Leading Article: Saboteurs, too, enjoy the thrill of the chase

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL HOWARD strikes again, this time at hunt saboteurs. Responding to indignation in the shires, where hunters are almost becoming the hunted, he is threatening saboteurs with fines or prison for obstructing country sports.

Whether hunting is morally wrong is a different question from whether the saboteurs have a right to disrupt it. The first is more difficult to answer than the second. Most rational defences of fox-hunting can be brushed aside: that foxes have to be culled, that hunting provides jobs, keeps the countryside open, fosters respect for nature, or whatever. There may be truth in all these points, but the reality is that people hunt because they enjoy it: they enjoy the social rituals, the companionship and the excitement of the chase, which arouses the part of human nature that is still a hunting animal.

Civilised societies try to curb and divert this hunter and killer. Curbs are provided by legislation; outlets by sport and other competitive activities. As a result, areas in which cruelty is permitted have shrunk over the centuries. What was regarded as normal entertainment by the ancient Romans now arouses revulsion. Londoners are no longer permitted to watch public torture and execution.

Cruelty to animals has also been curtailed as respect for animal rights has grown. Yet we continue to eat animals, experiment on them and keep them in appalling conditions. There is no consensus on what is acceptable and what is not. Many people feel it is worse to keep animals in factory farms than to chase them across fields on horseback. Factory farms deny animals their nature. Fox-hunting, although cruel, is 'natural' in the sense that hunting and killing are everyday normality in the animal world.

That does not necessarily make it right for humans. Killing for pleasure remains different from killing to survive. But hunting is not so unambiguously evil that it is beyond debate. On the scale of wrongs committed by humans, it ranks low. It needs policing, but the case for banning it remains unproven. Until it dies out, as it probably will, those who do not like it have no obvious right to obstruct those who do. Saboteurs may need to acknowledge their own enjoyment factor. When they look honestly in the mirror, do they not see a hunter there, too?