of animals ripping each others’ flesh and bones, corporate shooters blasting birds out of the sky and gangs of teenagers chasing and pouncing on a stranger and taking it in turns to boot their prone victim in the head. It is the code of the mob, the primaeval ‘pack instinct’. The suppression of empathy and compassion is the reason behind virtually all the great non-natural catastrophes of the world whether it be the Nazi holocaust, Rwanda, the Balkans, or further down in the scale, the Roman games, the clubbing of seal pups, the sowing up of kittens’ eyelids to ‘see what effect it has’, the beating of elephants’ legs with iron bars, and the horrors of factory farming and its mechanised slaughter by conveyor belt.

Many of us despair even at the pain that occurs at the dictates of ‘nature’. A pack of wolves feels no compassion for the deer they drag down and eat alive. A cat playing with a mouse has no sympathy for its prey, no more than the spider for the fly that it wraps up alive in a parcel of silk, and no more than the seal catching fish or the killer whale catching seals. But we humans like to think that we are above the animals – even though many of the other species with whom we share this world are infinitely more peaceful, cooperative and genuinely ‘social’ than our own. Once we allow ourselves to drop empathy and compassion for the weak or ill or perceived enemies, we are infinitely more dangerous than any other life-form on the planet. It is no accident that the writings and actions of many of the great human social reformers were driven by compassion and it is no coincidence that the founders of the RSPCA were also leading campaigners against cruelty and the exploitation of children, human slavery, poverty and ignorance. They proved that true compassion cannot be sub-divided into concern for certain categories of people or animals, whether black or white people, or black or white dogs.

Any one of us in the animal rights movement will confess that much of the time we feel marooned on a planet inhabited by aliens that seem to walk like us, talk like us, but don’t feel like us. Our greatest hope, however, is that almost all of us were plucked from ignorance and into the burdensome world of compassion, by those who got there before us – by a leaflet, a lecture, a photograph or a conversation that awakened us. Each of us has to carry that task onward because, meanwhile, the Captain Pagets of this world are busy recruiting people to their world of the callous. The shooting industry, for instance, has persuaded the Labour government to support the slaughter of birds for sport and all that goes with it, such as the destruction of British wild animals and birds that might compete with or predate on a few of the millions of factory farmed pheasants bred so that the callous and cruel can entertain themselves by firing lead pellets into them. The Countryside Alliance is busy encouraging children to take up firearms, just at a time when the country is united in bewilderment at teenagers reared on a diet of violent video games resorting to shooting other teenagers that stray into their ‘territory’.

No matter how much we despise those who cause or permit unnecessary suffering to animals and thereby bring such agony into their and our lives, we have to be careful not to abandon our compassion and hatred of violence. If just once we resort to the same callous philosophy of Captain Paget, we may find ourselves blundering into the camp of those, like Clare Balding, who seek spurious excuses for the cruelty inherent in the human activities and company they enjoy.

John Bryant's animal rights career spans 40 years and has included spells as officers of the RSPCA, League Against Cruel Sports, Animal Aid, Ferne Animal Sanctuary and Protect Our Wild Animals. For the last ten years he has operated a professional wildlife deterrence service to help people solve wildlife conflicts without resorting to lethal pest controllers.

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