This weekend, Victoria’s contentious duck shooting season has officially opened. For three months from March 18, Victoria’s wetlands will be turned into killing fields as native water birds are gunned down in their thousands. Year after year, rare and protected species, like the Freckled Duck, or the elegant Black Swan will, unfortunately, also be caught in the crossfire. As the RSPCA has highlighted, one out of every four ducks shot will be wounded, leading to a prolonged and painful death.
It would be short sighted of us to presume that concern for animals and opposition to hunting is anything new. In early 19th-century Britain, the emergence of animal protection laws and advocacy groups reflected changing attitudes and behaviours toward animals. Colonial Australia’s own royal societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals date back to the 1870s.
Although hunting was constructed as the manly sport of the 19th century, a number of figures opposed the bloodsport. A forceful criticism can be found in the pages of the Launceston Examiner in 1845. Reprinted from the British weekly magazine, Punch, the writers asked:
And what is this sporting—this game-killing, for the enjoyment of which keepers are organised; man-traps set; a fictitious crime created; and districts demoralised? Is it reasonable and humane?—a pursuit befitting thinking, kind-hearted men? In what are its great attractions? It consists of killing defenceless animals for the amusement of the slayers.
The goal of Victorian humanitarians was not only to protect animals, but to improve moral discipline.
Their reproaches were specifically against those so-called sports that inflicted animal suffering for mere enjoyment. A sportsman like this, according to George Bernard Shaw, needed to be ‘wiped out’, because he was without ‘fellow-feeling’, was uncritical in his tastes and had an outlook ‘as narrow as that of his dog’.
The goal of Victorian humanitarians was not only to protect animals, but to improve moral discipline. Cruelty to animals was seen as bad because it degraded humanity. In time, cruelties long considered as forming the very essence of English sport, like bull-baiting, bear-baiting, cock-fighting, and dog-fighting, were progressively done away it, although not without some resistance. Legislating against things like fox-hunting, it being a practice of royalty and gentlemen, was more difficult than prohibiting working class rat-fighting.
In Australia, criticisms against certain forms of hunting increased in the late19th century around the time of the punt gun—an oversized shotgun (more like a cannon than a gun) loaded on a small boat that was used for commercial shooting and could kill anywhere from 50 to 100 waterfowl in a single shot. Even shooters were outraged by the use of this weapon. People would write to newspapers to draw attention to ‘the annual wholesale, ruthless destruction’ committed by these shooters, which would leave wounded birds, ‘left to swim as best they can to the reedy shelter of the river’s bank’ where they would die. Others lamented ‘unsportsmanlike people’ who illegally killed wild fowl in the off season.
If the concerns and criticisms of those before us seem familiar, then what has changed? One difference comes down to the actions that ordinary people have taken.
Opposition continued into the early 20th century. In 1908, Reverend Henry Worrall argued that hunting and shooting animals for sport was indefensible and unChristian. The criticisms from one commentator in Perth’s Sunday Times in 1940 are just as relevant today:
Why all this senseless butchery and heartless cruelty? Duck shooting can only described as wilful, wanton, unjustifiable and callous brutality—a state of affairs calling loudly for legislators.
If the concerns and criticisms of those before us seem familiar and modern, then what has changed? One difference comes down to the actions that ordinary people have taken. Since the first ‘duck rescue’ in 1986, there has been a concerted, ongoing campaign to stop and ban the annual hunt. Mass media and television have played a vital role. Through novel acts, people have tried to gain media coverage, draw attention to the plight of animals and change public opinion.
This weekend, hundreds of ordinary people from around Australia will be converging on the wetlands to take part in duck rescue. Rescuers will be seeking to peacefully protect the birds from being shot and provide the wounded with veterinary care. Later in the week, organisers from the Coalition Against Duck Shooting will be presenting Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews with dead birds and undisposed litter that will inevitably be left behind.
Duck shooting is not a legitimate pastime, but an obsolete and unjustifiable practice. Its social license has been under scrutiny for some time and it has arguably expired. A 2007 opinion poll conducted by Roy Morgan revealed that the vast majority of Victorians think that duck shooting should be banned. In the last three decades, the number of duck shooters has dramatically decreased and the practice has been abolished in Western Australia, NSW and Queensland. Yet, Victoria has mysteriously lagged behind.
As commentators wrote in 1845, ‘if unthinking cruelty be leaving us, we trust it will leave us entirely, that not even the black shadow of its wings shall remain behind!’ As another duck shooting season looms, we can only imagine their profound disappointment that defenceless animals are still being killed and harmed for selfish amusements.