British animal welfare officials say they have launched an investigation after a prominent lawyer revealed on Twitter that he had beaten a fox to death with a baseball bat, provoking widespread anger.
Jolyon Maugham, known for his Brexit-related legal challenges and climate change activism, on Thursday sent a tweet about clubbing a fox in his yard, which quickly went viral with nearly 10,000 comments, over 2,100 likes and more than 800 retweets. It also inspired the trending hashtag #JolyonTheFoxKiller.
Many Twitter users responded by calling his actions "disgusting" and demanding that authorities investigate the incident.
After being inundated with messages, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of England and Wales said in a tweet, "We're aware of a situation regarding a fox, and would like to reassure people that we're investigating."
The organization added they could not respond to every single tweet they were receiving and were "unable to provide further comment right now."
Maugham, 48, could not immediately be reached for comment.
On Twitter he said he'd reached out to the animal welfare authority. He also defended his actions, explaining the fox was threatening the chickens he keeps on his London property.
Urban foxes are common throughout England. Local governments provide information to residents about how to deter foxes from their properties.
Foxes cannot be legally poisoned and are protected from "unnecessary suffering," according to the British wildlife charity The Fox Project. Violating animal protection laws can result in fines of up to 50,000 pounds (about $65,000).
Maugham, who is a Queen's Counsel, a mark designated for senior lawyers, appeared at first to try to make light of the situation.
"Imagine me, slightly post-Xmas in Claire's kimono, wielding bat in urban garden," he tweeted.
He also explained that the fox had gotten "caught up in the protective netting around the chickens and I wasn't sure what else to do."
"Sorry to those upset by my tweet. My chickens were very distressed by the fox — both before and after I'd despatched it — and I wanted it out of the way quickly," he added.
The apology didn't satisfy many of his critics, one of whom sent Maugham the message: "I hope you get cancer."
Whether intentionally or by accident, Maugham had stepped onto a third rail of British society by admitting he'd killed a fox on Dec. 26, which is known as Boxing Day and is when many in the countryside traditionally held hunts.
In 2004, the ancient sport was outlawed after a long and occasionally violent campaign led to clashes in the countryside between hunters and saboteurs. Some supporters of the sport hope the government of Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson will overturn the ban.
Some commentators made light of Maugham's predicament, creating a parody account for the fox.
"Still dead. Fuming," it said in one tweet.
Like any individual citizen in Britain, the RSPCA can file a private prosecution if it believes the law was broken, according to spokesperson Amy Ockelford. Most frequently, it prosecutes under the Animal Welfare Act, although there are other laws pertaining to specific species like badgers and deer that it can invoke.
While the incident appeared shocking, it isn't the first time someone tweeting about killing an urban animal has gone viral.
Earlier this year, a Canadian journalist sparked outrage after tweeting a description — with photos — of having stomped a raccoon to death after it attacked his dog.