On the human desire to hurl (and hurl things at) animals, and other humans.
In the fourth volume of Brett’s Miscellany, published in Dublin in 1757, readers could find an entry on a custom called “throwing at cocks.” This was an activity where a rooster was tied to a post while the participants, as if playing darts, threw small weighted and sharpened sticks (called coksteles) at the poor bird until it expired. The article explored the sport’s origin: “When the Danes were masters of England, and used the inhabitants very cruelly,” it began, “the people of a certain great city formed a conspiracy to murder their masters in one night.” The English artfully devised “a stratagem,” but “when they were putting it in execution, the unusual crowing and fluttering of the cocks about the place discovered their design.” The Danes, tipped off by the commotion, “doubled their cruelty” and made the Englishmen suffer as never before. “Upon this,” the entry concluded, “the English made custom of knocking the cocks on the head, on Shrove-Tuesday, the day on which it happened.” Very soon “this barbarous act became at last a natural and common diversion, and has continued every since.” Thus the innate human urge to throw things at things entered the early modern era.
Throwing at cocks continued well into the late eighteenth century. Although the custom, according to Remarks on the character and customs of the English and French (1726), exemplified a “diversion of the meanest of the populace,” throwing at cocks was soon normalized. It ranked up there with “playing at foot ball,” “bowls,” and “prize fighting.” A Complete History of the English Stage (1800) referred to it as an “annual sport.” In 1747, a volume called The History and Present State of the British Isles lumped throwing at cocks with “wrestling,” “footraces,” and “nine pins” as “the sports of the common people.” A regular activity, in other words.
In time, the moralists cracked down on such hoi-polloi barbarity. Anyone who knows anything about throwing at cocks probably does because of Hogarth’s etching, First Stage of Cruelty, which demonstrates—while censuring—the incivility of this particular blood sport. John Brand, in his 1777 Observations on Popular Antiquities, notes that, “to the credit of our northern manners, the barbarous sport of throwing at cocks on Shrove Tuesdays is worn out in this country.” A London minister who published a lengthy sermon on the topic urged “the suppression of the throwing at cocks in the town or city” because it was an activity that all too easily exemplified how “the lower orders of people among us are eminently reproachable.” By 1793, the Country Spectator advised that throwing at cocks should be met with the “pain of your heavy displeasure.”
The concern here was more with the “common people” than the animals they abused. The rabble, according to elite assumptions, shouldn’t get too rambunctious. But among the aristocracy, blood sport persisted uninterrupted. Starting in the seventeenth century, leisure-minded nobility would often gather in expansive courtyards, drink enough alcohol to sedate an elephant, and catapult foxes (or other animals) skyward. Fox tossing—or, as it was known in Germany, where it originated, Fuchsprellen—was a two-person team sport. In preparation, each member of a team would stand about twenty feet apart, grab the narrow ends of a large rectangular sling, and lay it flat on the ground. A fox would then be released from a cage and driven over to the awaiting tossers. As the panicked fox scurried over the slings, participants tried to catch the animal with their taught fabric and jerk it skyward. Experts might send the animal hurling as high as twenty feet, and victory was given to the highest fox toss. When many teams were playing at once—which was not unusual—multiple foxes would be released and, when all was going well, tossed foxes would fill the sky.
This game did not end well for the animals. One fling was never enough. Participants lined the ground with sand or sawdust to soften the animals’ falls and, if flight turned to fight and an animal turned on its oppressors (wildcats were most prone to doing this), the party paused for a summary execution. At best, animals would be returned to their cages for future use, but it seems the general rule was to play to the death. The most famous collective fox toss—and surely the most brutal—happened when Poland’s Augustus II the Strong hosted a fox-tossing party in the seventeenth century. According to Howard Blackmore’s Hunting Weapons from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century, the event led to the death of 647 foxes, 533 hares, 34 badgers, and 21 wildcats. Augustus II had a grand time distinguishing himself as a fox tosser with an unorthodox style: he used one finger to fling the sling while his partner stabilized the other end with both hands. Other observers were not impressed. The Swedish diplomat Esaias Pufendorf, upon witnessing a fox toss, remarked that it was “a little alien from the imperial gravity.”
Enlightened thinking, as it were, both curbed and extended the impulse to throw sentient creatures for the sheer hell of it. On the one hand, fox tossing and its ilk were soon squelched by the powerful nineteenth-century animal welfare movement. But, like a disease coming out of remission, the seemingly innate human desire to toss living beings reappeared in the Reagan era. And like many perverse, unbelievably medieval-seeming behaviors that one couldn’t possibly think would survive modernity, it appeared in its most developed form, in the 1980s, in south Florida. It did so, moreover, under the enlightened guise of “consent.” A fox and a chicken might very well be fun to throw (or throw things at), but these animals cannot agree to the sport in question—a fact the animal-welfare people rightfully stressed to the advantage of their cause. But humans—and in this case, humans with dwarfism—can engage in informed consent. They can even consent to be hurled at a wall. And, for a brief spell in the 1980s, many of them did.
