In sixteenth-century Paris, crowds at festive occasions were often entertained by hanging a sack or basket containing 20 or so cats from a scaffold above a fire, then watching them struggle and cry as they burned alive. During the same period in England even royalty would be entertained by ‘baiting’. This involved tying a bear, bull, badger, horse or even an ape to a stake, then setting a series of dogs on them, usually attacking the face and biting off ears and tearing the animal’s skin. Even reporting such historical facts may make you twitch, squirm or even feel physically nauseous at the thought of treating animals this way. Don’t worry; such jolly fun is no longer publicly acceptable or encouraged. But why not? Are modern human beings just better, morally superior or more civilized than our predecessors?
Before we draw that conclusion, consider two of the animal ‘sports’ that have actually survived into the twenty-first century – Spanish bullfighting and British fox hunting. How have they survived when many others have been outlawed? Bullfighting carries a major cultural significance for Spanish people and the ‘fight’ between bull and human is viewed as part ritual, part genuine sporting contest which has to be appreciated as such. Bemoaning the ill-treatment and ultimate death of the bull would simply mean you’ve failed to grasp the cultural centrality of the sport within Spanish culture. British fox-hunting’s supporters claim something similar, that hunters do not take pleasure in killing the fox or watching a pack of hounds tear it apart, they appreciate the thrill of the chase and understand the hard work and skill undertaken by hounds in their pursuit of the fox. In both cases, the creation of a sporting discourse which presents the killing of animals by humans in ritualistic ways as ‘sports’ seems to have given bullfighting and fox hunting their added longevity. But things may, it appears, be changing quite quickly.
Last week the Catalan Parliament voted by 68 to 55 to ban bullfighting within the Catalan region from January 2012, a landmark decision given the history and cultural significance of the ‘sport’ in Spain. [See the pro and anti-bullfighting arguments here: PROU – campaign to abolish bullfights; Pro-bullfight Andalucia site.] Or is it? Many commentators have suggested that the ban has more to do with the politics of Spanish–Catalan relations than with animal welfare [see, for example, this report]. For example, the Catalan Parliament recently pushed for increased powers over taxation, language and much else to be devolved to it, but in June a constitutional court in Spain ruled against this, saying that the Spanish nation was the only nation recognized constitutionally. The decision led to over 1 million people protesting in the Catalan capital, Barcelona. Was it just coincidence that less than a month later, the Catalan Parliament voted to ban the ‘Spanish’ sport they feel was ‘unsportingly’ forced on them as part of ‘their’ culture? Possibly it was. The anti-bullfighting campaign has been running for more than 20 years and the idea of bullfight-free cities began with Tossa de Mar as far back as 1989 and now stands at more than 90. The current campaign for a ban gathered a 180,000-signature petition to demonstrate the strength of feeling in advance of the parliamentary debate. Such evidence illustrates a much broader opposition based on opposition to animal cruelty and concerns for animal welfare.
In the Anglo-Saxon world, bullfighting has long been seen as cruel, an anachronistic throwback to a pre-civilized, that is pre-modern, age. In England, for example, cockfighting, bear-baiting, dog fighting and many more sports using animals were outlawed in the first half of the nineteenth century, though, of course, some of these carried on in secretive underground networks and still do. The one animal sport that survived was fox hunting. [See the competing views of the League against Cruel Sports and British Traditional Field Sports.] But in 2002, hunting with dogs was banned in Scotland and, in 2004, England and Wales also moved to legislate against the hunting of animals with hounds. Some sociologists see the survival of fox hunting as inextricably tied to the power and class privilege of the upper classes which enabled them to protect their own ‘gentlemanly’ sports at the same time that they derided similar working-class ones as barbaric and ‘uncivilized’. On this account, it took until the early twenty-first century for the democratic, egalitarian impulse to reach into the leisure pursuits of the wealthy social classes. But was it concern for animal welfare that prompted the ban or the Labour government’s symbolic way of showing it was tackling class privilege? Again, we have to note a very longstanding opposition to fox hunting stretching back to the mid-nineteenth century whilst opinion polls today continue to show a large majority in favour of the ban.
Whilst short-term political manoeuvring is part of any explanation of the timing of such bans, for sociologists there has been a discernible long-term modern trend or social process towards the appreciation and conservation of nature and increasing concern with the welfare of animals. Modern cultures are generally animal welfare cultures. From the sixteenth century onwards, but gathering pace during eighteenth-century industrialization and nineteenth-century urbanization, as more people became less directly involved in working with animals in agriculture, a more detached view of human–animal relations emerged that spread across social groups and classes. With the growth in power of the modern state and its monopolization of the means of violence also came a revulsion at the use of violence against both humans and animals so that previously enjoyable animal ‘sports’ came to be re-classified as just so many instances of intolerable cruelty. Gradually, animals became the subject of increasing moral concern and any social practices which harmed or injured them were called into question. Similarly, the mass slaughter of animals for food had to be hidden out of sight behind the scenes of everyday life. Adopting this long-term perspective helps us to better understand why we remain so much more disturbed by animal cruelty than people were in previous times. But whether that makes us ‘better people’ is an entirely different matter.
There isn’t much directly on animals in the textbook, but see pp. 252-4 on human and animal communications. Norbert Elias’s theory of the ‘civilizing process’ can be found on pp. 1037-8. In addition, for anyone interested in taking these issues further I’d recommend two books. Adrian Franklin’s (1999) Animals and Modern Cultures: A Sociology of Human-Animal Relations in Modernity (London: Sage), which is an excellent introduction to all of the key debates and theories. Then Keith Thomas’s (1983) Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (London: Allen Lane) which is an historical account of the early-modern period with many insights and fascinating examples from the historical record.