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Bear-Baiting

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Image:Bearbaiting.jpg Bear-baiting in the 18th century, engraving, 1796

Bear-baiting is a blood sport that was a popular entertainment from at least the 11th century in which a bear is secured to a post and then attacked by a number of dogs.

In the most well known form, there were purpose-built arenas for the entertainment, called in England bear-gardens, consisting of a circular high fenced area, the pit, and raised seating for spectators. A post would be set in the ground towards the edge of the pit and the bear chained to it, either by the leg or neck. The dogs would then be set on it, being replaced as they tired or were wounded or killed. For a long time the main bear-garden in London was the Paris Garden at Southwark.

In England, from the 16th century, many herds of bears were maintained for baiting. Henry VIII was a fan and had a pit constructed at Whitehall. Elizabeth I was also fond of the entertainment; it featured regularly in her tours. In 1575 a baiting display for her had thirteen bears, and when an attempt was made to ban baiting on Sundays she over-ruled Parliament. A variation was "the whipping of a blinded bear" and certain other animals were also baited, especially bulls but also on one curious occasion a pony with an ape tied to its back was baited and a spectator described that "...with the screaming of the ape, beholding the curs hanging from the ears and neck of the pony, is very laughable".

Attempts to end the entertainment were first made in England by the Puritans, with little effect. In 1849, Catharine Macaulay wrote,"The Puritan hated bearbaiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators."

By the late 17th century "the conscience of cultivated people seems to have been touched", but it was not until 1835 that baiting were prohibited by Parliament, a ruling that was soon extended across the Empire. Baiting is banned worldwide but can still be found in parts of the Middle East and Pakistan.

The term may also be used for the hunting practice of luring a bear with bait to an arranged killing spot. The hunter places an amount of food, such as raw meat and/or sweets, every day at a given spot until the hunter notices the food is being taken each day, accompanied by bear tracks. He then chooses a day to await the bear, killing it when it arrives to feed. Because the practice is time consuming and disrupts a person's daily schedule, the term "bear baiting" is sometimes also used in Alaska to mean "screwing off," for example if a person is late for work or misses an appointment.

A bear-bait filled a significant symbolic role as the turning point in Ken Follett's book, The Pillars of the Earth.

See also

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