Mr Fox’s Hunt Breakfast on Christmas Day by the illustrator Harry Neilson

Beauties and the beasts

Our urge to anthropomorphise animals obscures the fact that we are all part of the same complex ecosystem

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

On the wall of my study hangs a dusty print of Mr Fox’s Hunt Breakfast on Christmas Day by the illustrator Harry Neilson. Mr Fox is a cheery old boy, dressed in hunting fig, with more than a hint of the Terry Thomas about him. His foxy guests sit alongside, similarly attired, dining off roast pheasant and boiled eggs. On the oak-panelled wall behind them, artworks can be seen featuring huntsmen run to ground or suffering crashing falls from their steeds. Hound masks are mounted on shields, their severed sterns hang like brushes beneath.

We obviously know this is fantasy. Hounds kill foxes, foxes don’t kill hounds, nor for that matter do they dress in hunting pink and pass the port, even the most doe-eyed townsman knows this to be the case.

Yet for all that in the homes of country folks, the people most closely connected with the cruel realities of nature, anthropomorphic art featuring the animals that we yokels hunt, shoot or chase are a staple wall decoration. Mr Fox togged in a swallowtail, pheasants in flying helmets or a stag laughing at his mate’s unfortunate target-shaped birthmark. It’s just a bit of fun, isn’t it?

Cave paintings open a window to the neolithic take on nature. Most portray representations of the hunting and gathering lifestyle of our earliest ancestors. A tantalising few of these ochre finger smears and charcoal scratches are more than simple reportage, revealing images of deeper thought and consciousness. These go much further than spear chucking and tarry mammoth pits, instead they portray what are believed to be animal spirits — morphing hunter and hunted together.

In 1998, Steven Mithen, Professor of Archaeology at Reading University, wrote The Prehistory of The Mind. It caused no little disquiet among psychologists. Mithen argued that anthropomorphic art such as the hybridised man/stag figure found in the caves of Trois-Frères — popularly known as “The Sorcerer” (right) — pinpoints the very awakening of the human mind. He hypothesises that these paintings portray an embryonic understanding of man’s relationship with the natural world.

This 15,000-year-old representation of man’s connection with nature, he says, remains hard-wired into humans today. It is the point, he argues, where humans comprehend we are part of a natural hierarchy, a social order where we sit at the head.

It could be argued that the anthropomorphic cartoons by Harry Neilson, Bryn Parry or Simon Trinder et al merely follow this pattern, reinforcing the enduring notion of the largely benevolent dictatorship humans have over animals. This idea is not confined to the art we hang in our downstairs loo.

Subconsciously, we endow animals with human emotions and traits, largely coloured by the relationships we have with that animal. The brown rat for example is in truth just a rat, yet most humans have him marked as a loathsome food thief, a four-legged, scaly-tailed purveyor of pestilence.

The grey squirrel is a tree destroying Yank, the carrion crow a Gothic creature of the damned and the magpie his superstitionriddled, songbird-slaughtering accomplice. Red stags meanwhile are monarchs, roe are ethereal, carp are big ladies and grouse are as rugged as the moors on which they live.

Our anthropomorphising of species helps us to rationalise our conservation practices. For me this applies in the lethal control of predators. When I Larsen-trap a carrion crow, I am all too aware that this bird is a highly intelligent native — brighter than my dog, some scientists say.

My brain negates any qualms I may have, arguing effectively that the beady eye staring back at me, seconds before I bash in its brains with my stick, belongs to a heartless assassin of grey partridges. The grey partridge meanwhile I bestow with an adoration close to worship. Does my mindset back up Professor Mithen’s theory? Am I hardwired, whether I like it or not, to fulfil my destiny and kill crows so partridges may live?

Anthropomorphism isn’t the preserve of those of us who shoot, fish and hunt. It is equally adored by the ranks at the opposing end of the spectrum, often used as a stealthy weapon by those seeking to promote an animal rights agenda and kick over the traces of the way the countryside is owned and managed. That fox, which the avid chasseur Neilson portrayed as a roguish varmint, is accorded a cute saintliness by the anti-hunters.

The Hunt Saboteurs Association delights in photographing its balaclava clad activists cradling foxes. The crusty Madonna clutching the vulpine Christ child, protecting this innocent from the scarlet-clad Herod is a donation-garnering image.

The embattled grey partridge of East Anglia is shunned, simply because it is beloved by posh blokes

It is a heartfelt belief of animal rightists that the hierarchy shown in cave paintings is wrong. In their view, there is no pecking order at all; animals to them are people in furry or feathery clothes. Raptors are utilised in a similar way by the anti-shooting lobby. Every one of the 37 “missing” hen harriers listed on the “Raptor Persecution UK” blog penned by Dr Ruth Tingay, a co-director of the pressure group Wild Justice, is dubbed with a anthropoid handle — “Marc”, “Lia”, “Finn”, “Octavia” and so on. The hen harrier is no longer a mere bird, it is lifted on emotional thermals to a par with man.

By bestowing a wild raptor with a human name Dr Tingay simultaneously dehumanises the gamekeepers as the killers of those 37 “missing” birds. That a bird of prey’s satellite tag has gone offline is less of a story than that “Athena” has gone missing, presumably victim of some tweed-clad lackey of a belted Earl.

Fauna associated with fieldsports are similarly weaponised by the animal rights fraternity, this time through a reverse form of anthropomorphism. Pheasants, for example, are referred to in so many tons of “non native biomass”, thereby downgrading the creature’s status as a bird to the equivalent of a potato. Hounds are similarly separated from the rest of dogdom. More is the pity for a bird that is championed by conservationists who shoot, because as sure as jays steal eggs, it will be vilified by the anti-shooters.

On the moors, the hen harrier is romanticised by Wild Justice into “Skydancer”. The dowdily rare curlew living alongside them is a gamekeeper’s favourite, thus receives no pet name or adoration and is casually written off, collateral damage in the war over who controls the uplands. The perennially embattled grey partridge of East Anglia is similarly shunned, simply because it is a game bird of the type beloved by posh blokes. Meanwhile the sparrowhawks and buzzards who have now returned in overabundance to kill the red-listed partridges are hailed as success stories: raptors good; gamebirds bad.

Anthropomorphism is multi-faceted. On one hand it is cartoonish, on the other corrosive. Giving a hen harrier a human name has never helped a hen harrier. It has merely forged them into a hammer with which to beat a caricatured communion of countryfolk.

Animals and birds are neither saint nor sinner. To make one species a baddy and another a goody does neither any favour. Neither are those of us who shoot without fault. Rats are not FSB agents. The crow is merely being a crow when he snaffles the grey partridge brood I have strived all year to protect. I must remember to rationalise my predator control — it is as much a part and parcel of my being a conservationist as my laying hedges. I am trying to maintain a balance in nature because human beings are part of nature.

Humans today have much to learn from those who painted in caves in 13,000 BC. They neither hated nor beatified animals, they merely viewed them as part of their world. “The Sorcerer” at Trois-Frères, much like Mr Fox’s Hunt Breakfast, arguably pays these animals a great honour. Both show the animal in man and the man in the animal. Mr Fox tells us somewhat whimsically that we are both hunters. The Sorcerer reminds us that humans who hunted the stag were all part of an ecosystem.

These truths are too often forgotten by those who purport to love animals so much that they bestow them with human rights, feelings and emotions.

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