What's so bad about fox hunting?

Is fox hunting bad?

This painting by Peter Paul Rubens captures the chaos at the moment the fox is captured.
This painting by Peter Paul Rubens captures the chaos at the moment the fox is captured.
Peter Paul Rubens/The Bridgeman Art Gallery/Getty Images

To the untraineĀ­d eye, a fox hunt may look somewhat bizarre. Costumes are involved, as are customs governing everything from when the food is served to how certain people are greeted. But as with any ritual, those who subscribe to it feel passionately about the importance of its tradition. With fox hunting in England, some of those elaborately costumed men would argue that while the custom and the spectacle of the hunt brings them joy, it also provides an important public service to country farmers. A fox hunt exterminates foxes, which are seen as vermin and a potential threat to farmers' sheep.

On the other hand, of course, are those who say that hunting a fox is cruel and inhumane, particularly when it's done in the style of a fox hunt. They claim it's unnecessarily cruel that the fox is chased for hours, until it's exhausted, at which point it's caught by the hounds. At that point, the dogs can do what they wish with the animal, and sometimes, by the time the dogs are done, there's absolutely nothing left of the fox [source: Cowell]. There was even some question of whether fox hunting was an effective way to control fox populations -- a temporary hunting ban had no effect on the fox population [source: Fountain].

Here is where the back-and-forth begins. In response to the cruelty argument, those who favor fox hunting contend that the fox dies at the moment the hound grabs it; the death is quick and painless as far as deaths go [source: Hoge]. It's seen as the greater crime to these people to shoot or maim an animal and not finish the job, to leave a creature limping through the woods with a bullet in the leg. The foxes, of course, are unavailable for comment on this matter.

Debate over which animals are socially acceptable to kill and how it's acceptable to kill them is nothing new -- while our ancestors may have gambled away good money at a cockfight, the practice is now illegal in some areas. But questions of ethics regarding fox hunting took on a somewhat larger import in the face of the Hunting Ban. To some, fox hunting became a symbol of conflict between urban and rural dwellers, between governmental regulations and personal liberty, and even between social classes.

To someone opposed to fox hunting, the choice is clear. The sport is unnecessarily barbaric, and as a pastime, it belongs firmly in the past. Polls showed that about 70 percent of British people agreed with a ban on hunting foxes with hounds [source: Cowell]. In Parliament debate, one speaker likened the fight to big government running roughshod over this 30 percent minority, though in this case, the minority was made up a somewhat unusual group: the upper class. Fox hunting, to put it bluntly, is seen as the sport of the aristocracy. For this reason, it makes sense that the Parliament Act of 1949 had to be used to get the measure through the House of Lords.

But what may have been surprising to hunting ban advocates were the many pleas from those of lower classes as well. People from all social classes take place in hunts now, and moreover, jobs associated with fox hunting and the rural economy were threatened by the hunting ban. For this reason, the conflict was also viewed as the city dwellers of Parliament making rules with a poor understanding of the traditions and desires of the countryside. And not just fox hunters would worry; such a ban seemed to have the potential to affect sports such as shooting and fishing.

It's been several years since the Hunting Ban passed, and as of press time, England was still standing. On the next page, we'll see what the ban actually said and what the fallout from the passage was.