Animal lover? In fact, Britain is a nation of sentimental hypocrites | Julien Baggini
OBrits, who like to think we’re a nation of animal lovers, have had a chance to bask in the warm glow of that reassuring self-image now that more than 150,000 people have signed a petition calling for the footballer to West Ham, Kurt Zouma will be prosecuted after a video emerged showing him kicking his cat. Within two days of his shame, the RSPCA seized Zouma’s cats and his club fined him £250,000. A zero to the good old Anglo-Saxon animal lovers.
However, we should also be somewhat ashamed that another petition, calling for a footballer who lost a civil rape case to be released by his club, has garnered less than 6,000 signatures. It took three days for Raith Rovers to turn around on the signing of David Goodwillie.
In the minds of many, however, it all goes to show that we sometimes love our animals a little too much, which is hardly an admission. If we were really worried about caring more about cats than rape victims, there would have been more outrage over the airlift of 173 cats and dogs from Kabul at the potential expense of people. Instead, we mostly shrugged, agreed that maybe it was a little overkill, but we were still glad the beasts escaped the extreme version of Taliban sharia.
However, our hypocrisy is much worse than that, because believing that our only fault is that we love animals too much conveniently obscures the fact that, more often than not, human interests completely outweigh those of other animals.
The truth is that the attitude we show towards most animals is not always true love; it is often an unhealthy anthropocentric sentimentality. Yes, we have tender feelings for fluffy pets, frolicking lambs, and alpacas threatened with involuntary euthanasia. But these feelings are only directed at animals when and if they please us. Whenever protecting or improving the welfare of an animal costs us dearly, our so-called love mysteriously disappears.
The perfect symbol of this is pet food. We make sure our dear pets get their nutritionally complete meals and smile warmly when we see them feasting. But this food is mostly made up of other animals, and very little comes from high welfare meat. So we keep a set of animals on factory farms where many never see the light of day while we treat others as if we are honored to be guests in their home.
No true animal lover would be indifferent to the welfare of one being used to feed the other. Yet most people not only do it, they don’t even think about it for a second. They are as fascinated by comforting animal stories as they are blind to disturbing stories. Therefore, they may resent the court order to slaughter an alpaca called Geronimo, but don’t blink an eye at the nearly 60,000 unnamed dairy bulls slaughtered at birth so that we can have our daily milk.
Also, the way we treat our pets suggests that it isn’t true love anyway. Take the so-called dog lovers. Centuries of breeding have meant that many of the most popular breeds have lifelong health issues. The flat muzzle of pugs and bulldogs, for example, often causes them respiratory and eye problems. Dachshunds suffer from spinal problems and are prone to obesity. Just about any dog other than a mongrel or rescue dog is the product of an industry that perpetuates animal suffering.
These facts are fairly well known, but people conveniently forget about them. They see facial and body distortions as cute rather than harmful deformities. But true love requires an appreciation of the object of that love as it really is. Otherwise your affection is for a fantasy, an image of the loved one that has no relation to reality.
We may not care or notice the contradictions contained in our relationship with animals, but politicians do. They know that moral consistency doesn’t matter as long as they push the right emotional buttons.
For example, the most popular policy in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labor manifesto in 2017 was the pledge to maintain the ban on fox hunting. Labor activists pushed this hard, especially among younger voters on social media. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have tried to restore their own animal rights status by announcing their intention to ban the ivory trade, even though it was not in their manifesto. Neither side said much about the meat or pet industries, which have a far greater impact on animal welfare.
The strategy of trying to create an animal-friendly image – call it “washing the fur” – is alive and well today. For example, the government has been disseminating information about its intention to ban foie gras. But many ducks and geese bred for foie gras have a better life than broilers locked up in intensive units in the UK. And while the government brags about ending paltry sales of a niche product, it’s also looking to negotiate trade deals with countries like Australia and the United States that will open our borders to meat and produce. low welfare dairy.
Our wildly inconsistent attitudes toward animals persist in part because it is difficult to formulate consistent ones. Even going the vegan route and opposing all use of animals for human purposes does not guarantee proportionate responses. Most vegans are probably more revolted by foie gras than Turkey Twizzlers.
The price of our anthropocentric sentimentality is high. This means that too often we put animal welfare ahead of human welfare. Animal welfare is the most popular cause for charitable donors in the UK, ahead of children and medical research. At the same time, this concern is often misdirected, so that the animals that suffer the most are not just ignored, they are eaten with pleasure. To top it off, politicians know how to tug on these distorted heartstrings, and so our irrationality becomes a means for our own manipulation.
A more mature and nuanced attitude towards animals is badly needed. But when an immature and simplistic is so deeply embedded in the national psyche, I don’t see how we’re going to get it.