THE THOUGHT of John Major massaging sun-cream into his goldfish has haunted me all week. What is it with him and animals? From the Downing Street cat to that disastrous impulse buy, the Dangerous Dogs Act, he just will not leave them alone. I wouldn't trust him with a fly.

Sarah Dunant's The Trouble with Animals (BBC2) pinpointed the trouble we have grasping the notion of animal rights. Abusing them has become a habit. The Bible sanctified it, and behaviourists condone it by stressing our difference from them. The implications of Darwin haven't been fully absorbed yet - if animals are our close relatives, we should be inviting them over for tea, not injecting them with cosmetics.

The opponents of the current wave of concern for animals are quick with their contempt. Melanie Phillips, looking as collapsible as her own argument, complained: "We're not seeing the same sort of moral outrage exhibited on behalf of suffering humanity." Richard D North, peering out between carcasses in a butcher's shop, chimed in with insults that could be directed at any minority view: "You've got a hysteria thing, almost a kind of paranoia thing, of people kind of thrilling to the loneliness of their own position."

Animals are suppressed, restrained, at our mercy and have no idea what's going on. Not to consider their plight seems at best irresponsible, at worst a sadist's dream come true. We were shown a never-ending stream of newborn chicks being flung along an assembly line and landing on top of each other in foreseeable (planned?) pile-ups. There were calves chained by the throat, pigs and sheep kicked by farmers so that they fell backwards out of lorries, mice and rabbits subjected to the torture of experimentation. All of it is justified on grounds of efficiency, low food prices and medical advances. Such efficiency produced mad cow disease, and the medical advances have included Thalidomide, which was tested on lab animals for years before being foisted on us - the healthy mice proved nothing.

Adding a little absurdity of her own, Sarah Dunant appeared in a canoe somewhere in northern Canada, praising the Cree Indians for their guilt- free attitude to animals. The Crees believe animals are our friends, who offer themselves up in friendship to be killed and eaten. While cynical about our blinkered acceptance of sanitised, pre-packaged meat products, Dunant seemed to swallow this glib idea whole.

It's not only animals that we're failing to protect, but children. Panorama (BBC1) looked at the way dangerous paedophiles slip through the system. It would be unfair to lock people up for crimes they might commit, but this programme unearthed convicted, recidivist child molesters who had begged to be restrained for their own peace of mind. Psychiatric hospitals won't take them. The responsibility instead falls on the courts, where such men are sentenced to prison terms which will be spent in the company of other paedophiles, fuelling each other's fantasies.

Terence McCready wrote to his solicitor from prison, asking for psychiatric help. The psychiatrist's reply was chillingly perfunctory: "[He] suffers from a personality disorder, characterised chiefly by paedophilic sexual behaviour, amounting to psychopathic disorder. However ... it is doubtful whether any psychological intervention could change his sexual orientation and successfully treat him." Within a month of his release from prison, he killed an eight-year-old girl. Her mother couldn't believe he'd ever been allowed out.

In Holland they reserve the right to detain people indefinitely if they're considered dangerous, whether they're "treatable" or not. Here, the maximum-security hospitals have not even been built.

Everyman (BBC1) gave us a glimpse of what form rehabilitation can take in a maximum-security prison. The psychology department of Long Lartin prison seemed to consist of three women, one enthusiastic, one exasperated, and the other somewhat at a loss. The prisoners seemed to divide up similarly. The psychologists' attempt to draw out a man who'd killed his wife and a social worker failed miserably. Their dumb questions drove him nuts. All he really wanted to do was bake cakes.

In one role-play session, some armed robbers were split into two groups. One group played armed robbers, the other "straight-goers". They were meant to debate the comparative advantages of a straight or crooked life. But one robber was so eloquent on the tedium of suburban existence in which the only recognisable event is being nagged by the wife to redecorate the bathroom, that all the "straight- goers" wanted to change sides. The cheerful psychologists took it well.

"Having seen, having watched, it was then the time to do." This was the portentous description of his qualifications as a surgeon offered by a rabbi on his way to conduct a circumcision, in Victor Schonfeld's remarkable War Cries film, It's a Boy! (C4). I thought circumcision helped prevent cervical cancer and the case was closed. But apparently its medical benefits are much in dispute, which leaves us with a surgical procedure carried out on millions of infants every year for religious purposes, usually without anaesthetic or any modern methods of sterilisation. "To be a Muslim, one of the things you have to be is circumcised. I don't know the exact religious reason but there is one," says a father. Schonfeld's film suggested there ought to be a better reason than that to subject your baby to this harrowing and sometimes risky removal of erogenous, protective tissue.

We were shown a circumcision being done on a baby who screamed with pain and fear. Interspersed were people on the street, saying things like, "not one baby has suffered" and "there is no pain". Back to the baby, whom even the rabbi acknowledges is "in a state". Three days later the baby was in intensive care with a severe infection. His gentile father wept in the hospital corridor, regretting the whole thing: "It's immoral and arrogant of the people who do it to presume that they have the right to cut up other people for the sake of religion." It's probable that the number of deaths resulting from circumcision has been hushed up, for fear of deterring parents.

Interestingly, Schonfeld began his career with a film about animal suffering, which would seem to contradict the view that one type of compassion precludes another.