The menace of pet ownership

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The Independent Culture
WHEN SOCIAL historians come to study this strange time, they will conclude that communications between men and women were going through a strange phase, and shake their heads at attitudes towards children. But it will be in millennial man's relationship with nature, and in particular with animals, that they will find conclusive evidence of a society quietly but definitively going round the bend.

Signs of lunacy among those who own animals will be invoked, the boom in pet therapists and pet counselling services analysed. A skittish historian might quote the invention in America of "neuticles" - cosmetic surgery providing fake, silicon-based testicles for neutered animals - and point out that, within months of their appearance on the market, more than 20,500 pairs of neuticles, retailing at between $80 and $129, had been sold in more than 14 countries within months of their appearing on the market.

For the UK, a key archive in historical research will be a fascinating account of cat rage in the Greater London area, written by Richard Askwith and published by The Independent on Sunday. Apparently, the problem started last year when the head of a domestic cat was found on a doorstep in north London. Soon, more heads and decapitated bodies were being discovered all across London. When the death toll rose to 39 cats and 10 rabbits, rumours of a serial pet-killer could no longer be suppressed.

The RSPCA's undercover division was called in. A special Metropolitan Police squad, code-named Operation Obelisk, was set up. One MP, Roger Gale, insisted that Crimewatch should become involved. Another - Angela Smith - urged vigilance. "The killer must be caught," she said. "The perpetrator or perpetrators are dangerous people." It was when scientists discovered the murderers - foxes, it appears, have something of a weakness for the brains of small animals - that the story took an even stranger turn. The professor who had analysed the tooth-marks did not dare to give his name for fear of reprisals from animal activists. A spokesman for the RSPCA, asked why the society had failed to clarify matters, explained that "we didn't want people to go against foxes".

So this is the position that we have reached. Such is the tyranny of the cooing new, urbanised version of nature, that specialists are unable to reveal that animals kill one another for fear of being accused of outright foxism. In order to spare the sensibilities of the ignorant, the animal kingdom has been reduced to a furry, Rolf Harris wonderland suitable for early evening viewing.

By a ghastly paradox, the result of this environmental correctness is an epidemic of cruelty. Now that animals are deemed to be adorable - cuddlier then toys, less difficult than humans - children across the country regard owning one as much their right as getting the latest computer game. Their dewy-eyed parents dutifully take them to the nearest animal prison, the high-street pet shop, and take home some luckless, terrified small mammal, bird or fish to a life of deprivation and torture.

In a saner society, the imprisonment of animals, often in solitary confinement, released only to be mauled and squeezed by children or eaten by cats, would be regarded as the epitome of casual, selfish cruelty - arguably worse than factory farming and a thousand times more inhumane than causing sudden death to an animal in the wild through hunting or shooting. Yet, in order to supply this vicious trade, forests around the world are denuded of singing birds, tortoises and rodents which are shipped to Europe in conditions of brutal misery.

It is said that owning pets introduces children to matters of life and death and to the concept of care. While the former is certainly true - most back gardens are animal versions of the killing fields of Pol Pot - we have surely reached the stage when our children can be educated in a less cruel fashion. Computer pets are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Last term, the pupils of a primary school near Diss were each given a hard-boiled egg on which to practise their pastoral care. While an egg may be less amusing than a gerbil or a hamster, at least their owners have been spared the pernicious idea that animals exist primarily for human amusement.

Surely it is time for our caring Government truly to think the unthinkable. It should drop the unworkable plan to outlaw hunting in favour of including in the next Queen's Speech Michael Meacher's essential reforms for protecting Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Then the Government should make preliminary arrangements for the banning of the growing menace that is pet ownership.