Michael Kelly: Animal welfare after human rights, not before

PETS are not people and should not be treated as such or put before real people’s needs, writes Michael Kelly.

PETS are not people and should not be treated as such or put before real people’s needs, writes Michael Kelly.

Just when you thought it was safe to dip your toe into the murky water of high moral questions, along comes another animal rights story nipping at your ankles and kicking sand in your face.

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Let’s not talk about the number of children killed in Iraq, or poverty in Africa. Leave the question of universal benefits to other economists. Let us focus instead on those creatures who have just joined the human race – pets. By defining them as “family”, a Scots sheriff has opened the door to these animals seeking all the other protections offered by the European Convention of Human Rights.

We will now see court applications for free feline medical care, council kennels for spaniels and old age pensions for duff budgies. Don’t laugh, these animal rights people will go to any length to establish equality between real humans and any old species that happens to jump up the political agenda.

Until this week’s historic judgment in that other world which is Moray it was badgers. Despite overwhelming veterinary evidence that these nasty nocturnal carnivores carry a virulent strain of tuberculosis which they transmit to dairy cattle and hence contaminate milk, there are now over 100.000 signatories to an online petition to stop the government’s proposed cull of these large vermin.

Clearly these do-gooders are not of the generation that so feared this dangerous disease that milk bottles were stamped “TB Tested” to reassure a concerned public. That was in my lifetime – an era which has seen first the virtual elimination of measles then its recurrence as the correct vaccine was labelled unsafe by enthusiastic, ignorant amateurs.

Exactly the same type of ill-informed activists are organising against a policy that may be bad news for badgers but good news for Britain’s population of human beings. And once the anti-cull campaign gets under way it will be people who will suffer first.

Bill Oddie should have stuck to being a comedian. For while his hobby of bird-watching is innocent enough, his tweets about the cull leading to trouble will be taken by campaigners to justify the trouble they are already determined to make. Animal rights criminals have documented form in making the lives and jobs of scientific workers intolerable. And these are experts who are trying to make life better for the human race by experimenting on animals. Extremists will assuredly try to do the same for farmers who want to shoot badgers.

The prominence and support given to animal protection groups stem from fundamental changes in society. First there is the divorce from the countryside where rural folk could see animals, both wild and domesticated, in their proper environment. Secondly, there is the decline of belief in God and the disappearance of accepted moral standards. In replacing objective values with subjective feelings animals are being award a status that they do not merit.

Animals have no rights. Human beings have duties towards animals which include the duty to avoid cruelty. But not the duty to allow them in the bed or buy them Christmas presents. I love dogs and have enjoyed the company of many pets. But I’ll be damned if I’ll have another one after which I’ll be expected to run gathering up its faeces. I’ve too much human respect to act in so demeaning a manner. And treating them like big children feeding them sweets and claiming that they “understand every word I am saying” is insulting their dignity as animals as well as being disturbingly delusional.

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As animals have no rights then they surely do not fall under any European legislation. But the sheriff, Susan Raeburn, was treating this as a case of human rights – which it was. However, it seems to me a bizarre judgment that defines the owner of 46 Alsatians as “the leader of the pack” and therefore entitled to have them considered as his family lifestyle. She herself has dubbed his dogs as a “pack” – a collective never used for human beings except in a derogatory sense. By using this term, she has demonstrated that it is more he who is leading a dog’s life, behaving more as a pack animal than a human being.

Owner Andrew Debedindi’s lifestyle is eccentric. Indeed, sleeping with 44 of his pals while two roam his boundaries seems a bit beyond odd. And that shouldn’t matter, except that he is making others’ lives a misery. His neighbours are afraid of and annoyed by animals which all surely cannot be under the same control as a single fox terrier. I have more sympathy for the persecuted naked rambler – another odd character but one whose behaviour really doesn’t harm anyone.

Our sensibilities have swung in favour of the animal kingdom. Bishop Devine’s suggestion that photos of the tragic result of abortion be widely published to reverse the practice of attacking unborn children is greeted with outrage because, I suspect, such an attack on emotions would stir so many consciences. Out of sight, out of mind.

Yet every evening my tea is spoiled by pictures of a starving dog with a voice-over begging for life. For God’s sake, why doesn’t someone put it out of its misery?

I’ll tell you why not. We are lurching into a society of distorted values. Sick and old pets are afforded expensive surgery and lifelong medication when the practical course of action is to put them down. At the same time, we are being threatened with legislation to weaken a sick person’s right to hang on to life. Assisted suicide will lead to euthanasia while pets will be stuck on ventilators.

It’s pretty obvious that pets add comfort, company and interest to people living lonely lives and are great fun for children. But for psychologists to claim they offer “unconditional love” is to fall into the trap of treating pets anthropomorphically. Even the smartest horse has very limited reasoning power. And how do goldfish demonstrate affection to life outside the bowl? Dogs “love” whoever feeds them.

Greyfriars Bobby went to the graveyard not to sit in mourning on his dead master’s grave, but because that master was a policeman whose beat ran through the cemetery which he and Bobby walked every night. The dog was looking for its dinner. We are making a meal of animal welfare and a mess of society.