British Parliament defeats hunting bill


February 15, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Yesterday was a bad day for Mr. Fox.

And for Mr. Stag, Mr. Weasel, Mr. Hare, and Mr. Hedgehog as well. But especially for Mr. Fox.

Parliament, after a five-hour debate, declined to extend to wild mammals the legal protections against cruelty that cover dogs, cats and other domestic animals.

It was the first free, or non-partisan, vote on the question since 1949. The measure was defeated, 187-175.

"Shame!" the losers cried.

The victors crowed. "At last we saw the gentlemen of England in full cry, and really splendid they looked," said Sir John Stokes.

The people who hunt Mr. Fox were relieved. Their activities were at the center of the debate. Had it become law, it would have made hunting with hounds illegal.

Thus, some 25,000 hounds, who service 195 recognized hunts throughout Britain, were spared redundancy.

The bill would also have made the snaring of wild mammals a crime, along with other forms of cruelty perpetrated against denizens of the hedgerows and fens.

In Britain, said the disappointed Kathryn Donachie of the Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals, "you can get a hedgehog, shoot it five times with an air rifle, play football with it, then throw it in the fire, still alive. That actually happened here. In Canterbury."

Thus Mr. Stag, Mr. Weasel and Mr. Hedgehog can expect to be shot, snared, trapped, bludgeoned and impaled, as usual. And Mr. Fox can look forward to a continuation of the quaint and colorful rural ceremonies that make his life miserable.

He will be chased by people on horses and snapped at by hounds with big teeth, all assisted by men in trucks who use radio equipment to track him when he goes underground and send nasty little terriers into his den to encourage him to emerge. He will then be seized and shot in the head and thrown to the hounds, who render him into furry bits. Sometimes he is not shot before he is introduced to Mr. Hound.

The campaigns conducted by both pro- and anti-hunting groups leading up to yesterday's vote were models of exaggeration and misrepresentation. Each side demonized the other. The antis were portrayed as tattooed louts and animal rights terrorists. The hunters were described, in Oscar Wilde's phrase, as "the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable."

The hunters claimed that they were preserving country rituals. They were conservationists, they said, because they kept the fox population down.

Brian Toon, a spokesman for the Masters of Fox Hounds Association said that about 48,000 people ride to hounds in Britain. On horses, that is. Many more use trucks.

"Everybody can't afford a horse to ride, so they -- about the country [in vehicles], and watch the hunts from the road," he said.

Mr. Toon estimates that 16,500 people in Britain depend on the hunts for their livelihood: grooms, hunt servants, terrier men.

"Rubbish," barked Kevin McNamara, the Labor Party member of Parliament who introduced the bill. "Absolute rubbish," growled Sir Teddy Taylor, a Conservative member who, along with 24 other Conservatives, voted for it.

Throughout the debate, the hunters were attacked for hypocrisy, urged to stop pretending to be effective conservationists (they only kill about 2 percent of the foxes), or advancing shaky arguments based on employment and economics.

Mr. McNamara has introduced a dozen bills to put an end to fox hunting in Britain. He will bring another one in after the next general election.

"Most people in the country want an end to hunting with hounds," he said in an interview. "All opinion polls support it."

In December, Britons were asked by the Gallup organization if they approved of fox hunting: Eighty percent said no, and only 10 percent said yes. They were also asked if they would approve a law banning it: Seventy-nine percent said yes.

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