Fear in the Wild

One of the most common views put forward in the various arguments against hunting with dogs is that it is wrong to cause a wild animal to suffer by chasing it. The level of fear that is created, so the argument goes, is often likened to human terror. Further, it is argued that such ‘terror’ is avoided by the alternative methods of control, mainly shooting.

‘Sport’ is also often linked to this argument, but as the human motive has no direct effect on the animals concerned, that aspect is not addressed here.

So the question is does the animal being hunted feel fear as human beings would understand it? And if so, is it fear during the chase itself or is it the fear of what could happen if caught? Or both?

Fear of the Chase

In one crucial area, animals in the wild are not the same as their domestic cousins. Humans have taken over the role of feeding, housing and providing health care for the various animals which we keep for numerous reasons. Consequently, domesticated animals have lost some of the ability to fend for themselves in the wild. However, wild animals have to provide for themselves.

Being constantly alert and wary of possible threats is vital to a wild animal’s survival and the most obvious means of avoiding such dangers, real or otherwise, is to leave the immediate area as quickly a possible. Wild mammals are therefore accustomed to escaping from stimuli that they find threatening, some would say ‘fearful’, but it would be wrong to describe such fear as terror. It is only when a wild animal finds that it cannot escape from the immediate threat that it becomes ‘distressed’ (i.e. unable to cope) as opposed to the physiologically normal state of being ‘stressed’ during escaped.

The following quote from John Webster, Emeritus Professor of Animal Husbandry at Bristol University sheds light on this area. Webster states in his book Animal Welfare - a Cool Eye towards Eden: ”Fear is one of the most useful properties of the conscious mind because it is conducive to survival… When the gazelle learns that the charge of the leopard is truly frightening but once again, manages to escape, it may come to recognize fear as a constructive motivating force that produces its own reward, not as a source of suffering.“

Obviously, if the chased animal is caught and killed that is an end to the matter, but simple observation of animals in the wild that have escaped danger shows that they quickly revert back to their former behaviour. Indication that the alleged trauma of being chased is not, in fact, true. A further point is that, in evolutionary terms, animals unable to withstand such everyday pressure would be unlikely to survive as a species.

Fear of Death

Animals in the wild have survival mechanisms which are either learnt through their own experiences, learnt through observation of the actions of parents and siblings or are innate, that is passed on genetically. It is well established that the brains of non primate animals are not capable of providing the same level of conscious understanding as that of humans.

The majority of wild mammals, and certainly the species that are hunted with hounds, are not capable of projected thought and cannot conceive their own demise. As wild animals live in the present and, since they have never been caught, they always expect to get away. Thus they cannot imagine what would happen if they were caught and cannot know that they may face death.

For further information see Animal Cognition and Awareness on the website of the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management: www.vet-wildlifemanagement.org.uk.