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A Publication of

From The Ark No. 192 - Winter 2002

 A Catholic Case against Hunting

400,000 determined country folk marched through England’s capital city in September on a ‘Liberty and Livelihood’ protest organised by the Countryside Alliance. I would have been there – but mixing the cause of support for hunting with countryside decline kept me and, I suspect, many others away.

Many of the marchers claimed that an aspect of human liberty was at stake, a liberty to hunt, and one Catholic journalist (In the Catholic Herald, 14th September) wrote that ‘Catholics have a duty to defend the rights of the human person’. By deciding to march he showed that, to him, this outweighed the ‘duty to oppose human cruelty in all its forms’. However, he did contend that hunting foxes with hounds is not cruel. But that is only relative, set against other hideous forms of killing them. ‘Lamping’ by trained marksmen with telescopic sights can despatch them humanely, as the Burns report on hunting testified.

Apart from the obvious cruelty of chasing an animal for hours, preventing it going to ground and then having it set upon by a pack of dogs, do foxes need to be killed at all? Called ‘vermin’ and ‘pests’ they are simply part of the wildlife of the countryside – and increasingly of the towns – existing on whatever sources of food are available and maintaining the balance of nature.

Hunting accounts for only 10 – 15 per cent of foxes killed each year, with a far higher proportion being killed on the roads, or dying out through lack of food supply. Indeed, a report in this month’s issue of Nature shows that a year’s lack of hunting during the foot-and-mouth outbreak resulted in no observable increase in the size of the fox population. A similar situation was reported after the second world war, when hunting was curtailed.

Far from effectively reducing numbers, in fact hunting keeps fox and hare numbers up. Huntsmen do not want to see the numbers of quarry reduced. Nothing is more frustrating to them than failing to draw a fox from any of the coverts at a meet, especially as subscribers have paid large sums of money to join the hunt for the pleasure of the chase. It is the duty of Masters of Fox Hounds to ensure that there are always foxes to be found in his area for the twice-weekly meets and they go to great lengths to preserve them. So foxes are often bred in artificial earths, and imported, or ‘bagged’, onto hunt land to ensure a sufficient number to be hunted. Some of the recorded and protected litters are later used for cubbing. This takes place shortly before the season proper begins and is used for training the hound pups. Earths are dug out and the dogs allowed to maul the five- to six-month-old cubs. This gets them used to killing, after exchanging a few nips with the desperate young foxes. Live hares, too, are fed to beagles to give them a taste of blood during their training. Hounds that cannot keep up with the chase, or pups that do not display ‘nose’, are simply destroyed.

Opposing the cruelty involved in hunting is in line with a substantial Catholic tradition. Kindness, not cruelty, to animals is a heritage of the Desert Fathers, Celtic saints, St Francis, Philip Neri and many others who anticipated in their treatment of animals the glorious restoration of paradise as described in Isaiah’s vision (Chapter 11). Simply put, cruelty to animals is, as Bishop Bellord stated in A New Catechism of 1901, a ‘very cowardly and disgraceful sin’. More recently, the Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs us that, as animals are God’s creatures, we owe them kindness, and should recall the gentleness with which saints treated them. Whereas, as with the rest of nature, we might make use of them, our ‘dominion over other living things’ is ‘not absolute’ (n. 2415) nor ‘to be an arbitrary and destructive domination’ (n.373). We cannot treat them just as we like. There is the aspect of our ‘stewardship’ over them – by which we are to reflect the manner of governance of the Creator himself. Made in His image, human beings have to reflect that image as they go about caring for His world. Christ, the one true image, dwelt at peace with the wild animals during his 40 days in the wilderness – just as he brought peace and harmony to the natural order in miracles to give a glimpse of what heaven is like. Is that commensurate with hunting?

Dutch theologian Dr Marie Hendrickx of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith considers that ‘… we must repeat with the Catechism that man is not justified in "causing animals to suffer needlessly". He should therefore refrain from doing so if he can avoid it, or if there are no serious reasons for doing so’. Hunting foxes is not an unavoidable necessity, and there is an alternative. The excitement of a bracing, dangerous ride can be enjoyed over a course skilfully set by people with a scented ‘drag’, or after volunteer ‘harriers’ running before the pack. What is missing would be the kill. Human dignity is surely compromised by the pleasure displayed by members and followers of a hunt at the grisly kill. No-one would have their faces ‘blooded’ as an initiation rite; no fox’s ‘mask’ (face) would be presented by the Master to the first man at the kill, or ‘brush’ (tail) to the first woman, or the four footpads to the first four children. None of that barbarism. The ten hunts in Scotland hit by a ban there earlier this year are experimenting with humane alternatives prior to the season, which begins in November. Why cannot the 318 registered hunts south of the border do the same?

Hunting, called by the poet William Cowper, a ‘detested sport, / that owes its pleasures to another’s pain’, has, in the words of one former Master of Hounds of the South Shropshire Hunt, Robert Churchward, ‘absolutely no justification - moral or otherwise.’ Is that freedom ‘of the human person’ to hunt of sufficient weight to support its continuation as a legal right? Catholic tradition and teaching would suggest not. Ban it.

Deborah Jones

DJ is general secretary of the Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare

Return to The Ark No. 192

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