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That Other Time Someone Tried to Get the British to Eat Horses

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If you haven’t heard by now, there’s an ongoing problem in the UK and continental Europe where food products labeled as containing beef actually turn out to have surprise horse meat in them. If history had played out a little differently, this wouldn’t be a scandal, and Brits eating horse meat would be about as newsworthy as Americans eating cheeseburgers. 

In the mid-1800s, a guy named Algernon Sidney Bicknell started a group called the Society for the Propagation of Horse Flesh as an Article of Food. The name should leave little doubt as to what their goal was. In 1868, Bicknell and the Society hosted a banquet at a London hotel where 150 guests were served horse soups, horse sausages, horse steaks, horse roasts, and almost anything else the cooks could think to make from horse. Not long after that, Bicknell released his manifesto, Hippophagy: the Horse as Food for Man, and outlined what he saw as horse meat’s economic, cultural, nutritional and gastronomical benefits.

Bicknell and his horse sausages probably couldn’t have come on to the scene at a more perfect time. According to historian Chris Otter, in a paper on Bicknell’s “dietary revolution,” England was in the throes of a meat famine. Demand was rising, and so were prices, but the domestic supply couldn’t keep up and the international supply chains were weakened by breakouts of livestock disease in mainland Europe, and primitive refrigeration technology. If you wanted meat, Bicknell reasoned, horse was about to become the best, and maybe only, game in town.

Still, Bicknell’s crusade pretty much crashed and burned. Butchers didn’t get on board with selling horse and the people didn’t get on board with eating it. Across the English Channel, though, things shook out a little differently. 

Cheval Délicieuse

Just a few years before Bicknell’s banquet, an old ban on consuming horse meat was lifted in France, and French scientists started their own hippophagy movement. The anatomist Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and veterinarian Emile Decroix made many arguments for horse consumption that echoed Bicknell: horse meat was healthy and French meat consumption was too low, it was moral to not let animals die in vain and economically sound to use what meat was available. 

Their arguments began getting press in the country’s science and medical journals and then in the mainstream newspapers, gaining support among social reformers as a cheap way of feeding France’s urban poor. With all the attention, backlash soon followed. Some Catholics objected based on a religious taboo and an old Papal decree against horse consumption. Others made the “slippery slope” argument that if horse meat caught on, the French would soon be eating dogs, rats, and any other animal they could get their hands on. 

Despite the opposition, the sale of horse meat was legalized by the summer of 1866 and a horse meat stall was authorized in a Paris market. Within a few years, there were 23 horse butcher shops in the city alone, and business was brisk. In 1874, the economist Armand Husson suggested that this horse meat boom relied on a few factors: the high price of other meats, the falling threshold of disgust with horse and the support of scientific expertise.

Back in Britain...

Bicknell had some of that going for him in England—he touted horse meat’s cost effectiveness, and backed up his nutritional claims with scientific evidence—but just couldn’t gain a foothold. Decroix even offered 1100 francs and a medal to whoever could open the first horse butchery stall in London, and the prize was never claimed. Just a decade later, all the effort would be unnecessary. The birth of refrigerated ships made it easier to import “regular” meats to the British Isles, and turning to horses no longer had to be contemplated.

Why did Bicknell fail where the French hippophagists succeeded, sending the two countries on diverging dietary paths? Both the British and French had religious/cultural objections to eating horse, and in both countries the horse had a central role in the agrarian and early industrial economy as a source of transportation and power, worth more in the field than on a plate. The difference, Otter argues, was that France’s scientific and medical elite and its adventurous butchers and chefs supported horse meat and convinced the public to make it part of their diet. 

These factors, he writes, made horsemeat “available and tolerable, which consequently altered equine economics, making the sale of old horses for meat more profitable…relatively tight links between scientific expertise, butchery and popular taste allowed hippophagy to gain economic and cultural momentum in France, meaning that the taboo on horsemeat was partially shattered.”

The British hippophagy movement didn’t enjoy the same high-profile support from laboratories and kitchens, and Bicknell and his Society alone weren’t enough to turn the average diner on to horse, even if they made the same case that the French did. Otter also suggests some “dietary nationalism” was involved too. The British might have rejected hippophagy, in part, because the French (historically, not their best pals) embraced it. 

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This Octopus Species in Northern Australia Can Hunt on Dry Land
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Most octopuses live in the ocean—but in northern Australia, a small, shallow-water species takes to land in search of food. Abdopus aculeatus is the only octopus that’s specially adapted to walk on dry ground. Using its long, sucker-lined arms, the slimy sea creature pulls itself along the shoreline as it searches tide pools for crabs.

Witness Abdopus aculeatus in action by watching BBC Earth’s video below.

[h/t BBC Earth]

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Weather Watch
Rising Temperatures Are Killing Off African Wild Dogs
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Over the last few decades, images of fluffy white harp seals, polar bears, and penguins have become shorthand for climate change's creeping destruction of our planet. But the poles aren't the only ecosystems in danger. A new study published in the Journal of Animal Ecology finds that rising temperatures near the equator are making it much harder for African wild dogs to survive.

"When people think about climate change affecting wildlife, they mostly think about polar bears," lead researcher Rosie Woodroffe of the Zoological Society of London told The Guardian. "But wild dogs are adapted to the heat—surely they'd be fine."

To find out, Woodroffe and her colleagues analyzed data from packs of African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) in Kenya, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. The dog packs have been under scientist surveillance for years—some since the late 1980s—and at least one dog per pack is fitted with a radio collar.

The researchers overlaid information about local weather and temperature with data on the dogs' hunting habits, the size of each litter of pups, and how many pups from each litter survived.

These dogs are creatures of habit. Adults rise early and leave the den for a morning hunt. They range over their large territories, chasing antelopes. At midday, when the Sun is highest, they return to their pups with food. They may go out again in the evening as the temperature drops.

But like the polar bears' glaciers, the dogs' environment is gradually heating up. All three countries saw a temperature increase of about 1.8°F over the study period. This may not sound like much, but for the dogs, it was plenty. Between 1989 and 2012, the number of pups per litter in Botswana surviving to their first birthday dropped from 5.1 to 3.3. Dog packs in Zimbabwe saw a 14 percent decrease in pup survival; in Kenya, the rate declined by 31 percent.

"It's really scary," Woodroffe said.

"If you are an animal who makes your living by running around really fast, obviously you are going to get hot. But there are not enough hours in the day anymore that are cool enough to do that. It is possible that some of these big areas will become too hot for wild dogs to exist."

Woodroffe and her colleagues were not anticipating such clear-cut results. "It is shocking and surprising that even right on the equator these effects are being seen," she said. "It illustrates the global impact of climate change." 

[h/t The Guardian]


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