It was an odd story but, because these days writers, even grumpy Americans, are peculiarly influential, it seemed certain to snag in the minds of the vulnerable. Sure enough, last week a court in Telford, Shropshire, fined Mr Keith Toogood pounds 2,000 for importing what are technically known as "crush" videos. "Putting it bluntly," said the prosecution, "they depicted small animals being put to death by being stamped on by scantily dressed women wearing stiletto heels."
Now there's a danger of an over-reaction here. So far as we know, Mr Toogood is in a small minority. Shifty bug men are not sidling into their local sleaze-shop , muttering "bumble bee" or "stag beetle" to the pornographer behind the counter. The BBC are not as yet planning a series of X-Rated Animal Hospital, in which Uncle Rolf Harris will team up with the Vice Squad to rescue small creatures at risk from the sex industry.
But it would be foolish not to admit that news of the Bug Man of Telford risks inflaming our already unnatural obsession with animals. At this time of the year, dog-owners taking holidays abroad will be suffering the agonies of putting their pets in kennels, an event which is more emotionally traumatic for the English than sending a child to boarding-school. Cat- lovers find themselves caught up in the annual slaughter of young birds who have just flown the nest straight into the slavering jaws of vicious domestic raptors.
Even those psychologists who have argued that pet ownership provides therapeutic relief are beginning to see that it can go too far. It once seemed sensible for those with controlling, fascistic tendencies to exercise them on four-footed victims; now, as a recent Vanessa programme revealed, many people actually prefer their dog to their spouse. The need of lonely people to find something soft and undiscriminating to caress argued the case for cats; now, thanks to a new survey by the Mammal Society, we are discovering that they present a serious problem for wildlife.
In a survey from April to August last year, researchers studied the kill record of 964 cats. Over 14,000 prey items were taken during the period, an average kill rate of 16.7 animals per cat. Extended over the year, the report suggests, our 7.5 million domestic cats could be responsible for the deaths of 300 million animals and birds. These would include an estimated 230,000 bats, four million frogs, 170,000 newts. The decline in such species as barn owls and grass snakes, stoats and weasels, while primarily the result of habitat loss and pollution, has also been exacerbated by our love affair with the cat.
Oddly, owners who put a bell around their cat's neck are doing more harm than good - the kill rate of belled cats in the survey was 19 compared to 15 for those without bells. It may well be time for our caring, authoritarian Home Secretary Jack Straw to introduce a Crime and Disorder (Felines) Bill, making owners responsible for the carnage caused by their pets, banning the putting out of cats at night - a particularly harmful practice - and placing a quota on cats allowed in each household.
Against this background, there will be those who argue that the arrival of crush videos could be a healthy way for humans to express their natural cruelty. They will point out that Spaniards are famously well-adjusted, yet have a weakness for dropping donkeys from the top of tower-blocks. They will say that the French, who solve the problem of pets at holiday- time by leaving theirs by the side of the autoroute as they head south, are incomparably less neurotic than we are.
Using arguments deployed by hunting enthusiasts, the crush lobby may discover that their sport actually helps endangered species to survive, or even that being trodden underfoot is an essential part of a small animal's existence, a more natural part of its life cycle then being poisoned by insecticides.
They will not find support in this column. The pygmy shrew, the stag beetle, the common toad and many others were already in desperate trouble thanks to the combined efforts of subsidy-crazed farmers and dewy-eyed cat-lovers. Now they are to be further imperilled by the careless talk of Paul Theroux and the warped desires of perverts from Telford. It all seems desperately unfair.Reuse content