Story by Chris Graham
It didn’t use to be the case that dogfighting was considered barbaric or anything like it.
Indeed, it was a popular sport for Queen Elizabeth I and her circle back in the late 15th and early 16th centuries – and remained a favorite pasttime of British elites well into the 19th century.
“Today we have such a broad sense that this is an activity that we as a culture do not condone. That’s a reversal from the situation several centuries ago – when you had the leading people in the country, like the Queen of England, sponsoring bull baits and other blood sports for visiting dignitaries,” said Edmund Russell, a University of Virginia professor who is working on a book, Bulldog Nation, examining the change in approach to dogfighting and other so-called bloodsports that is due out next year.
The perspective that we have today on dogfighting – in the news this year with the case involving former Virginia Tech star quarterback Michael Vick, who has pleaded guilty to federal charges related to his involvement in a Surry County dogfighting ring – has evolved greatly from the days of Elizabeth I due largely to forces associated with the urbanization of human life.
“As the population moved from rural areas to cities, fewer and fewer people derived their livelihood from working with animals and slaughtering animals. They replaced those working animals in their lives with pets – and pets tend to look more like people to us than domestic farm animals do. And so people started developing these close emotional bonds with the animals around them – and so it became harder and harder for them to understand how people could have a very utilitarian approach to animals,” Russell said in an interview on this week’s “SportsDominion Show.”
“As this humane sensibility grew, mainly in the urban middle classes in cities in England in the early 19th century, opposition to dogfighting and other bloodsports grew until eventually Parliament passed an act in 1835 that banned bloodsports,” Russell said.
And that evolution continues today – England recently banned foxhunting, a favorite amusement of the genteel set for generations. And yet more traditional hunting and fishing continue on – though Russell feels that the distinction between the killing of wild animals for sport and the killing of pets for sport is clear and easily explained.
“Hunting was something that the humane activists in the early 19th century – many of them, not all of them, but many of them – opposed as well as bloodsports. But they recognized in the early 19th century that it simply was a political impossibility to ban it. But now it’s the early 21st century, and enough people have moved over into this side, to this urban humane sensibility, that it’s possible to think about banning it,” Rusell said.
“That brings up a very interesting question – where do you draw the line between acceptable killing and unacceptable killing of animals? The county attorney in Virginia who is in charge of the case against Vick said something very interesting – he said Vick is accused of killing animals, and that’s a very serious crime in Virginia. What struck me about that was the implied meaning of animals – because in fact people kill animals in Virginia every day. Livestock get killed every day to produce food. People fish, people hunt – we all kill insects without thinking twice. We kill rats and mice and other vermin without thinking twice. So it’s really not animals that are banned, but certain classes, certain groups of animals,” Russell said.
“I think we feel strongest about those that we keep as pets. I think that’s why dogfighting has grabbed so much public attention – because today a large percentage of people see dogs as pets and thus somewhat humanized animals. Whereas rats and mice and those sorts of animals don’t get the same sort of affection – and so we’re not going to ban killing them,” Russell said.
“So what I think we might see is broadening the circle consistently over time – but it could take quite a while to bring into legislation certain animals that we have less affection for than dogs,” Russell said.
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The SportsDominion.