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Terence Blacker: Hysteria over animal cruelty is not helpful

There has been some grim footage on our screens recently. Piglets have been clubbed and maltreated. Dogs have stared miserably at the camera. More examples of human cruelty are doubtless on their way. The RSPCA has announced that today marks the start of RSPCA Week. There is a growing crisis in animal welfare, the charity said in its appeal for funds. Last year, it received 1.3 million calls, an increase of 13 per cent on 2010. A total of 3,036 people were reported to its prosecutions department. In the courts, 1,341 people were convicted of cruelty, almost a quarter more than 2010.

The statistics will alarm anyone who cares about animals, as will the gruesome film clips. Money will be given. Because the stories of neglect and cruelty are so extreme and grotesque – the problem is often a lack of education, the RSPCA has said – those who give will know the beastliness has been perpetrated far away from their own comfortable lives.

It is how charity works in 2012. Shocking facts and footage, stories of noble work, a plea for money, and we all move on, with a sense of our own virtue. Behind the headlines, something else is happening. The RSPCA's evidence is less likely to be showing, as it claims, that we are becoming crueller to animals than reflecting the charity's promotional emphasis on the sensational, with excited, aggressive talk of "zero tolerance to animal abusers".

That approach has had an unfortunate side effect. It plays down wider, rather trickier matters which affect most of us, particularly if we eat meat. There is the way animals are reared for us to get cheap food, what is pumped into their bodies to make them fat, the long journeys to the abattoir, the way they are slaughtered.

The recent prosecution of East Anglian pig farmers for cruelty has been a good example of this effect. A few weeks ago, an employee at one piggery was filmed carrying out acts of cruelty and the case hit the headlines; two days later, the farmer shot himself. This week, there were more reports of mistreatment which may well cause already hard-pressed pig farmers to close down. That is not the triumph it may seem. The business will go to Danish pig farms, where standards of animal welfare are notably lower than in this country.

By concentrating on the particular, the charities have lost sight of the bigger picture. Pets need to be protected. In extreme cases, their abusers should be taken to court. But shocking film footage from some ghastly flat or backyard should not distract the RSPCA and its supporters from the wider issues of animal welfare which are kept carefully out of sight.