Animal baiting is a form of animal fighting in which
men undertake the harassment, torment, or provocation of one animal by another for the purposes of entertainment, which usually includes wagering. For the
past several centuries, men (and most participants are
men) have set dogs on other animals such as bulls,
bears, badgers, and rats. The defenders of this sport
emphasized its value in producing a desirable masculinity based on the values of courage and bravery.
Critics opposed the inhumane treatment of animals.
With a few notable exceptions, such as bull fighting, all
forms of animal baiting have been prohibited and are
practiced only clandestinely.
Cockfighting, which dates back 2,500 years, is the oldest
recorded type of animal fighting. Virtually a worldwide practice, cockfighting is an indigenous sport almost everywhere.Apart from cockfighting, dog fighting
has been and remains perhaps the most widespread
type of animal baiting. Various societies practice other
types of animal fighting, frequently involving animals
indigenous to the region: elephant fighting in India,
tarantula fights in South Africa, and fish fights in China.
Matches between different animals such as between
boars and tigers have occurred in India and between
bulls and bears in Spain. Some fights pit human beings
against other animals, the most famous being the Spanish bullfight.
The best documented occurrences of animal baiting
are from Great Britain during the 17th century, when it
became an important public recreation. Since the late
18th century, middle-class moralists have condemned
this sport as an undesirable public recreation of the
poor. This eventually led to its illegality in the mid-19th
century. In the 20th century, it became a rare, clandestine sport rather than a popular, public sport. The principal animals used in the sport were bulls, bears, badgers, and rats. Bull baiting, the most popular type of
animal baiting, was held on special occasions, often at
fairs, wakes, and even at elections. It always occurred in
the open, usually a publican’s yard, an open field, or a
Rules and Play
The various forms of animal baiting have their own
rules and conventions, although with the same underlying idea: endurance wins. In bull baiting, men attached the bull to a strong stake and unleashed dogs on
it. The dogs seized the bull about the head. The one
who retained its hold the longest won a prize for his
master. Frequently the bulls tossed the dogs high into
the air. Owners attempted to catch them before they fell
to the ground and were injured.
Bear baiting was similar, though held indoors. Men
tethered the bear to a wall with strong collar and chain.
One man further controlled the bear with a rope fastened to the collar. This allowed the man to help a dog
that the bear had grabbed and “hugged” with a sharp
pull of the rope that would bring the bear to its knees,
causing it to release the dog. A well-trained dog could grab the bear by the nose or lower jaw and pull its head
between its legs, causing a complete somersault that
left the bear helpless at the end of a chain.
Bull running was a variant activity. It was usually
held on a holiday. It began with the baiting of the bulls,
usually with liquid irritants or a red effigy. This was followed by a free-for-all through the streets of the town.
It was similar to contemporary bull running in France
and Spain, the most famous being at Pamplona.
Badger baiting was another form of the sport.Again
the animal was tied to a stake and a dog was loosed on
it, worrying it while the badger fought back with its
jaws and claws. A variation of this sport was badger
drawing, in which a badger was placed in a box. The
dog’s master held the dog by the scruff of its neck and
by the tail, letting the dog into the box and then drawing it out by the tail. Wagering was based on how many
times the dog could successfully draw the badger from
Rat baiting or rat killing was also popular. Men
placed dogs, usually terriers, in a small, wire-enclosed
pit with a large number of rats. The dogs killed the rats
by shaking them before the rats could bite. The dog that
killed the most rats in the shortest time won; five seconds per rat was good work. A rare variation of this
form of the sport was a competition among men and
dogs involving who could kill the most rats, men using
their teeth to tear off the head of the rat.
A final “sport” was throwing rocks at cocks, which
was often held on Shrove Tuesday. A promoter charged
twopence for three throws. The customer attempted to
knock the bird down long enough to reach it and grab
it before it regained its feet. If successful, he kept the
These sports had gender, class, and racial components, and attacks and defenses of them involved these
issues. Some individuals denounced the popular recreations of the poor, but not the blood sports of gentlemen, such as fox hunting, shooting, and fishing. Many
males advocated animal-fighting sports. Their arguments were race- and gender-based, emphasizing the
values of bravery, valor, and courage of the English
“race.” The defenders endowed the dogs that participated in the various baitings with these values, which
the Anglo-Saxon youth of Great Britain needed to defend Empire.
Opposition to animal baiting began in the late 18th
century, with opponents holding their opinions for different reasons and from different political points of
view. The middle class led the movement against these
popular sports. Rational and radical individuals opposed the indifference to suffering and pain of a prehumanitarian age, while conservative moralists valued
social control and feared these sports because they attracted large crowds in a revolutionary age. The opposition culminated in the introduction of the Bull-Baiting Bill of 1800 in the British Parliament. Further
success came in 1835 with the passage of the Act
Against Cruelty of Animals. The sports, however, were
not to be legislated out of existence, and both the practices and opposition to them continued.
Given recent concerns with animal rights, as well as
overall changes in cultural values, it seems unlikely that
animal baiting will again emerge as a public sport. The
lure of such blood sports remains strong in some individuals, however, making it unlikely that animal baiting
will ever disappear entirely.
Animal baiting is a form of animal fighting in which