Vulpes vulpes and homo sapiens……….. who is hunting whom?
If it weren’t for this nation’s complex relationship with the fox, Action Against Foxhunting would have no reason to exist. With the pro bloodsports groups at one end and us at the other, there is an entire spectrum of attitudes towards our wild native dog. Catherine Deering explores how and why this came about. Read Part One of this fascinating article.
Vulpes vulpes and homo sapiens……….. who is hunting whom?
We who cannot comprehend animal cruelty, in any way, have become inured to the inanities of the hunters: they claim to be conservationists, they pontificate that foxes must be controlled, that foxes love the chase, it is good for them……..that the hunt targets only the sick and the weak, that were hunting to be banned the fox population would explode. and one would not be able to get through the front door of the Goring for canapes and champagne for the plethora of foxes…..that the fox dies instantaneously from one bite to the neck………..that foxes are vermin, they are a pest, we’re doing the country a favour……………one smiles ruefully and sadly at all the shenanigans.
Shenanigans. A lovely word. Its precise etymology is unknown. It seems to be an American neologism, and it may emanate from the Spanish chanada , a shortened form of charranada, “trick, deceit”. Or it may have evolved from an Irish word “sionnachulghim,” meaning “to play tricks, to be foxy”. The Irish called the fox “madra rua”, red dog, or sionnach.
This lovely image (above) is from The Geese Book, a manuscript produced in Nuremberg, Germany between 1503 and 1510, containing the complete liturgy compiled for the parish of St. Lorenz, which was used until the Reformation came in 1525. It is named after this subtle illustration, where geese sing from a psalter with a wolf as choir master. A fox joins the choir, singing. But he may have something else in mind. Five hundred years old, this is a powerful and very suggestive image, subtly hinting at the rapacity and strength of the wolf, the cunning of the fox, the danger to the guileless geese. Interestingly, the fox is smaller than the wolf, but the image suggests that he is smarter. (1)(2)
Revontulet – the Finnish word for the aurora borealis – translates as “fox fires”. In Finnish folklore, the fire fox dashed over the snow, and his tail flung crystals into the sky…….he who might catch the fire fox would be wealthy for the rest of his life. Many thousands of years later, in the comically bowdlerised fox hunt in the film, Mary Poppins, the hunters are portrayed as brainless dullards, some obese, prancing crazily on fairground horses; in a very interesting detail, the hunted fox is Irish, fiesty, witty, strong. So the fox, it seems, has been enveloped into human culture for millennia, inextricably part of nature but also mirroring and even outdoing homo sapiens in intelligence and perception.
1. Animals as property
As far back as Aristotle, it was thought that animals were put on earth specifically for the use of humans. They worked for man, they provided fur and they constituted food. Their skins were vellums to be inscribed and written on; their horns were musical instruments, and they were offered to deities as propitiatory sacrifices.
Crucially, in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, it is almost universally accepted that humans are made in God’s image and are given “dominion” over animals……….
“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” Genesis 1, 26
Few of us, however, go on to consider that in subsequent verses, the Christian God imposes a vegetarian diet:
“And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat……” Genesis 1 29
The idea that animals are for humans simply to use has been a crucial idea in Western culture. Man was created in the image of God and thus has a unique status, the apex of creation. There is much rich material to read about animals in the Rabbinic Tradition, or the Islamic Tradition, but the central Judaeo-Christian tenet that animals are ours to do what we like with has been immensely destructive, both for animals and for people, despite the efforts of many recent theologians, such as Bernard Rollin, or Andrew Linzey, to interpret “dominion” as “stewardship”.
