Comment: A few of my pet hates

Trying to buy a tortoise had turned into a kind of job interview that I was rapidly failing
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
RECENTLY I had the bright idea of trying to buy my daughter a tortoise. As I had heartlessly made her give away three kittens that one of our cats had, I promised her something else instead. I had already been informed that terrapins were not suitable for children because they carry salmonella and all sorts of other horrible diseases. A tortoise, I thought, might be an easy option. How wrong I was.

When I had a tortoise, it was called Harold , after Wilson, and it lived in the garden. In winter, we put it in a box with straw like they showed you on Blue Peter. That was then - this is now.

"Do you have any idea how much they cost, madam?" said the woman in the pet shop. A fiver? "pounds 250," she said sternly. "And that's without the microchip." I didn't want to ask "What microchip?", as I wanted to appear knowledgeable in the tortoise arena.

She told me that they were specially bred and I asked if she had any in stock. She became very serious. "Do you have UV spot-lighting?" "Uh, no. I was just going to put it outside." "If you don't mind me saying so," she said. "You do not seem suitable at all."

I realised that my trying to buy a tortoise had turned into a kind of job interview that I was rapidly failing. It ended up with me insisting that I wanted one, and her saying that she would not even put my name on a waiting list for one of these over-priced reptiles.

A friend of mine suffered a similar fate when she was trying to get a dog from a rescue centre. As she wasn't married, she was told that her lifestyle was basically not up to scratch. To be vetted by the animal police and fail is humiliation indeed.

I may have managed to bring up two children, but this carries no weight when one is judged clearly incapable of being in possession of a tortoise. Perhaps I shouldn't be allowed to have any pets. Every time I mention one of these luckless creatures, animal rights activists write to me informing of this fact. Strangely enough, I think they are probably right.

It is too late for me, but I wish that I had never given into my kids demands. Owning animals, I thought naively, helps teach children about life and death. Well, that's what people say to themselves anyway. In our case, we have mostly learnt about death, as we have had an unfortunate run of rodents that didn't make it past the two-week mark. We have also learnt about fleas, worms and hamsters on the run.

Clearly, my relationship to our pets is somewhat lacking. I have not entered the heady world of pet politics, nor suffered the pet deprivation of having to put an animal in quarantine. I have neither a dog nor, regrettably, an "international lifestyle", and I had not even heard of that influential pressure group, Passports for Pets, which campaigns to end quarantine.

Passports for Pets is full of suffering superstars, and as we know that if there is anything worse than a animal in distress, then it is a suffering celebrity. I don't know if mere mortals can imagine the kind of agony that these people go through. Jilly Cooper has not been on holiday abroad for 12 years, because she didn't want to leave Hero and Bessie. The most "soul-destroying time" Katie Boyle has ever had, came when she had to put a dog she had rescued in Kenya into quarantine. David Hockney cannot face the ordeal that his dachshunds would have to go through were he to return to his native Yorkshire. Unlucky Liz Hurley cannot even have a dog, because the US is considered a rabid zone, and she has to spend so much time there. Chris Patten's terriers are currently residing in France, and he has described the arrangements here in Britain as "indefensible".

All these people welcome the proposed "radical changes in our quarantine laws". Such a change has been enabled through a combination of vaccination and electronic tagging. Already, others are complaining that the micro- chipping of dogs and cats is effectively the return of a dog licence that penalises the poor, particularly pensioners. To be poor is bad enough: to be poor and petless is the final blow.

It seems logical that, as the threat of rabies diminishes, the laws should be relaxed. Yet the language that all this is discussed in is emotive, to say the least. Pets go through the "ordeal" of quarantine, while their miserable owners have to endure separation from their beloved. Our peculiar attitude to animals is once more on display in the hyperbole surrounding this announcement. After the BSE fiasco, it is apparent that we need to think carefully about the spread of disease among animals, yet the unquestioning division of animals into those that we love, and those we love to eat, produces the gross sentimentality that abounds.

Once, when I took my daughter fishing, she divided up the worms into the "bad worms", who could be put on the hook, and those designated "pet worms", which could be looked after. This childish and arbitrary division is everywhere replicated by adults who should know better. I don't doubt that people love their pets, and are concerned about unnecessary cruelty to animals. I just don't understand why, in order to be kind to animals, we have to pretend that they are just like us.

This month's Your Dog magazine informs us, for instance, that dogs can be affected by marital break-up. They can apparently "be just as affected as the humans involved". Really? Are they sitting there worried about who gets the kid and who gets the Barry Manilow CDs? Are they devastated because their master has a new mistress?

On a symbolic level, we load our pets, not only with human attributes, but project on to them all sorts of emotions that they just don't have. Cats represent independence and faithlessness, and thus indicate that their owners are wild, free spirits. Actually, cats have very small brains. They operate via instinct rather than intelligence, because they are not capable of learning anything. No one, of course, accepts this, preferring to insist that their cats, like their children, are particularly gifted.

The culture is awash with images of animals who behave like humans, and humans whose main goal in life is to save mangy dogs. Domestic animals have replaced wild animals as a mainstay of TV viewing. Not only are the endless vet programmes cheap television, they perpetuate the myth that every half-dead budgie can be brought back to life. We watch extensive exploratory surgery performed on alsations, who may or may not have swallowed a piece of wire, when we know stories of human beings waiting months for operations.

All of this may be a sign of how much we love animals, which is one of our national boasts, but in reality the need for tagging has come about because of the increased number of strays - pets who are abandoned. The solution may indeed be to discourage pet ownership in the first place.

As much as I resented being vetted to see if I was responsible enough to own a tortoise, I have to accept that it is true that I was never going to devote my life to one of these things. Instead of listening to tales of celebrity agony over quarantined animals, perhaps we should accept that those who are really concerned about animal welfare would never keep pets in the first place.

There is no fancy way to say this, but, in the pet department, I have surely sinned. We all do; yet to suggest that no one, even jet-setting celebrities, should be allowed to have pets, is a far more radical proposal than any vote-seeking politician would dare to make.