A Refinement Of “Sporting” Cruelty by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

I firmly believe in the sound manhood of the English people, and I know that in any great emergency they would rise and prove themselves true and gallant of soul; but we happen for the time to have amongst us a very large class of idlers, and these idlers are steadily introducing habits and customs which no wise observer can regard without solemn apprehensions. The simple Southampton poet has told us what “idle hands” are apt to do under certain guidance, and his saying–truism as it appears–should be studied with more regard to its vital meaning. The idlers crave for novelties; they seek for new forms of distraction; they seem really to live only when they are in the midst of delirious excitement. Unhappily their feverish unrest is apt to communicate itself to men who are not naturally idlers, and thus their influence moves outwards like some vast hurtful wind blown from a pestilent region. During the past few years the idlers have invented a form of amusement which for sheer atrocity and wanton cruelty is unparalleled in the history of England. I shall say some words about this remarkable amusement, and I trust that gentle women who have in them the heart of compassion, mothers who have sons to be ruined, fathers who have purses to bleed, may aid in putting down an evil that gathers strength every day.

Most of my readers know what the “sport” of coursing is; but, for the benefit of strictly town-bred folk, I may roughly indicate the nature of the pursuit as it was practised in bygone times. A brace of greyhounds were placed together in the slips–that is, in collars which fly open when the man who holds the dogs releases a knot; and then a line of men moved slowly over the fields. When a hare rose and ran for her life, the slipper allowed her a fair start, and then he released the dogs. The mode of reckoning the merits of the hounds is perhaps a little too complicated for the understanding of non-“sporting” people; but I may broadly put it that the dog which gives the hare most trouble, the dog that causes her to dodge and turn the oftenest in order to save her life, is reckoned the winner. Thus the greyhound which reaches the hare first receives two points; poor pussy then makes an agonized rush to right or left, and, if the second dog succeeds in passing his opponent and turning the hare again, he receives a point, and so on. The old-fashioned open-air sport was cruel enough, for it often happened that the hare ran for two or three miles with her ferocious pursuers hard on her track, and every muscle of her body was strained with poignant agony; but there is this to be said–the men had healthy, matchless exercise on breezy plains and joyous uplands, they tramped all day until their limbs were thoroughly exercised, and they earned sound repose by their wholesome exertions. Moreover, the element of fair-play enters into coursing when pursued in the open spaces. Pussy knows every foot of the ground; nightly she steals gently to the fields where her succulent food is found, and in the morning she steals back again to her tiny nest, or form, amid the soft grass. All day she lies chewing the cud in her fashion, and moving her delicate ears hither and thither, lest fox or stoat or dog should come upon her unawares; and at nightfall she steals away once more. Every run, every tuft of grass, every rising of the ground is known to her; and, when at last the tramp of the approaching beaters rouses her, she rushes away with a distinct advantage over the dogs. She knows exactly whither to go; the other animals do not, and usually, on open ground, the quarry escapes. I do not think that any greyhound living could catch one of the hares now left on the Suffolk marshes; and there are many on the great Wiltshire plains which are quite capable of rushing at top speed for three miles and more. The chase in the open is cruel–there is no denying it–for poor puss dies many deaths ere she bids her enemies good-bye; but still she has a chance for life, and thus the sport, inhuman as it is, has a praiseworthy element of fairness in it.