The concept of “man the hunter” is another very culturally powerful idea. Some anthropologists argue that hunting was homo sapiens’ original form of livelihood. Obtaining meat was a crucial evolutionary strategy, leading to bigger brains and an expansive intelligence. Lads’ magazines boast that the “killer instinct” is a valuable evolutionary commodity; man is doomed to be violent forever because it is a genetic constant. It is as perennial as humanity’s fall from grace, out of Eden. From Artemis to Bambi, man lusts for blood. Hunting is not just an aristocratic pastime, it is character building, the foundation of empire. Others posit that ancient man was more likely to scavenge and gather, as this was safer, and that the development of agriculture essentially changed human attitudes to food. But even the cold and calculated savagery of world wars and genocide cannot seem to supplant the myth of man as the endlessly aggressive and atavistic hunter, with a genetic propensity for killing, despite his superior intelligence. Our genes demand that men continually seek power, male bonding and domination; men hunt, women gather. Fox hunting has been continually conceptualised as a “noble sport”, a romantic rite of passage into manhood,
Furthermore, the concept of “vermin” is still used against the fox, in subtle and pernicious ways, even though it has never been officially classified as such by DEFRA. But language frames and demonises; the media is very powerful in shaping public attitudes. This can be seen in the “Fox comes into house and bites baby” stories, which surface occasionally in the Daily Mail and other papers. Should these stories be true, we are not given a comparison between the number of fox bites, which would be miniscule, if true, and dog bites for the same period. Politicians do not call for the culling of dogs.
Adolf Hitler was adept in his use of the concept of “vermin”. The Tutsi people in Africa were routinely called “cockroaches” before their genocide in 1994. In 2018, President Trump tweeted:
There is a Revolution going on in California. Soooo (sic) many Sanctuary areas want OUT of this ridiculous, crime infested & breeding concept. Jerry Brown is trying to back out of the National Guard at the Border, but the people of the State are not happy. Want Security and Safety NOW!
‐ President Donald Trump (4/18/2018), Twitter
The President has gone on to speak of “invasion”, “infestation”, “s***-hole
countries”. He has referred to a district of Baltimore as “a disgusting, rat and
rodent infested mess”
“Vermin” attracts interesting metaphors – they infest, they are breeding like rabbits, they are coming in swarms and floods, they are disgusting……they must be controlled…… When an animal, or a group of people, can be regarded as being repellent, scabrous and sickening, they will be easier to kill. It is very much in the interest of hunters, and pro-hunting press to ingrain the idea of the fox as verminous, as this will justify its persecution. It will also add to the self-gratification of the hunting community……”we’re doing the country a favour……”
Another strong element in the demonising of the fox has been the phenomenon of “surplus killing.” Foxes do not hunt in packs, nor do they kill for fun. If one breaks into a chicken coop, it will kill all it can, so it can bury the surplus for leaner times. Unlike in the natural world, the chickens cannot escape by flying away. The fox must kill when it can, otherwise it will starve to death. It can only carry one chicken at a time, but will come back later to retrieve and hide the prey it has killed. Caching, burying food, is a flexible, behavioural response to a glut of food; foxes tend to disperse their surplus into a number of hiding places, rather than one large larder. They use urine to mark cache sites, and have good spatial memory. Surplus killing has been used by the fox’s enemies to brand it “evil”, an abominable pest, a threat to farmers ¡and small holders and landlords which must be erased. This is anthropomorphism at its worst. In order to behave in an evil fashion, one must live in a society which has evolved a highly developed moral and ethical code, which the individual intentionally violates. A fox cannot do this.
Given this acceptance of cruelty and belligerence towards all animals for so many years, the fox has been persecuted and slaughtered throughout human history. Yet it has survived extinction. Within this, the fox has (largely) resisted domestication, and cannot really be eaten, despite the nauseating protestations of Clarissa Dickson Wright.
Our relationship with wildlife has, over time, swung between various extremes. But it seems that when human and non-human meet, there is usually violence on our part. The journey to a more enlightened and compassionate view of animals in the 21stcentury has been a long and arduous one, but the new academic and social interest in the “animal turn” gives one perhaps a little cautious ground for optimism. Thanks largely to the Internet, more citizens can find out about our relationship with animals, how they are treated, and this has led to the public caring more about animals, in general, if only because they want good, ethically-produced food and a clean, wildlife-rich environment.
Other ways in which man, in the past, has cruelly and calculatedly exploited the fox is in the use of its fur, its body parts, for “medicinal” purposes, and, of course, in the ritual of hunting. Fur is still worn, although its use is declining, and hunting, a 14thcentury barbarity, can still be seen in the British countryside. These aspects of the beautiful and noble Vulpes vulpesin our society will be considered in the next Newsletter.
The fox runs on, swift, intelligent, vibrantly alive and driven by a profound will to live.