Animal crackers in my soup

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I NEVER realised that buying a kitten would raise so many deep moral issues. I've been brooding about animal rights all week, which is something of a departure. It's not so much the Brightlingsea variety (though more of that later), as a sharp reminder about the beast in us, and ourselves in the beast.

It started with the cat, and a discussion about when she should be neutered. I was all for doing it straight away: for when would we find the time to look after a litter of six mewling kittens? And then the doubts began to creep in.

"Isn't it cruel to deny her the right to breed?" asked my husband. "Don't you think she should have one lot of babies?"

Note his use of the word "babies": suddenly, I began to feel like some sort of domestic Nazi eugenicist. I reminded him that they would pee all over the house; but even as I said it, it sounded like a weak excuse.

And then it wasn't long before I was worrying about the goldfish. This goldfish was given to us nearly five years ago, for my oldest child's first birthday. It has savaged two successive fish companions to death, and now lives in isolation in a large tank in the kitchen. The fish has never inspired particular affection in us as owners - which is why it remains a pet with no name - but I do have periodic bouts of guilt about it; which is why it has acquired: one oxygen filtration system; one ceramic model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa; and dozens of stones and shells, gathered on various beach holidays.

But now, the stones and the shells seem like a cruel jibe, an affront to a fish that will never go on holiday, let alone swim freely in a majestic ocean. I lay awake three nights ago, trying to work out the size of the fish tank in human terms: was it like living in a village hall, or a ballroom? Was the oxygen filtration the equivalent of having open windows or air- conditioning? Did the Leaning Tower of Pisa constitute diversion or furniture? The conclusion, however, was inescapable: the fish was in solitary confinement. The next morning, I prodded my husband awake, and said, "The fish has a hellish existence. What are we going to do about it?"

"It's only got a memory of 15 seconds," he replied, sleepily. "It can't possibly know that it's lived in the same tank for years."

This did not seem to me to be a satisfactory answer. Successive 15-second periods of unvarying boredom add up to a lifetime of relentless tedium. And anyway, how do we know that goldfish cannot remember any longer than 15 seconds? The fish swims to the top of the tank when it sees me - its jailer - approaching with the little pot of unappetising dried food (its only pleasure in life, no doubt). That suggests a longer memory, because I certainly don't feed the fish every 15 seconds.

The subject of fish welfare is one that clearly bothers other people, too. A few months ago the esteemed agony aunt, Virginia Ironside, responded to a reader's goldfish problem in the pages of the daily Independent. I remember being riveted at the time, and by the anguished letters in response. So I dug out the article, which makes salutory reading. The reader (the semi-anonymous Margaret) was troubled by a tumour in her goldfish's eye; she took it to the vet, who said it would cost pounds 60 to treat. Her husband, meanwhile, said that it was only a fish, and should therefore be allowed to die naturally, or simply be flushed down the lavatory.

Virginia said that she hoped the fish would be saved. "Once you take over responsibility for a pet," she observed tartly, "you can't enjoy it during the good times without nursing it through the bad." She also pointed out that goldfish have longer memories than we might think: "When goldfish are close, one pines if the other leaves, and can spend hours nuzzling up to its partner when it returns. Goldfish have feelings - both emotional and physical. And, OK, those feelings may be very small - so what, they are still feelings!" Right on, Virginia! (Though I'm not quite sure where our violently unfriendly pet would fit into this cuddly fish world.) She also picked up on the reader's remark that the fish had been a wedding present. "And perhaps to Margaret it's symbolic of a marriage in which she is prepared to invest and her husband has no interest whatsoever. Perhaps these feelings prompt her compassion for her fishy friend."

Read this, and suddenly the whole issue of animal rights becomes clear. We not only care about the creatures themselves, but also respond, at some level, to what they represent. Neglected pet = neglected wife. Bored fish = bored mother. Neutered cat = neutered partner. (This possibly provides a tangential explanation for why so many dog owners look like their animals. Vicious rottweiler = raging psychopath.)

And I now understand all those pensioners and crusties who have converged on Bright- lingsea, in defence of the defenceless. I used to think, OK, the animals have a horrible time (yes, my fridge is stocked with vegetarian sausages) - but what about Rwanda and Bosnia and the starving human masses? Surely they are more deserving of our outraged sympathy? But perhaps, to those animal rights campaigners, the fate of the calves and lambs represents, right here on an English doorstep, the cruelties that are inflicted on the frail and weak of the world. I can't, in all honesty, say that I'll be joining them in their battles; but I've developed a certain respect for their unswerving dedication.

Their empathy with animals, moreover, seems to be spreading into the most unlikely of quarters. Witness the US pilot, Captain Scott O'Grady, shot down by the Bosnian Serbs and forced to hide out for six days, living off grass and ants and dirty water. "Everyone is saying, 'You're a hero, you're a hero'," he said at a press conference after his rescue. "All I was was a scared little bunny rabbit trying to survive."

Who would have thought it: a military New Man, in touch with his inner feelings? With a bit of luck, he'll turn into a Nineties role model (and better him than Arnold Schwarzenegger). Kittens, rabbits, goldfish, soldiers: we're all animals under a different skin. !