In a just world, we should fear the wrath of the fox

Killing defenceless creatures for pleasure - can there be any other animal that does this?
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I ONCE saw a Starke cartoon in Punch in which two foxes are sitting on a hillside watching a human cross-country race in the valley below. One of the runners is well clear of the others, who are all strung out behind him. "Poor devil!" says one of the foxes to the other. "I hope he makes it."

This is not the image of the fox, as an ironic, witty, reflective sort of chap, which the fox-hunters would like to be accepted. In fact, one of the things that maddens the pro-fox-hunting lobby is the attempt by the anti-hunting lobby to present the fox not as a killer, but a cuddly, defenceless, innocent victim.

"Nothing sweet and cute about the fox!" proclaims the hunting lobby. (I am not quoting direct from any hunter here, nor from Mr Richard Burge's untiring words of wisdom; I am just putting myself imaginatively inside a fox-hunter's mind, based on the millions of discussions I have heard on the subject.) "We wouldn't mind so much if it hunted for eating, or in self-defence. But when a fox gets at chickens in a bunch, it just starts mass killing for sheer pleasure and leaves the corpses behind uneaten. That's what we can't stand."

If this is true, then it is certainly a terrible indictment. Killing defenceless creatures for pleasure, then not even bothering to clear up after you or take the bodies away for catering purposes - can there be any other animal alive that indulges in such behaviour?

Yes, I hear you cry. There is one, and he is right here.

He is called Homo sapiens, and he is all over the place.

Millions of Frenchmen get the urge to go out and shoot thrushes, and other targets worthy of their subtle skills.

Millions of Spaniards applaud as their countrymen put a sword through a bull (and you never hear of the matador asking for the resulting steak to be popped into the freezer for later).

The whole of the Chinese nation delights in chopping bits off live animals, in a supposed attempt to further the cause of medicine.

Millions of Englishmen get the urge to put hooks through the cheeks and tongues of fish, torture them for a while, then rip the hooks out and throw the fish back in the water, hoping to do it to them again when they're feeling better.

There is probably nowhere in the world where human beings do not take pleasure in inflicting suffering on other creatures, and I haven't even mentioned the psychological suffering inflicted by grown-ups on battery chickens and by children on guinea-pigs...

And apparently the fox does it too, for which we condemn it viciously for being beyond the pale and unforgivable. But would it not make more sense to welcome the fox as a comrade in arms ?

"Do you rip chickens apart for sheer pleasure, O fox?", we should say to him. "Welcome to the club! We do it to almost every animal you can think of! We do it to you, too! But that's not all! We do it to each other! You think you have fun in a chicken run? Wait till you hear what fun Serbians have in Kosovo or American maniacs have in high schools in the US!"

If the fox had any sense, he would do things the human way. He could safely slaughter all the chickens in a chicken house, if he then bagged up the remains and sold them at a profit. He could kill as many lambs as he liked, if only he froze them for next winter or, of course, paid the farmer twopence for them and sold them in his supermarket at a 1,000 per cent mark-up. We understand that sort of behaviour. We encourage it. But for some reason or other we resent foxes behaving exactly like us and killing for fun.

My only worry is that one day nature will start to get its act together and start hitting back. Well, of course, it does so to a certain extent already. Tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves... But what about animals? I have a friend who was attacked by a herd of cows, unprovoked. She was cornered in a field, jostled, thrown to the ground and then rolled on. (They broke a small bone in her back.) And I heard a story of revenge by a flower. Yes, you read aright. A flower's revenge. According to my first wife, who works in the RHS library and knows everything about daffodils, a man died of daffodil poisoning.

"Apparently he bought some onions at the greengrocer's, took them home, skinned them, chopped them and fried them for his supper," she told me. "But they weren't onions at all. They were daffodil bulbs. All parts of the daffodil are poisonous, which very few people know, and he died."

She sounded quietly proud of this, as a daffodil expert might, but my blood ran cold. If the daffodils can strike back, what will the foxes do when they get organised?