Thursday, May 21, 2009
Queen Victoria's Rat Pits
A recycled post from blog, circa March, 2005.
Between 1800 and 1900, the population of Great Britain grew from 10 million to 35 million and advances in medicine, agriculture, animal husbandry and industry occured by leaps and bounds.
Despite great economic and social advances, the era was a time of squalor, deprivation, and grinding poverty for most people. The Enclosure Movement of the early 19th Century had forced huge numbers of people off of their lands and into the cities where they lived cheek-to-jowl and hand-to-mouth. Horse excrement littered the streets, water was pumped into homes untreated, and sewage systems were quickly pushed beyond capacity. The first large factories were started, and with them crushing boredom, inhumane work loads, and horrific industrial injuries.
Into this world arrived Rattus Norvegicus -- the brown rat. The rat pits required a certain type of rat -- the Brown Rat -- to do business. The Black Rat is simply too small and too docile to provide much sport, plus they tend to reside at rooftop, making them much harder to catch. It is not an accident that the Romans, who would fight any other two animals at the drop of a hat, did not have rats pits -- they were missing the required animal.
The Brown Rat arrived in Great Britain around 1730 and -- over the next 70 years -- quickly proliferated in the trash and garbage-strewn cities of England driving its cousin, the plague-carrying black rat, into extinction.
Bored and impoverished factory workers quickly found a good use for brown rats -- as contest combatants with small dogs. Thus was born the Rat Pit.
Rat pits were not actually pits, but instead were small built-up enclosures six to 12 feet in diameter, with wooden sides at elbow height, and with smooth metal walls to discourage the rats from climbing.
Into this pit were tipped various numbers of rats, depending on the size of the dogs and the rules of the contests. In general, dogs competed against each other by weight, with dogs being timed on how many rats they could kill in a set amount of time or -- conversely -- how much time it took them to kill a set number of rats.
Some contests featured rats placed inside overturned flower pots so that the dog had to knock over the flower pot, release the rat, and then run around inside the ring to catch the rat -- amidst all the other flower pots also containing rats ready to be released if that pot were knocked over in the commotion.
The rat pit era did not last long and, contrary to what is sometime asserted, no breed of dog was specifically bred for this sport. Because the rules varied so much from pit to pit and from contest to contest, it was impossible to breed a dog that could develop much of a competitive edge.
Speed was important, of course, but so too was the weight of the dog and the degree to which it could take punishment. Square pits were very easy for a dog to work as the rats would jungle up in a corner and the dog could pick them off the back -- here only speed mattered. Round pits defeated this tactic, however, and if a dog were required to work 30 to 50 loose rats in a round enclosure, it would likely take some bites around the ears.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal was founded in 1825. They found rat pits an easy thing to oppose as they were organized, drew publicity, and had a less-than-politically-powerful clientel. It did not hurt at all that many rat pits were associated with bars. Never mind that children were being jungled off into work houses, mothers were starving, and factories were lopping off the fingers of their workers -- save the rats!
By 1835, rat pits had been outlawed in Great Britain -- along with the fighting of any other animal whether wild of domestic. The era of legal rat pits had lasted not much longer than 50 years -- and within another 40 years or so, even the illegal rat pits would be gone.