by   David Hancock

Attitudes towards the baiting of the bull, the bear and the badger have rightly changed enormously in a century, but was the baiting of the horse, practised in the fourteenth century in England ever truly patronised? It is recorded in prints of those times and these images are simply appalling. Apologists for bull-baiting mention a role for meat-tendering; defenders of badger-baiting speak of testing the gameness of their dogs; bear-baiters wrote of witnessing and being inspired by animal courage and 'persistence'. Few mention the huge loss of dogs in such barbaric activities. Bulls have punishing horns and hooves, badgers possess powerful jaws and the thickest of hides and bears have immense size as well as huge jaws and fearsome claws. But, horses? With only a rearward kick to offer to any assailant they are an easy target for a dog-attack. One visitor to the notorious bear garden in Southwark described seeing 'a pony with an ape fastened on its back' set loose amongst dogs, concluding that the spectacle of the pony kicking amongst the dogs, with some hanging on from its ears and neck - all accompanied by the screams of the ape, was 'very laughable'.

Where is the challenge, the spectacle, the 'sport'? It's just too awful to contemplate! Horse, dog and man have been companions since recorded history began, with both a respect and a mutual need for protection acknowledged. The slaughter of recklessly brave dogs, at man's behest, in the lion-bait especially, is rarely mentioned by animal-lovers when rightly condemning such inexcusable 'sports' - as though the dogs themselves were to blame! The agriculturist John Houghton, writing in the early 19th century, stated: "I believe I have seen a dog tossed by a bull thirty, if not forty foot high; and when they are tossed either higher or lower, the men about strive to catch them...Notwithstanding this care, a great many dogs are killed, more have their limbs broke..." Bull-baiting was abolished due to public outrage at the cruelty to the bulls, not out of any sympathy for the hundreds and hundreds of slaughtered or seriously maimed dogs. I can find no record of the dogs' suffering being a consideration.

Dogs misused in such combat are usually described by scholars as mastiffs or bulldogs and breed historians are often deceived by such casual mis-naming. Today's pedigree Mastiff and Bulldog are very different animals and a far cry from the broad-mouthed, powerfully-built, extraordinarily-agile dogs of the baiting rings, which varied from the Staffordshire Bull Terrier-type in the bull-fights to the heavier combat dogs used in places like Vienna and southern Europe, resembling the Neapolitan-type of Cane Corso, the Canary Dog and the Dogue de Bordeaux. The latter types were often 'tried' on bear before being used on even more challenging quarry like lions. The outcome for such dogs, faithfully carrying out their owners' brutal wishes, is found today in the persecution of any dog belonging to breeds like the Japanese Tosa, the Brazilian Fila, the Argentinian Dogo and the Pit Bull Terrier, simply because of their physical appearance or through their willingness to 'persist' - a quality desired in both the policeman and the serviceman! The Health and Safety Executive tell us that 74 people have been killed by being trampled by cattle in British fields in the last 15 years. Where is the Dangerous Cattle Act to match the discredited Dangerous Dogs Act demanding the destruction of, say, all Friesian cattle as a result of this 'trampling'?

In his The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England of 1830, Joseph Strutt gives us a wide range of information on the tormenting of captive animals with dogs in previous centuries. He quotes Hentzner's Itinerary of 1598: "There is a place built in the form of a theatre, which serves for baiting of bulls and bears; they are fastened behind, and then worried by great English bull-dogs; but not without risque to the dogs, from the horns of the one and the teeth of the other; and it sometimes happens they are killed on the spot; fresh ones are immediately supplied in the places of those that are wounded or tired..." He also quotes Lancham, who wrote in 1575, as stating that thirteen bears were provided for one occasion, to be baited with a great sort of ban-dogs. Strutt lists an advertisement published in the reign of Queen Anne which read "At William Well's bear-garden...there will be a green bull baited; and twenty dogs to fight for a collar; and the dog that runs farthest and fairest wins the collar; with other diversions of bull and bear-baiting." The dogs 'fighting' for a collar would have been big and fierce - inflicting great harm on each other, but perhaps less harm than a bear or a bull would; collar-running might have been kinder than bull-running! We do not punish mankind for such barbaric activities but we insist on punishing, on whatever grounds can be found, the ancestor-dogs from such brutal times - simply because in times past they were bred and trained by man to fight, bait or torment other captive animals. The fact that many more dogs died in such loathsome 'pastimes' is forever overlooked!