Animal Rights, Animal Welfare and the love of animals

The author and his first cat

The author and his first cat

Although I have long known that I was going to have to come into direct contact with issues of animal rights and animal welfare, I thought I would hold off for a little while. Then came March 4th. First, I landed in Portugal to read that the town of Viana do Castelo there has banned the bullfight as, “the defence of animal rights is not compatible with spectacles that torture and impose unjustifiable suffering.” Then I opened my mail to find an attack which accused me of “cynical opportunism” combined with a “deep-rooted hatred of living creatures.” A little while later, on the plane back to Spain, I read a passage by a writer whom I regard as something of a moral compass, in which he speaks of his hero Alyosha Karamozov and “all the love for ‘all creatures and all things’ which had concealed itself within his pure, young heart.” Finally, amongst the change I got from my taxi-driver home was a twenty Euro-cent piece with a red sticker on it saying “BULL-FIGHT IS BULLSHIT,” followed by a website address. When I looked it up I came across the website of the Comité Anti Stierenvechten (CAS), a powerful Dutch anti-bullfight lobbying organisation whose campaigns’ manager, Jordi Casamitjana, was interviewed with me on Al-Jazeera UK television and with whom I have exchanged thousands of words on the blog of Prospect magazine. So, all in all, I think I had best make an initial sortie on this subject at least to give people some idea where I am coming from.

I love animals. This is not special pleading, nor a play on words. I love them in that sentimental way which is peculiar to the Anglo-Saxon peoples, although this has been tempered by a life of dealing with them. I had a dog as an infant – Danby – but he vanished whilst I was still a toddler. I spent my early years maximising my time at my uncles’ houses with their various Springer Spaniels (Strider, Bonnie, Susie), Alsatians (Sabre, Red), Labradors (Duer, Zorba) and a wonderfully oversized Newfoundland (Bella). I learnt how to ride horses at a very young age – the first one I galloped on was a temperamental but essentially kind Shetland pony called Pebbles, and I still have very fond memories of Soda, Brandy and even the great Keston after whom the stables was named. When I was eleven I was so desperate for another dog of my own I forced my parents to sign a contract saying that they would buy me a golden retriever that summer. The contract disappeared and a cat I called Puddy turned up in his stead who became something of a brother to me. The death of that cat was of immense pain to me. We bought two relatives of his, but only one, Raffles, survived. His brother Frisky soon died under the wheels of a car on the same stretch of road as his great-uncle. However, Raffles remained a good friend and true companion to me throught school, my undergraduate and graduate work and immensely long and lonely periods of writing. He died last Christmas whilst I was away in Germany acting in a play and that hurt almost as much as anything else in my life.



Now, all of this may seem not particularly unusual. However, my love went far deeper than this. There were the books: Ring of Bright Water, Kpo The Leopard, The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Animals of Farthing Wood, Watership Down along with everything by Gerald Durrell. And these weren’t just read once. There was the raffle I arranged at my school aged eleven for the WWF, which I then joined (and am still a member 20 years later). There are the thousands of hours spent in the English countryside with Durrell’s The Amatuer Naturalist, The Reader’s Digest Guide to Nature in Britain, the Purnell’s Encyclopedia of Nature and Kelvin Boot’s The Nocturnal Naturalist which eventually led me to the ancient badger set which still flourishes at my parents’ house. Most of all there were the life-changing trips to the Kruger Park in South Africa which led directly to me going up to Oxford to study biological sciences with the great Africa specialist Dr. Malcolm Coe as my tutor at St. Peter’s College.

However, at no point in my life did I seriously consider not eating animals. I remember debating, first with my parents then others, that vegetarianism was the only correct ethical stance, but it was not one I ever intended to take myself. I liked the taste of meat too much.

I also, being a boy, had a liking for guns and growing up in the coutryside I had access to them. At some point these two things collided and I shot my first pigeon with an Aguirre y Aranzabal 20-bore shotgun. When I came upon the fallen bird it was still alive but badly wounded. It was watching me and seemed calm, although this was probably an anti-predator freeze response in the hope I would not find him. I was guilt-stricken, but knew I had to finish what I started, and I put the second barrel of the gun to his head and finished the job. I buried him, placed a wooden marker, and – dressed in a jacket and tie – gave him a shotgun salute. I think I was nine years old.

A small echo of this feeling – diminishing each time – has always been present when I have killed an animal since then, although circumstances haven’t always allowed me to hear it. However, when it is quiet and personal, such as having to finish off a field mouse the cat had brought in, it is quite distinctly present.

The main change in my overall perspective on these questions came from a series of arguments I had with a fellow philosophy graduate student at LSE. As she put forward more and more strongly the argument for vegetarianism along very much the same lines I had done myself, I began to see the terrible flaw in it. If pain and death are absolute evils, then the end point of this line of argument, and its reductio ad absurdum, becomes clear. Should we ever gain sufficient power over the natural world, we would have a moral duty to, for example, intervene and prevent lions from hunting and killing antelope. Antelope, as sentient living beings, gain a right to not suffer the pain and death beyond that which is unavoidable.

