| Animals: are they good for supper or good companions?|
|If only he hadn't invoked the bird table defence. Bill Worthington, a retired civil servant from Stockport, will be sentenced next month having pleaded guilty to a charge of causing unnecessary suffering to an animal. The Verminator, as the tabloids called him, was prosecuted by the RSPCA after trapping, shooting and leaving for dead a squirrel that had been helping itself to the food he left out for birds.|
Any garden ornothologist must sympathise to a degree, and indeed it is entirely legal to capture and kill grey squirrels, so long as it is done humanely. Questions are now being raised about the usefulness to the cause of animal welfare of prosecuting a 75-year-old bird lover for the sake of one garden pest.
The RSPCA's intentions have not been called into question in the thousand other cases that it brought to conviction over the past year, acting on over 160,000 allegations of abuse largely made by the general public. Holding people responsible for the more obvious kinds of cruelty, like dog fighting, badger baiting or tail docking merits no headlines.
This suggests an inconsistency in the public's stance on animal welfare. Britain considers itself a nation of animal lovers and the RSPCA is one of the country's best-endowed charities. But when it actually does its job to the letter, either by prosecuting milder cases of cruelty, or when that cruelty has a political context, the response is hostile.
So the charity's motives for prosecution were also interrogated last week by its own industry regulator. The Charity Commission warned the RSPCA about "effective and reasonable" use of resources, after it spent £350,000 taking a case against members of the Heythrop Hunt, with whom David Cameron once rode. The RSPCA denies any political bias, an understandable if untenable position, given that it's impossible to side with a fox these days without being political. Comparisons have been drawn between this case and the charity's alleged failure to prosecute cock-fighting within the Traveller community, pointing again to a wider hypocrisy around the kinds of animal cruelty where intervention is deemed appropriate.
In some ways, western culture is more animal-centric than ever before. Pets have accessory ranges to rival the Kardashians, and the internet appears to have been invented to facilitate the perusal of adorable animal antics. I am not too proud to admit that my own cat drinks his water from a bowl designed by Tracey Emin, and that I frequently imagine what he would say to me if he could talk: probably "I'm with Peter Singer when it comes to speciesism" or "I only pretend to like your boyfriend".
But browsing for cute images online does not translate into offline kindness. Animal cruelty and abandonment are at record levels in Britain, in particular as a consequence of owners who can no longer afford to keep pets in a recession. Animal rescue charities are overwhelmed, and at a time when donations are also under pressure.
It is a human convenience to make distinctions between lovable companions and supper, as the recent scandal over horse meat in burgers illuminated. Likewise, we draw comfortable lines between foreign outrages and domestic necessity. We abhor bullfighting in Spain, or whaling in Japan, while continuing to eat eggs from hens that have spent their short lives crammed into cages.
Meanwhile, we are surprised when animals actually act like animals, whether that be scavenging our dustbins and bird tables or, in extremis, attacking a human being. This shock reveals a grandiose assumption that animals are simply less sophisticated versions of ourselves. It is only when humans exhibit their basest nature that they are accused of acting like animals, yet when animals accidentally act like humans they are feted. Montaigne famously pondered: "When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?", but did not stop to ask whether a cat has pastimes at all.
But the variance of animal consciousness is moot when humans continue to exhibit such cruelty. Over the weekend, undercover footage revealed shocking abuse at a horse abattoir in Cheshire, which is now under investigation by the RSPCA. It remains to be seen whether the public will now switch from ickiness at the thought of eating a pony to genuine outrage at the way this and many other animal products are harvested. As my cat's favourite philosopher says: "All the arguments to prove man's superiority cannot shatter this hard fact: in suffering, the animals are our equals."