Day 428: Beast-Battling For Sport

originally published March 3, 2013

If you’re an animal lover with a weak stomach, you may want to skip this article. We at 1000-Words Industries do not endorse, nor can we completely comprehend the events described herein. I suppose in the days before Reddit and Twitter, before Quantum Leap, Gunsmoke and One Day At A Time (RIP, Bonnie Franklin!), before jukeboxes, radios, and street luge, people needed something to fill their recreation time. People enjoy watching violence, and since no one had discovered bum fights yet, I suppose it made sense to watch some animals get destroyed for our entertainment.

Here’s where I could make the obligatory Michael Vick reference, but the fact is, some people still find dog fighting to be invigorating theatre. Others can spend an evening watching roosters peck each other to death in a cockfight. And while I might tune in to a pay-per-view broadcast of watching dog-fighting enthusiasts battle one another, I’d like to think our species has evolved past these ridiculous animal blood sports.

But dogs and chickens are just the beginning.

Centuries ago, tying a bear to a post, then letting Old English Bulldogs run around and bait it, was a massive spectacle. Henry VIII had a bear-baiting pit built at Whitehall, and when Parliament tried to ban the activity on Sundays, Queen Elizabeth I overruled them. I can understand her point, though the only bears I like to watch do battle on Sundays come from Chicago and tend to choke before the end of the season.

While this activity disgusts me, I am impressed with the motivation displayed on the part of the dogs. I have four bulldogs, and they spend most of their time too sleepy to even look at a photo of a bear.

Sometimes other animals would be substituted for bears. On one occasion, the dogs were baiting a pony with an ape tied to its back. Disgusting? Yes. But a sure-fire viral video hit if it were to happen again today.

Over in the Punjab and Sindh provinces of Pakistan, bear-baiting has been going on steadily since 2004, thanks to bored local warlords with an unquenchable thirst for seeing blood. I can state with confidence that when I become a warlord, I will allow no such activity within my walled compound. I’ll stick with improv tournaments and bingo nights.

Bears are expensive, and not always easy to round up for an amateur sporting event. Back in the early 20th century, rats were seen as a viable alternative for watching hot animal-on-animal deathmatches.

The Cruelty To Animals Act of 1835 outlawed most blood sports in the UK, but it didn’t cover rats. Not a lot of people really cared if rats were killed, and I’m not entirely sure that attitude has changed much. Rat baiting involves tossing a sack-full of rats into a pit, then letting a dog loose to kill as many as it can. A dog had to kill as many rats as the number of pounds it weighed within a specific amount of time. A rate of one rat killed every five seconds was impressive.

Talented rat-baiting dogs became celebrities in London around this time. I suppose back in the 19th century, when London had as many as 70 rat pits, there weren’t a lot of celebrities, apart from royalty and Jack the Ripper. So when Billy the Bull Terrier chewed up 100 rats in 5:30 (that’s 3.3 seconds per rat), it was news-worthy. And when another dog named Jacko decimated 60 rats in 2:42 (2.7 seconds per rat), they probably threw a parade.

Fortunately, as the Victorian era subsided, so did this gruesome pastime.

Here’s one for the ladies.

In Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, aristocratic men and women would wander onto a closed pitch with a bunch of foxes, then toss them into the air as high as they could. That was it. That was the activity.

Sometimes other animals – badgers, hares, boars, wolves and wildcats – were used instead. Whoever threw the animal the highest was declared the winner. Often this would occur at masquerade balls with everyone dressed in costume. This is actually something people did.

The sport’s downfall had nothing to do with the fact that most of these animals wouldn’t survive hitting the ground after sailing 20 feet in the air. It was likely due to the fact that the animals often turned on the participants, lending an element of danger when the ocelot you wanted to heave toward the sky decided that bits of your neck-flesh would be more deserving of airborne status.

Here’s one that still happens. Goose pulling involves greasing up a goose’s head, then tying its feet to a bar or a rope stretched across a road. Competitors would race toward the goose on a horse in full gallop and try to yank the goose’s head clean off as they passed. The winner would receive a prize, as well as a sleeve full of goose guts. Fun!

If you’re already packing your bags in anticipation of your first goose-pull, you’ll want to book your tickets for Belgium, the Netherlands or Germany, where this is still a Shrove Tuesday tradition, though now they use a dead goose that had been humanely killed by a veterinarian. Some people eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, others flash their breasts in exchange for plastic bead necklaces, but over in Europe, it’s all about the decapitation of waterfowl. And speaking of water…

In the mid 1960’s, octopus wrestling was on its way to the mainstream. The annual World Octopus Wrestling Championships, held in Puget Sound, Washington, drew as many as 5000 spectators and received airtime on local TV. A 1965 Time Magazine article spread word of the sport across the world: this is what surfers do when they get bored of surfing. Fortunately, drug culture arose shortly afterward, and this sport dwindled away.

The rules are simple: divers – usually equipped with underwater breathing gear – leap into a pool, then do battle with a full-grown octopus, finally dragging it onto land in order to demonstrate their dominance over the sea. Octopus combatants would then either be donated to a local aquarium, released into the sea, or simply eaten.

I’m happy these pastimes have mostly faded into complete obscurity. Now the only time a wild beast is killed in the name of sport is when hunters wander into the woods, armed to the teeth, and engage in an utterly lopsided, practically guaranteed victory with nature.

We’ve come a long way.

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