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But the betting-man, the foul product of civilization’s depravity, cast his eye on the old-fashioned sport and invaded the field. He found the process of walking up the game not much to his taste, for he cares only to exercise his leathern lungs; moreover, the courses were few and far between and the chances of making wagers were scanty. He set himself to meditate, and it struck him that, if a good big collection of hares could be got together, it would be possible to turn them out one by one, so that betting might go on as fast and as merrily on the coursing-ground as at the roulette-table. Thus arose a “sport” which is educating many, many thousands in callousness and brutality. Here and there over England are dotted great enclosed parks, and the visitor is shown wide and mazy coverts where hares swarm. Plenty of food is strewn over the grass, and in the wildest of winters pussy has nothing to fear–until the date of her execution arrives. The animals are not natives of those enclosures; they are netted in droves on the Wiltshire plains or on the Lancashire moors, and packed off like poultry to the coursing-ground. There their life is calm for a long time; no poachers or lurchers or vermin molest them; stillness is maintained, and the hares live in peace. But one day there comes a roaring crowd to the park, and, though pussy does not know it, her good days are passed. Look at the mob that surges and bellows on the stands and in the enclosures. They are well dressed and comfortable, but a more unpleasant gang could not be seen. Try to distinguish a single face that shows kindness or goodness–you fail; this rank roaring crowd is made up of betting-men and dupes, and it is hard to say which are the worse. There is no horse-racing in the winter, and so these people have come out to see a succession of innocent creatures die, and to bet on the event. The slow coursing of the old style would not do for the fiery betting-man; but we shall have fun fast and furious presently. The assembly seems frantic; flashy men with eccentric coats and gaudy hats of various patterns stand about and bellow their offers to bet; feverish dupes move hither and thither, waiting for chances; the rustle of notes, the chink of money, sound here and there, and the immense clamour swells and swells, till a stunning roar dulls the senses, and to an imaginative gazer it seems as though a horde of fiends had been let loose to make day hideous. A broad smooth stretch of grass lies opposite to the stands, and at one end of this half-mile stretch there runs a barrier, the bottom of which is fringed with straw and furze. If you examined that barrier, you would find that it really opens into a wide dense copse, and that a hare or rabbit which whisks under it is safe on the far side. At the other side of this field a long fenced lane opens, and seems to be closed at the blind end by a wide door. To the right of the blind lane is a tiny hut surrounded by bushes, and by the side of the hut a few scattered men loaf in a purposeless way. Presently a red-coated man canters across the smooth green, and then the diabolical tumult of the stands reaches ear-splitting intensity. Your betting-man is cool enough in reality; but he likes to simulate mad eagerness until it appears as though the swollen veins of face or throat would burst. And what is going on at the closed end of that blind lane? On the strip of turf around the wide field the demure trainers lead their melancholy-looking dogs. Each greyhound is swathed in warm clothing, but they all look wretched; and, as they pick their way along with dainty steps, no one would guess that the sight of a certain poor little animal would convert each doleful hound into an incarnate fury. Two dogs are led across to the little hut–the bellow of the Ring sounds hoarsely on–and the chosen pair of dogs disappear behind the shrubs. And now what is passing on the farther side of that door which closes the lane? A hare is comfortably nestling under a clump of furze when a soft step sounds near her. A man! Pussy would like to move to right or left; but, lo, here are other men! Decidedly she must move forward. Oh, joy! A swinging door rises softly, and shows her a delightful long lane that seems to open on to a pleasant open country. She hops gaily onward, and then a little uneasiness overtakes her; she looks back, but that treacherous door has swung down again, and there is only one road for her now. Softly she steals onward to the mouth of the lane, and then she finds a slanting line of men who wave their arms at her when she tries to shoot aside. A loud roar bursts from the human animals on the stand, and then a hush falls. Now or never, pussy! The far-off barrier must be gained, or all is over. The hare lowers her ears and dashes off; then from the hut comes a staggering man, who hangs back with all his strength as a pair of ferocious dogs writhe and strain in the leash; the hounds rise on their haunches, and paw wildly with their fore-feet, and they struggle forward until puss has gone a fair distance, while the slipper encourages them with low guttural sounds. Crack! The tense collars fly, and the arrowy rush of the snaky dogs follows. Puss flicks her ears–she hears a thud, thud, wallop, wallop; and she knows the supreme moment has come. Her sinews tighten like bowstrings, and she darts on with the lightning speed of despair. The grim pursuers near her; she almost feels the breath of the foremost. Twitch!–and with a quick convulsive effort she sheers aside, and her enemy sprawls on. But the second dog is ready to meet her, and she must swirl round again. The two serpentine savages gather themselves together and launch out in wild efforts to reach her; they are upon her–she must dart round again, and does so under the very feet of the baffled dogs. Her eyes are starting with overmastering terror; again and again she sweeps from right to left, and again and again the staunch hounds dash along in her track. Pussy fails fast; one dog reaches her, and she shrieks as she feels his ferocious jaws touch her; but he snatches only a mouthful of fur, and there is another respite. Then at last one of the pursuers balances himself carefully, his wicked head is raised, he strikes, and the long tremulous shriek of despair is drowned in the hoarse crash of cheering from the mob. Brave sport, my masters! Gallant Britons ye are! Ah, how I should like to let one of you career over that field of death with a brace of business-like boarhounds behind you!

