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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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Animals
14 Fascinating Facts About Foxes
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Foxes live on every continent except Antarctica and thrive in cities, towns, and rural settings. But despite being all around us, they’re a bit of a mystery. Here’s more about this elusive animal.

1. Foxes Are Solitary.

Foxes are part of the Canidae family, which means they’re related to wolves, jackals, and dogs. They’re medium-sized, between 7 and 15 pounds, with pointy faces, lithe frames, and bushy tails. But unlike their relatives, foxes are not pack animals. When raising their young, they live in small families—called a “leash of foxes” or a “skulk of foxes”—in underground burrows. Otherwise, they hunt and sleep alone.

2. Foxes Have A Lot In Common With Cats.

Like the cat, the fox is most active after the sun goes down. In fact, it has vertically oriented pupils that allow it to see in dim light. It even hunts in a similar manner to a cat, by stalking and pouncing on its prey.

And that’s just the beginning of the similarities. Like the cat, the fox has sensitive whiskers and spines on its tongue. It walks on its toes, which accounts for its elegant, cat-like tread. And—get this—many foxes have retractable claws that allow them to climb rooftops or trees. Some foxes even sleep in trees—just like cats.

3. The Red Fox Is The Most Common Fox.

The red fox has the widest geographical range of any animal in the order Carnivora. While its natural habitat is a mixed landscape of scrub and woodland, its flexible diet allows it to adapt to many environments. As a result, its range is the entire Northern Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to North Africa to Central America to the Asiatic steppes. It’s also in Australia, where it’s considered an invasive species.

4. Foxes Use The Earth’s Magnetic Field.

Like a guided missile, the fox harnesses the earth’s magnetic field to hunt. Other animals, like birds, sharks, and turtles, have this “magnetic sense,” but the fox is the first one we’ve discovered that uses it to catch prey.

According to New Scientist, the fox can see the earth’s magnetic field as a “ring of shadow” on its eyes that darkens as it heads towards magnetic north. When the shadow and the sound the prey is making line up, it’s time to pounce. Here’s the fox in action:

5. Foxes Are Good Parents.

Foxes reproduce once a year. Litters range from one to 11 pups (the average is six), which are born blind and don’t open their eyes until nine days after birth. During that time, they stay with the vixen (female) in the den while the dog (male) brings them food. They live with their parents until they're seven months old. The vixen protects her pups with surprising loyalty. Recently, a fox pup was caught in a trap in England for two weeks, but survived because its mother brought it food every day.

6. The Smallest Fox Weighs Under 3 Pounds.

Roughly the size of a kitten, the fennec fox has elongated ears and a creamy coat. It lives in the Sahara Desert, where it sleeps during the day to protect it from the searing heat. Its ears not only allow it to hear prey, they also radiate body heat, which keeps the fox cool. Its paws are covered with fur so that the fox can walk on hot sand, like it’s wearing snowshoes.

7. Foxes Are Playful.

Foxes are known to be friendly and curious. They play among themselves as well as with other animals like cats and dogs. They love balls, which they frequently steal from golf courses.

Although foxes are wild animals, their relationship with humans goes way back. In 2011, researchers opened a grave in a 16,500-year-old cemetery in Jordan to find the remains of a man and his pet fox. This was 4000 years before the first-known human and dog were buried together.

8. You Can Buy A Pet Fox.

In the 1960s, a Soviet geneticist named Dmitry Belyaev bred thousands of foxes before achieving a domesticated fox. Unlike a tame fox, which has learned to tolerate humans, a domesticated fox is docile toward people from birth. Today, you can buy a pet fox for $9000, according to Fast Company. They’re reportedly curious and sweet-tempered, although inclined to dig in your furniture.

9. Arctic Foxes Don’t Shiver Until –70 degrees Celsius.

The arctic fox, which lives in the northernmost areas of the hemisphere, can handle cold better than most animals on earth. It doesn’t even get cold until –70 degrees Celsius. Its white coat also camouflages it against predators. As the seasons change, the coat changes too, turning brown or gray so the fox can blend in with the rocks and dirt of the tundra.

10. Fox Hunting Continues To Be Controversial.

Perhaps because of the fox’s ability to decimate a chicken coop, in the 16th century, fox hunting became a popular activity in Britain. In the 19th century, the upper classes turned fox hunting into a formalized sport where a pack of hounds and men on horseback chase a fox until it is killed. Today, whether to ban fox hunting continues to be a controversial subject in the UK. Currently, fox hunting with dogs is not allowed.

11. The Fox Appears Throughout Folklore.

Examples include: the nine-tail fox from various Asian cultures; the Reynard tales from medieval Europe; the sly trickster fox from Native American lore; and Aesop’s “The Fox and the Crow.” The Finnish believed a fox made the Northern Lights by running in the snow so that its tail swept sparks into the sky. From this, we get the phrase “fox fires.”

12. Bat-eared Foxes Listen For Insects.

The bat-eared fox is aptly named, not just because of its 5-inch ears, but because of what it uses those ears for—like the bat, it listens for insects. On a typical night, the fox walks along the African Savannah, listening, until it hears the scuttle of prey. Although the fox eats a variety of insects and lizards, most of its diet is made up of termites. In fact, the bat-eared fox often makes its home in termite mounds, which it usually cleans out of inhabitants before moving in.

13. Darwin Discovered A Fox Species.

During his voyage on the Beagle, Charles Darwin collected a fox that today is unimaginatively called Darwin’s Fox. This small gray fox is critically endangered and lives in just two spots in the world: One population is on Island of Chiloé in Chile, and the second is in a Chilean national park. The fox’s greatest threats are unleashed domestic dogs that carry diseases like rabies.

14. Foxes Sound Like This.

Foxes make 40 different sounds, some of which you can listen to here. The most startling is the scream:

Pleasant dreams!

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise stated.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

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