Our phoney sentiments for animals
Only when cruelty becomes media-fodder do the British remember that they are animal-lovers
The writer and broadcaster Terence Blacker contributes a twice-weekly column on a wide range of social, cultural and environmental issues. He is the author of four novels, of prize-winning fiction for children, and has written a highly praised biography of the brilliant reprobate Willie Donaldson.
Tuesday 02 February 1999
The roads leading to Monkey World apparently throng with cars bearing "Save Trudy" stickers. Outside the cage where the little creature now lives with her new family, under the care of her adoptive mother Peggy and alpha male Roger, families gather to gawp and gurgle while journalists of the damp Kleenex school squeeze out the kind of gooey, saccharine prose normally reserved for tragic tug-of-love toddlers.
"Trudy went indoors and flopped in the sawdust and the air from the central heating vents sent a sleepy warmth swirling around her," went one account. "Peggy nudged her until her tired little head fell comfortably against her chest. Roger looked down from his perch. His family was safe." Meanwhile the Daily Mail's "Safe Home for Trudy" petition has proved to be a great hit among readers.
Somehow the news that the HIV virus originated from one of Trudy's distant cousins in west Africa, once hunted and eaten as bush meat, has pointed up the absurdity of our new phoney sentimentality towards animals. The same type of family punter who visits Monkey World to see primates in cages will also have chortled with pleasure at the sight of dolphins jumping through hoops in some nightmarish pleasure park, and of elephants standing on stools in a circus - perhaps Chipperfield's circus. One of the most successful TV advertisements of recent years has featured chimpanzees whose apparently human grins and grimaces are, in fact, expressions of stress and fear.
It is only when cruelty becomes visible media-fodder that the British remember that they are animal-lovers. So the mistreatment of a donkey in some distant country - beaten, starved, or dropped from the top of a tower for obscure religious reasons - can cause an uproar, while the incomparably more inhumane practice of battery farming in our own country goes unnoticed. After all, we are not obliged to see the means of meat production, merely to benefit from it in our supermarkets. Those enraged by the idea of a fox being hunted and killed are utterly indifferent to the depredation of the countryside through intensive farming, the ever- accelerating decline of mammal, bird and insect species caused by the grubbing of hedgerows by agribusiness and subsidy-crazed farmers. On the whole, we prefer to be concerned about a little wounded hedgehog that plucks the heartstrings of millions of viewers on one of Rolf Harris's vet shows.
But there's something particularly unnerving and creepy about contemporary attitudes to the great apes with whom, as we are constantly reminded, we share all but 2 per cent of our genetic make-up.
Thanks to the efforts of evolutionary scientists, we have begun to see chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans as honorary humans, uncontaminated by civilisation - a late-20th-century version of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's noble savage. There are earnest campaigns to grant the upper primates the same moral rights under law as human beings. In various American universities, academics bully luckless chimpanzees into some form of communication that is recognisable to Homo sapiens.
Of course, the connections may well be there. One study, reported in Robert Wright's The Moral Animal, suggested that promiscuity in human females falls somewhere between that of chimpanzees and gorillas: the tendency of women visiting a singles bar around the time of ovulation to wear more make-up and jewellery than at other times is the equivalent of the vivid genital display of female chimps.
Doubtless, there are those who will see the astonishing randiness of bonobos, or pygmy chimps, who use casual and random sex as a form of social bonding, as justifying similar behaviour in the human world.
But, together, evolutionary theory and the proliferation of wildlife programmes seem to have distorted our view of the natural world. We are not as other animals. On the whole, we do not kill younger members of our social groupings if they are sired by rival males, as gorillas do sometimes; nor do we hunt down members of close species to our own in the way that chimpanzees do to colobus monkeys.
Those of us who have been lucky enough to see upper primates in the wild are left in no doubt of the vast gap represented by that small genetic difference. In fact, when I saw a group of gorillas, habituated to the presence of humans, in the Virunga mountains of what was then Zaire, it was the behaviour of the human tourists, posing in front of the great silverback as if she were a guard outside Buckingham Palace, that seemed odd.
Even there, a process of domestication, of Trudification, seemed to be taking effect.
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