Dwarf tossing, sometimes called “midget tossing,” is a bar game in which people with dwarfism wear Velcro padding and agree (and are paid) to be thrown at a Velcro-covered wall adorned with a target. In some cases, the Velcro is left off and the little person is thrown as far as possible onto a soft mat, with the tosser aiming for distance rather than accuracy. The sport may have evolved from a related diversion, popular on Long Island, called dwarfbowling—a game that placed a little person on a skateboard and pushed him into a set of bowling pins.
Some people defend this sort of behavior. Supporters of the dwarf toss see the activity as little more than consensual fun, an unfettered if esoteric expression of free will in the name of an authentic pub experience. Others (thankfully) object. In 1989, when dwarf tossing was starting to come under legal scrutiny, a philosopher named H. E. Baber published an academic paper titled “The Ethics of Dwarf Tossing.” He conceded that the sport could be fun, if only because “the deflation of human pretentions is humorous.” But still, throwing a dwarf was, he concluded, entirely, if not disgustingly, unethical. The reason he offers centers on dignity: “Insofar as little people identify themselves as little people—and being members of a visible group with which others identify—they are harmed when a fellow member of their group is humiliated.” In other words, it’s not the tossed dwarf who’s the problem but rather that his choice is unfair to the little people who look like him but have the good sense not to be thrown into a wall.
How have we reached a point in history at which any sane person would want to toss a dwarf for sport? A teleological approach helps us arrive at an answer. One might begin by appreciating the simple and timeless satisfaction that comes from hitting a target with a thrown object. You identify a goal, you aim at it, you throw the thing, the thing hits the intended spot, pleasure momentarily courses through the brain. Research shows that when the target is hit our brain lights up in all the happy places. So far, so good.
Adding an animal into the mix certainly complicates matters morally, but it also potentially enhances the experience in a few significant ways. It increases the challenge of hitting a target (or of hurling the object), reminds humans that we throw better than any other species (this is evidently true), confirms our fuller dominance over all those other species (a confidence booster in insecure times), and, however perversely, offers noisy and preverbal feedback in the form of creatures’ panicked squawks, screeches, and yowls of terror (thereby affirming our agency).
Cross the species barrier to include a little person and the experience yet again assumes new meaning. The act of throwing becomes at once more communicative (you can have an intelligible conversation when object becomes human subject), more hierarchical (power dynamics are fairly obvious when one person throws another), and more consensual (although usually precipitated with substantial cash incentives). Considering how the “benefits” of the throwing activity devolve in this three-part scenario (becoming darker and less flattering to the human spirit with each iteration) it’s probably best to conclude—although we may have reached this point gradually, imperceptibly, even innocently—that it is a fundamentally bad move to throw a person and, even worse, to enjoy doing so.
To test my conclusion, I was able to track down and talk with someone who has tossed a dwarf. His name is Gary Wickert, he’s an attorney in Wisconsin, and he did it as part of an “America’s toughest bouncer competition” in 1980. Wickert is six foot seven and was, at the time, 305 pounds, physical characteristics that, in addition to his athleticism, placed him second among fifteen finalists. The first place finisher was the real Mr. T. In any case, Wickert and his fellow competitors engaged in such challenges as throwing chairs, breaking through doors, punching large bags, leaping over bars, negotiating an obstacle course of professional cheerleaders, and, perhaps in a harbinger of the bar sport to come, tossing a little person.
Wickert distinguished himself by throwing his little person from an over the head position (as one might shoot a basketball) rather than executing his toss in a more conventional underhanded or sideways fashion. He takes pride in the fact that he sent his little person through the air farther than any other competitor, including Mr. T (who ended up getting the better of Wickert in the boxing ring—although Wickert thinks that judging was bad). But when I asked Wickert about how the little person might have interpreted the experience of being thrown by him, his tone shifted. He paused for a moment. After stressing that the activity was safe, that he needed the money for law school, and that he was raised by decent and hardworking parents, Wickert said this about his singular dwarf toss: “I have to admit I felt pretty strange. I’m talking to a person I’m about to throw, and he had a great wit about him and was jovial about the whole thing. It was awkward.” He paused again. “I actually apologized to him.”
Today, when Wickert wants to engage in a sport, he rides his bike, quietly affirming the hopeful axiom that moving our bodies through space has just as deep a legacy as using sentient creatures as projectiles and targets. Plus, it’s just a nicer way to have fun.
James McWilliams is a writer living in Austin, Texas.