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There was an interesting article by Partick Barkham in last week’s Guardian newspaper on badger baiting with dogs. Although banned in 1835, badger baiting is apparently making something of a come back with photos and reports of the “sport” plastered over the internet and social media sites. The practice consists of dragging badgers out of their setts and setting them against dogs with deadly and gruesome results. Whereas the fighting once took place in pubs and other venues, it is now more likely to take place in situ.

According to experts, badger baiters take their dogs seriously. Barkham quotes Mark Randell, an intelligence co-ordinator with the League Against Cruel Sports; “The criminality revolves around the dog and what the dog can do – ‘My dog is tougher than your dog. My dog can kill foxes and badgers and deer’… The dog is a vehicle for the individual and their criminal mind.” In this view the dog becomes an unwitting extension of the badger baiter and human criminality. The dogs, who are often pit bull crosses, become unwitting partners in crime. But whilst humans face up to 3 years in jail if convicted under the Protection of Badgers Act (1992), the dogs are more likely to be put down.

What’s interesting from a historical point of view is not only the persistence of this kind of activity, despite legislation against it, but the continuing middle class fears and condemnation of working class cruelty towards animals. Ideas of class permeate the current debate on badger baiting. In Barkham’s article, Louise Robertson of the League Against Cruel Sports contrasts respectable middle/upper class fox hunting with badger baiting; “It’s a very different kind of person who is doing your dog fighting and badger baiting. Hunters are obsessed with the sport of hunting. The badger baiting and dog fighting tends to be lower classes of people involved with criminal activity who are doing it for sick pleasure.” Similarly, Jean Thrope, a “badger expert,” states that “I know it’s not politically correct but it can be a housing estate thing… Country people do it quietly. You don’t tend to catch them. The housing estate people tend to be gobby and shout about it and that’s how you find out.” According to this perspective, middle and upper class people who indulge in pursuits that harm animals are sportsmen and women whilst those from the “lower classes” are criminally-minded and badly-behaved.

This language echoes early nineteenth-century associations of blood sports with the “lower classes.” In 1801 one observer wrote that ‘bull and bear-baiting is not encouraged by persons of rank and opulence in the present day, and when practised… it is attended only by the lowest and most despicable part of the people’ (quoted in Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age [1987], 152). After the introduction of the 1835 act banning fighting and baiting with animals, the RSPCA went after the baiters. Although the numbers prosecuted were small, RSPCA reports and the press emphasised the vulgar, depraved, and low characters of those involved.

Badger baiting in London (c.1874)

For Ritvo, the campaign against cruel sports was as much about social engineering and maintaining order than protecting animals. It is not for me to say whether social engineering is part of the picture today and nor do I wish to condone badger baiting with dogs. But it does seem that although the practices of badger baiting and the types of dogs used have changed since the early nineteenth century, their meaning and representation have remained remarkably consistent.