x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Whatever you call it, cruelty to animals is indefensible

Cruelty to animals is just plain wrong. But it's just plain lunacy to argue that pets should now be called "companion animals". But that's what some people who should know better are claiming.

I have never been much of a fan of political correctness, especially when it comes to concern for the other creatures with which we share this planet. Don't get me wrong - I'm all in favour of conservation. But I've never been tempted to cease eating factory-farmed chicken just because someone says so.

That said, I appreciate animals as much as the next person. I liked the cows and goats my parents kept when I was a child and I was fond of our pet cats, one in particular, Grey Lady, with which I shared many of my meals. If I ever have another pet, a reincarnation of Grey Lady would do me very nicely indeed.

Consider my surprise, then, to find that, according to the editors of the new Journal of Animal Ethics, I was "insulting" Grey Lady every time I referred to her or to her numerous offspring as "pets". Instead, according to reports in a couple of London newspapers which like to pick up on the various lunacies of the political correctness and animal rights lobbies, the editors of the journal - led by a theologian at Oxford University - say that they should all have been described as "companion animals".

It gets better. The editors go on to claim that terms like "pests" and "vermin" should also be dropped. They further suggest that authors submitting papers should use the words "free-living", "free-ranging" or "free-roaming" rather than "wild" animals.

Wildness is synonymous with an uncivilised, unrestrained or barbarous existence, they argue. "There is an obvious prejudgment here that should be avoided."

What planet are these people actually living on? The terms uncivilised and barbarous surely refer to human beings, not animals? Grey Lady, thanks to an always-open window, was certainly free-roaming, spending more time in the garden in pursuit of mice, rats, rabbits and small birds than she ever did in the house, though she was far from wild. And I can't for the life of me understand why there can be anything wrong in using the word wild to describe a pride of lions on African savannahs.

It turns out that the Oxford theologian last year received the highest award of the British Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), the first theologian ever to be so honoured. For over 175 years, the RSPCA has done much highly-creditable work against abuse of domestic pets, farm livestock and wild animals alike, lobbying for legislation and educating the public. It is now, I suspect, in danger of slipping into the same crazy world as the Animal Ethics editors.

That would be a shame. Rather than prompting roars of laughter from a sceptical public, what is actually needed more than ever is a continual reinforcement of the idea that gratuitous cruelty to animals is both offensive and unacceptable.

In recent weeks, there have been harrowing stories in the local media about the way in which dog owners (Oh yes, we're not supposed to "own' our "pets" either, but to be their "human carers") have inflicted, deliberately or by neglect, considerable suffering on the animals with whom they share their homes. I'm all in favour of legislation against that. Such behaviour is best treated by a mixture of education and penalties, and I hope that one day we have an organisation as effective as the RSPCA in the Emirates.

To argue, however, that animals have the capacity to be offended by being called pets, or that applying the word "wild" to them is somehow wrong verges upon idiocy. They have no ability to understand the words we may use, with the exception of a few trained chimpanzees, whose vocabulary is much more limited than that of the average one-year old child.

What animals do understand, on the other hand, is body language or a tone of voice. Cuddle your pet cat and, if it's in the mood, it will purr. Shout at a dog, whatever the words you use, and it will cower or prepare to defend itself.

It is ridiculous to suggest that animals have rights in the way that human beings do. Do carnivorous animals somehow have more or less rights than those plant-eaters which may themselves be the prey of the carnivores? And what of the plants themselves?

It's perfectly acceptable to say we have a duty to care for animals and to ensure, where possible, that we do not inflict unnecessary suffering on them. Beyond that? Not much.

Regardless of the editors at Animal Ethics, I do look forward to having another "pet" one day. Maybe I'll even name it Grey Lady.

 

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in Emirati culture and heritage