Why the daily suffering of pets matters

Concern for animals has a slightly unfortunate political pedigree. Hitler was tender-hearted towards pets. Alan Clark, famously sensitive to the plight of animals, was once asked if his concern extended to humans; “Curiously not,” was the answer. The BNP likes to boast about its firm line on animal rights. Nick Griffin’s party-political fireside chats see him with a cat – strangely of mixed race – curled up on his lap.

Yet I am almost certain that it was not a sudden lurch towards fascism that convinced me that the RSPCA’s current campaign, Rabbit Awareness Week, was not an entirely ridiculous idea. The way the British treat their pets is not only a sure reflection of their view of the breathing, non-human world, but will influence the behaviour of future generations. The RSPCA has become ominously doctrinaire and bullying of late, but on this occasion it has done something rather sensible. You might be slightly hazy as to Rabbit Awareness Week’s specific aims. Rabbits are, apparently, the third most-popular pet in Britain – there are about two million in cages and hutches across the country. Around three out of four, the RSPCA reports, are seriously maltreated. Pet shops sell them as commodities. They are given to children, often with less thought than the acquisition of a computer game. They are subsequently underfed or misfed, kept in cramped, disgusting conditions. Vets report than no pets are so casually ignored and mistreated. The RSPCA has rescued 33,000 of the luckless creatures over the past three years.

In a world where millions of humans suffer, it is perhaps not surprising that cruelty to rabbits does not register too deeply. Yet it matters, this casual neglect in the homes and gardens of thousands of people, and not just because animal suffering is unfortunate.

The British like to think of themselves as animal-lovers, but are more often simply animal-owners. It is the idea of pets rather than the reality of them which is popular, as is a gurgling sentimentality towards them. Parents convince themselves that giving their little ones a rabbit, guinea pig or hamster will somehow stir an important nurturing instinct within them which will serve them well in later life.

More often than not, that turns out to be a cruel nonsense. Childhood is too busy for nurturing. As the pets are ignored and eke out their short existences in conditions of neglect and casual cruelty, the child learns a dangerous lesson. Animals, the message goes, exist for the amusement of humans. Their welfare is of trivial concern. They are as expendable as any toy.

This combination of sentimentality with a lack of any sense of personal responsibility turns out to be no small matter later in adult life. It is not just that dogs are used as status symbols or weapons, or that people still go to circuses where elephants, tigers and other animals are cowed into performing tricks. It is not even that a general indifference to the way food is produced encourages supermarkets to promote the cheapest foreign bacon with the lowest standards of welfare. Beyond all that, mistreatment of animals leads to a coarsening of our view of the natural world, and perhaps even of each other.

It is time to re-think the assumption that keeping small animals in cages for our occasional amusement has no moral element to it. Pet shops should start disappearing from the high street. Schools should think very carefully before using a rodent or a rabbit as an educational tool to be roughly handled by many small hands.

It is time for us to recognise that the animals which provide humans with company, therapy, sport and food deserve a modicum of respect, decency and kindness in return. That is part of the deal of life and it is one which humans, large and small, are breaking every day.

Independent,  Friday, 27 May 2011