Now, I am not claiming that we have such power, and perhaps it is not a realistic prospect (although I fear with the reduction of the wilderness it may be), but if that is the end point of a moral stance, then I hold that the moral stance must be wrong. Lions should always hunt and eat antelope. I realise that this is an assertion, but it is based upon a very basic (perhaps non-reducible) moral intuition that I have. It is the sort of moral intuition that is very closely linked to my aesthetic intuitions – that a world of tofu-fed lions is repugnant – and as such comes from a dark side of ethics which has, when left to run rampant, justified some of our worse behaviour as humans, from Sparta onwards. However, it is there nonetheless.

Moving on from such metaphysical speculation, if tofu-lions are bad, then the line of argument that led to them is bad too. And this line goes all the way back to my childhood debates that vegetarianism was the only correct ethical stance, even if I lacked the will to do it. There is something unhealthy and life-denying in such a viewpoint. It is a component of a proper ethics, a proper morality, yes: to dislike suffering, to shy away from death, to empathise with their effects on all other living things is to be a worthily sensitive soul. However, to make that the sole foundation of your moral code – that is too much. It is a new asceticism, and, being in a fundamentalist form, it is intrinsically intolerant of other viewpoints.

Although, I won’t bore the reader by going into the full argument here, it is for this reason that I don’t believe animals have rights. I do, however, believe that, to quote the philosopher Roger Scruton, “certain ways of treating [animals] are vicious and that there are only some ways of treating them that a good person would contemplate.” Whether or not the bullfight is one is the very thing I am in Spain to find out. I will return to these questions in greater depth at another time. However, I want to end with an anecdote about a recent encounter of mine with a white dog just in case anyone thinks I may have lost my childhood affinity for the four-legged ones.

Last November I found myself walking home one night from a bar in Triana and, as I passed a petrol station, I was confronted by a small white dog shivering in the night air. There are many stray dogs in Seville and they have about them a rangy near-health and self-sufficiency which leads one to ignore and avoid their scavenging. However, this dog was too old, too cold and too focused on me to be one of them. He also had a collar from which the name tag had been removed. It is possible, I guess, that the steel ring which had held the tag had been wrenched open by some innocent cause. However, the most likely explanation is that his owners, bored by the ageing mutt (7 parts Jack Russell, 3 parts opportunism), or unable to afford his age-related health complaints, had broken off his identification and abandoned him to the streets. Judging by the fang-wounds on his skull, things were not going well.

All of this, and the freedom from normality one feels when travelling alone, led me to remove my zip-up top and drape it over him as I sat down, lit a cigarette and pondered what to do. I could hardly adopt him; my life simply wouldn’t allow it. I couldn’t just leave him in the cold; his life wouldn’t allow it. I wandered over to the petrol station attendant, followed by the small dog trailing my top, and asked if he knew the owners. He sneered back that the dog had been there for a few days and could go to hell for all he cared. So I sent the man off round his little shop to fetch me a tin of dog food, a bottle of water and two boxes of sweets. I emptied their contents, filled them with the water and the processed animal products and sat with the dog as he ate and drank his fill.

From there on in, I let the dog make all the decisions. I retrieved my top with due consideration for the fleas and lice that had just moved house, and went on my way back home. The dog followed. It was late and I was feeling loquacious, so I chatted with him over the two miles home and we had become reasonably good friends by the time I reached my apartment. The apartment had a tiled floor throughout and furniture of the tough, white, Ikea variety. So, when I opened the door, I held it for him and in he came. We shared the lift to my apartment where I laid out a bowl of water and my top as a bed on the tiled floor, and then I went to bed myself – closing the bedroom door.

That morning, I noticed he was still sleeping in the warmth, so I went off about my business until about three in the afternoon. When I came back, he was wide awake and had unrinated, but nothing else, in a tidy little ceramic corner. I opened his way onto the street and he trotted off into the sun, looking a little healthier and a little happier. I mopped the floor, boil-washed the top and our lives went on.

Is he still alive today? Perhaps. It was something of a one night stand and I can’t claim he haunts me still (as Leonard Cohen sang about such things, “I don’t mean to suggest/ That I loved you the best/ I can’t keep track of each fallen rock.) I know I made his lot better, albeit briefly. I would like to say I hope he found his way home, but I suspect that would not have improved his lot.

I should also add for the benefit of my friend Nicolas Haro, in whose mother’s house my new apartment is, I will not do this again. Nicolas himself has reclaimed three dogs from the streets which are still his pets. The scales are more than balanced.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison – 2,178 words

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