It was the internet video that sparked a media outcry: grainy footage that seemed to show four masked men drugging a fox and later beating it to death with cricket bats in a London park that was posted on YouTube and Facebook earlier this week.
But the Guardian can reveal that the new sport of "urban foxhunting" was an elaborate hoax. The film-makers, Chris Atkins and Johnny Howorth, said no real foxes were harmed in the film, which was intended as a satirical swipe at "media hysteria" over the danger of urban foxes.
Animal rights campaigners had expressed fury over the "bloodthirsty" huntsmen, eliciting the support of MPs on Twitter and prompting an inquiry by the Metropolitan police’s wildlife crime unit.
YouTube and Facebook removed the footage and the controversy was covered in news outlets including the Guardian, the Times, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail. The BBC was also duped, sending a reporter to Victoria Park, Hackney – the supposed scene of the crime. Amid a growing furore, the animal welfare group League Against Cruel Sports launched a campaign against urban foxhunting, while the RSPCA said it was investigating.
In today’s London Evening Standard, columnist Sebastian Shakespeare went so far as to celebrate urban foxhunting as the first and best example of David Cameron’s "big society" in action.
In fact, the dead animal in the footage was played by a stuffed fox, the film-makers told the Guardian, while the live fox was played by a pet dog, Monty, with a bushy tail taped to its hindquarters.
The pair said they made their film "deliberately Pythonesque" in a bid to lampoon the media hysteria over urban foxes, and were surprised when the video was so widely assumed to be authentic.
But Atkins and Howorth conceded their stunt had got out of hand. Reports of urban fox hunting in London had spread to India and the Netherlands, while in Hackney, leaflets were being handed around seeking to identify the supposed huntsman.
John Bryant, who offers a "human deterrence" service for wild animals, announced he would offer a £1,000 reward for anyone who identified the "monsters". The bounty was matched within hours by the Fox Project, a sanctuary in Kent.
Online, more extremist elements were posting death threats against the makers of the video.
Atkins, 34, and Howorth, 27, both from east London, said they meant no harm by the stunt. Both said they were staunchly against foxhunting. Atkins said he attended hunt saboteur events in his teens, and hoped public revulsion over the notion of urban fox-baiting would discourage the coalition government from repealing the hunting ban.
"The film shows what actually happens when foxes are hunted, in contrast to the romanticised image of sprightly gents on horseback carrying out a noble tradition," he said.
The pair provided the Guardian with footage of their filming expedition in the park, which showed them giggling as they chased what was clearly a pet dog across a park.
Although the footage included shots of real foxes eating dog food and, separately, men lacing dog food with the sedative Xanax, the poisoned bait was not fed to any live animals.
"We are very sorry for troubling the RSPCA, the police and well-meaning animal lovers, but hope they understand that this was done to illustrate the idiotic nature of reporting on foxes, and remind the public how sick and cruel fox hunting really is," they said.
Concern over fox attacks soared in June, when two baby twins were attacked by a suspected fox near to Victoria Park. Nine-month-old Isabella and Lola Koupparis suffered serious injuries during the attack, and the case was covered extensively in the media – with some sensationalist reporting, which culminated in a one-hour special BBC documentary entitled The Fox Attack Twins.
Experts say fox attacks on humans are exceptionally rare, but the case of the twins sparked an avalanche of scare stories about urban foxes.
A national newspaper reported last week that an urban fox had launched an "audacious raid" on the home of Dudley Thomas, a retired judge from Bristol, mauling his shoe.
Atkins said: "We wanted to create something that would be so ridiculous that in any other area it would be immediately dismissed as a spoof, but that news outlets desperate to continue the media narrative against foxes would leap on without any thought as to its authenticity."
Atkins is a Bafta-nominated director, who last year released Starsuckers, a feature-length documentary critiquing the media in which he planted a number of fake stories about celebrities in the tabloid newspapers.
His latest ruse was hatched amid the furore over urban foxes in July. After filming the video over two nights last month, Atkins and Howorth set up a fake online blog, Urban Foxhunters, and describing themselves as "a collective from Victoria Park who hate foxes".
Using the online moniker Lone Horseman, Atkins railed against urban foxes and, once the footage had received notoriety, gloated about their extensive media coverage.
The comments, he said, were deliberately inane. "I haven’t laughed so much since my brother fell off that roof," said one post.
"We will not be intimidated by the crazies," he wrote in another. "We are performing a public service which is a bit unpleasant but it has to be done to keep our streets safe. I have kids and I don’t want them being bitten by a diseased vermin scum, what’s wrong with that?"
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