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There is no slackening of the fun, for the betting-men must be kept busy. Men grow frantic with excitement; young fools who should be at their business risk their money heedlessly, and generally go wrong. If the hares could only know, they might derive some consolation from the certainty that, if they are going to death, scores of their gallant sporting persecutors are going to ruin. Time after time, in monotonous succession, the same thing goes on through the day–the agonized hares twirl and strain; the fierce dogs employ their superb speed and strength; the unmanly gang of men howl like beasts of prey; and the sweet sun looks upon all!

Women, what do you think of that for Englishmen’s pastime? Recollect that the mania for this form of excitement is growing more intense daily; as much as one hundred thousand pounds may depend on a single course–for not only the mob in the stands are betting, but thousands are awaiting each result that is flashed off over the wires; and, although you may be far away in remote country towns, your sons, your husbands, your brothers, may be watching the clicking machine that records the results in club and hotel–they may be risking their substance in a lottery which is at once childish and cruel.

There is not one word to be said in favour of this vile game. The old-fashioned courser at least got exercise and air; but the modern betting-man wants neither; he wants only to make wagers and add to his pile of money. For him the coursing meetings cannot come too often; the swarming gudgeons flock to his net; he arranges the odds almost as he chooses–with the help of his friends; and simpletons who do not know a greyhound from a deerhound bet wildly–not on dogs, but on names. The “sport” has all the uncertainty of roulette, and it is villainously cruel into the bargain. Amid all those thousands you never hear one word of pity for the stricken little creature that is driven out, as I have said, for execution; they watch her agonies, and calculate the chances of pouching their sovereigns. That is all.

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Here then is another vast engine of demoralization set going, just as if the Turf were not a blight of sufficient intensity! A young man ventures into one of those cruel rings, buys a card, and resolves to risk pounds or shillings. If he is unfortunate, he may be saved; but, curiously enough, it often happens that a greenhorn who does not know one greyhound from another blunders into a series of winning bets. If he wins, he is lost, for the fever seizes him; he does not know what odds are against him, and he goes on from deep to deep of failure and disaster. Well for him if he escapes entire ruin! I have drawn attention to this new evil because I have peculiar opportunities of studying the inner life of our society, and I find that the gambling epidemic is spreading among the middle-classes. To my mind these coursing massacres should be made every whit as illegal as dog-fighting or bull-baiting, for I can assure our legislators that the temptation offered by the chances of rapid gambling is eating like a corrosive poison into the young generation. Surely Englishmen, even if they want to bet, need not invent a medium for betting which combines every description of noxious cruelty! I ask the aid of women. Let them set their faces against tin’s horrid sport, and it will soon be known no more.

If the silly bettors themselves could only understand their own position, they might be rescued. Let it be distinctly understood that the bookmaker cannot lose, no matter how events may go. On the other hand, the man who makes wagers on what he is pleased to term his “fancies” has everything against him. The chances of his choosing a winner in the odious new sport are hardly to be mathematically stated, and it may be mathematically proved that he must lose. Then, apart from the money loss, what an utterly ignoble and unholy pursuit this trapped-hare coursing is for a manly man! Surely the heart of compassion in any one not wholly brutalized should be moved at the thought of those cabined, cribbed, confined little creatures that yield up their innocent lives amid the remorseless cries of a callous multitude. Poor innocents! Is it not possible to gamble without making God’s creatures undergo torture? If a man were to turn a cat into a close yard and set dogs upon it, he would be imprisoned, and his name would be held up to scorn. What is the difference between cat and hare?

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March, 1887.

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