I know I don’t need to tell anyone reading this that bear-baiting is cruel and unusual. It goes without saying. If you pit a bunch of powerful creatures against another animal and watch as its brutalised that’s sick. It’s a no brainer. People haven’t always had the same sensibilities about animal cruelty (or cruelty in general) of course. In the dark coffins of history lurk a primitive human need to watch pain. This primeval urge still rears its bloodied brow in some regions to this very day, such as Pakistan, but more on that later. Lets start a little closer to home.
Bear-baiting was popular between the 16th and 19th centuries in Britain. Many bears were kept especially for the purpose and arenas were built to entertain the blood thirsty crowds. The arenas were called bear-gardens, they consisted of a high circular fence, raised seating around the edge and a stake to tie the bear to.
The bear was chained by its leg or neck and a number of hunting dogs (normally old English bulldogs) were set upon it. As the dogs became injured or too exhausted to fight they would be replaced by others, ensuring that the attack on the bear was unrelenting.
The most popular bear-garden was in Paris Garden, London on Bankside (see map from the year 1560 below). You might imagine that it was just the poor and retarded that enjoyed the “sport”, au contraire madame. Henry VIII loved it and even Elizabeth I overruled an attempt by Whitehall to ban it. So it was every level of society that seemed to find joy in the suffering, from the plebs to the monarchs. There are reports of other animals being baited too, including bulls, and one instance where a pony with an ape tied to its back was attacked. Apparently the screaming of the monkey was “amusing”.
Life was a lot tougher back in those days; hunger, plague, excrement all around. But it’s still pretty hard to get into the mindset of our forbears and imagine revelling in such brutality. One thing is sure though, if we were born in that era we would have loved it just as much.
The Puritans tried to ban the sport, on one occasion many were injured when the seating around the bear-garden collapsed and the puritans declared it was a symbol from the heavens. However, they were mostly cross that the event was taking place on a Sunday rather than being concerned about the actual cruelty. Bear baiting was eventually outlawed, but not until 1835 with the Cruelty To Animals Act.
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