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Archive for March, 2013

In praise of dogs

The name Laika probably doesn’t mean much to many people.

Laika was a three year old dog who made history by being the first animal to orbit the earth – and she was also the first animal I can remember feeling desperately worried about. Taken as a stray from the streets of Moscow and sent into space by the Russians in 1957, she made news around the world and to a young boy this was incredibly exciting. It was only when I asked if she had come back unharmed that my excitement turned to sadness. Answers varied and seemed to avoid a full explanation, but it was only many years later that Laika’s true fate was revealed – she had died shortly after take-off in a painful combination of over-heating and stress. “The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it…. We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog.” admitted the senior scientist, Oleg Gazenko. A statue to Laika now stands in Moscow.

Statue to Laika that stand outside a military research facility in Moscow

Statue to Laika outside a military research facility in Moscow

Man’s relationship with the dog, formed over tens of thousands of years, has become far more than that of simply a companion animal. Forged initially through hunting, it has been, and still is, a truly remarkable bonding, sometimes to the detriment of the individual animal as with Laika, but often to the benefit of both man and dog. Of course there are still the cases of cruelty through neglect, abandonment and deliberate attacks that hit the headlines in the UK almost daily. So-called ‘status dogs’, usually a Staffordshire Bull terrier type, can be seen in any large town along with their stereotypical owners, but despite this the British undoubtedly love their dogs.  It would seem that something very special has happened between man and dog over thousands of years. Indeed, there is now a scientific view that the brain of the domesticated dog is actually changing to become more like that of the higher primates because of dog’s proximity to man.

The many ways in which dogs help humans is truly staggering: search and rescue dogs, guide dogs, hearing dogs, dogs for the disabled, guard dogs, police dogs, drug sniffer dogs, explosive sniffer dogs, herding dogs, dogs that can detect cancer, dogs that can predict an epileptic fit and dogs that can tell when a diabetic person’s blood sugar reaches a dangerous level. Then, there are the simply amazing deeds of companion dogs. A three year old girl who recently went missing over night in Poland was found alive thanks to her pet dog, who kept her warm overnight in sub-zero temperatures.

It is the truly astounding scenting power of the dog that has given it the ability to perform most of the remarkable functions mentioned above and this raises an interesting question. If dogs can be used in so many beneficial ways, why then has their use in wildlife management been interrupted by law in the UK?

Scent is something that is little understood and aspects of it are still being discovered, but if dogs can detect the minute changes in the human condition, is it not reasonable that the scent of an ailing or injured animal can also be detected? Wolves catch the old, weak and diseased animals in the main when they hunt and scenting hounds have evolved to do the same. Brian Fanshawe, a highly experienced former Master and Huntsman, explained how rewarding it was for hounds to find the scent whatever the conditions. “Dogs love to please and be pleased. Finding scent pleases dogs be they sniffer dogs or hunting hounds and rewards their handlers. Such successes cement the working relationship between man and dog”. It doesn’t matter at all that humans are involved in organising a hunt – this is man using the selective function of nature.

There appears to be a mental block in the minds of certain animal organisations when it comes to dogs doing what they do naturally i.e. hunt. During the committee stages of the Hunting Act and previous similar bills, anti-hunting MPs found great difficulty in wording the main clause outlawing “hunting with dogs” for the simple reason that it is the hounds that “hunt” rather than the humans.

The rhetoric of anti-hunting groups referring to dogs “attacking” wildlife and lumping the activity of hunting in with badger baiting and dog fighting is all designed to create an impression in the public mind of rampaging killer animals. Yet, as anyone who has had contact with the various breeds of hounds will know, they are truly friendly and faithful animals that have a remarkable attachment to the hunt staff, as John Griffiths, Environment Minister for Wales discovered when he visited the Glamorgan Hunt kennels last year. The bond between the Master, Jackie Thomas, and his hounds when he took them for a short walk was obvious and the fact that such a number could be controlled by one man was not lost on the Minister.

Hounds, Master and Minister

Hounds, Master and Minister

It is this relationship that many in the anti-hunting world will never understand. Of course, just because dogs are used does not automatically make any activity humane or justified, but to point to the relatively few abuses in the hunting field as if they are the norm and ignore the greater picture is to grossly distort what hunting is.

Yet the obsessive drive to ban hunting with dogs, something that has cost literally tens of millions of pounds of private and public money, continues as if it is the very worst thing wildlife can face, when in fact it is the most natural.

The LACS proudly announced at the weekend that their ‘investigators’ would use cameras mounted on drones to “catch wildlife criminals” and by that they mean those hunting with hounds. Yet it was only in 2010, following the tragic death of hunt supporter Trevor Morse in an incident with a gyrocopter belonging to a ‘hunt monitor’, that the LACS said it did not support the use of gyrocopters or any other form of airborne monitoring.

So, change of policy aside, doesn’t anyone at the LACS, RSPCA or any other group opposed to hunting ever stop to think about the disproportionate measures they are taking? The obsession with ‘infiltration’ and ‘investigating’ hunts, like some self-appointed rural police force. The enormously costly legal actions. The need to portray all hunters as sadists. The ridiculous suggestion that there is a “war in the countryside”. Do they really see hunting with hounds as the very worst thing that can happen to wild animals and something that must be stopped at all costs?

It would seem that these anti-hunting groups have forgotten precisely what their real aim should be and in doing so they not only betray animal welfare, they denigrate man’s best friend.

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