Talk­ing to the an­i­mals

We will al­ways show re­spect for our quarry, but how does that af­fect our re­la­tion­ships with other crea­tures that cross our path? The Back Gun con­sid­ers the ques­tion.

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In the Back Gun’s hum­ble opin­ion, dis­cussing pol­i­tics and re­li­gion should be avoided as as­sid­u­ously in the shoot­ing field as around the din­ing ta­ble. But there was an oc­ca­sion last sea­son in the sun-dap­pled glade of a bosky Exmoor wood while en­joy­ing the mid-morn­ing co­mestibles and re­viv­ing drink when that guide­line was tem­po­rar­ily passed. In this case it con­cerned the con­vo­lu­tions of the EU (With­drawal) Bill and one of the many votes thereon that sparked the con­ver­sa­tion.

Politi­cians had ap­par­ently worked them­selves up a lather about how an­i­mals were seen to be pro­tected within the Lis­bon Treaty and whether our laws should recog­nise an­i­mal sen­tience, that be­ing their abil­ity to per­ceive or feel things. An­i­mals, that is, not politi­cians.

One of our bet­ter read

Guns quoted the 17th cen­tury philoso­pher René Descartes who ap­par­ently sug­gested that ‘an­i­mals are with­out feel­ings, phys­i­cal or emo­tional and that if any mam­mal ap­pears to be free of emo­tions, apart from cyn­i­cism, it would be the goat’. This prompted much de­bate, most no­tably led by those of a ca­nine per­sua­sion who posited that Descartes was bark­ing and that mod­ern sci­ence was in no doubt that Rover (or Purdey) has a dis­tinct per­son­al­ity, can form at­tach­ments and dis­play emo­tions.

Hands up those who have wit­nessed a labrador be­ing blood­y­minded, overtly amorous and emo­tion­ally un­sta­ble when sep­a­rated from food. Now, men in white coats with sticky-out hair have been able to demon­strate that goats, too, be­come emo­tion­ally aroused in tests, both pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive. Mer­ci­fully, the con­cept of a pos­i­tively aroused goat brought the dis­cus­sion to an end and the team con­tin­ued with their day, but it set the mind to rac­ing.

Many sea­sons ago, on a Scot­tish hill­side in win­ter, be­ing shot­blasted by sleet brought in by an east­erly gale of wind strong enough to blow dogs off their chains, we were sur­prised to see the pick­ers-up de­liv­er­ing the avian har­vest promptly and with­out cer­e­mony into an enor­mous wicker laun­dry bas­ket. More re­cently, af­ter a sport­ing day in the Span­ish coun­try­side, on re­turn­ing to the lodge the Guns were met with their en­tire day’s plea­sure laid out in el­e­gant dis­play and saluted by ev­ery­one, though with­out the ca­coph­ony of brass beloved of French hunters.

In their dif­fer­ent ways both were do­ing what they had al­ways done and recog­nised their quarry as wor­thy, but at­tribut­ing the pos­ses­sion of emo­tions was prob­a­bly not on their radar.

There is a clear di­chotomy about shoot­ing. On the one hand, most right-think­ing Guns and all the keeper­ing fra­ter­nity have deep re­spect for the birds and beasts in their care. On the other, their aim,

“In Spain, the day’s bag was laid out in el­e­gant dis­play and saluted by ev­ery­one.”

and ours, is to re­turn said birds and beasts to the hu­man food chain in the most sport­ing and ef­fi­cient way pos­si­ble.

Here’s the thing. Be­liev­ing that Bowser, Dob­bin, Billy and even ham­sters have emo­tions is one thing, but what about your fiz­zling par­tridge, lum­ber­ing pheas­ant or brown trout? Do they share those same emo­tional tropes so beloved of the an­i­mal rights ac­tivists and how should we recog­nise them?

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween hu­man and an­i­mal is of­ten ten­u­ous, fre­quently nu­anced by eco­nom­ics and reg­u­larly haz­ardous. In re­cent weeks, we have read of a black bear that at­tacked a car full of vis­i­tors at a Bed­ford­shire sa­fari park, de­scribed cor­rectly by its op­er­a­tors as ‘not a pet­ting zoo’, and a pet­ting zoo in Cheshire that has em­braced the con­cept of field to fork by coun­ter­point­ing the furry friends on the hoof with an abat­toir ex­pe­ri­ence.

While it is in­ter­est­ing to see corvids en­joy­ing their nat­u­ral habi­tat, tell that to the Dorset farm­ers who have lost lambs to the at­ten­tion of ravens, Alpine shep­herds watch­ing their flocks dec­i­mated by grey wolves and the protest­ing mem­bers of the RSPB who don’t un­der­stand the need to cull hooded crows to pre­serve the Eurasian curlew. It goes un­recorded if three ivory poach­ers in a South African game re­serve be­lieved in the sen­tience of the lions into whose pride they had in­ad­ver­tently wan­dered, but the lions promptly ate them. Na­ture re­bal­anc­ing the scales per­haps.

Though game is re­spected it is treated very dif­fer­ently to the gun­dog at its owner's feet.

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