dilemmas

This week's problem: Jenny's friend is kindness itself. But Jenny is distressed when she visits because she keeps single birds in small cages all around the house. When Jenny protests, her friend laughs and says she cares for them and loves them dearly. But Jenny feels that just being in her house is endorsing cruelty. What should she do?
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High moral ground isn't a comfortable place to occupy. It's slippery, lonely - and dangerous. But Jenny finds herself in an even more uncomfortable position at the moment, dithering on the nursery slopes about whether to scale the heights or not.

Obviously, while we'd all queue up to dine with Saddam Hussein, Hitler or even Vlad the Impaler - well, I would because it would be just so riveting, wouldn't it? - when they slipped their arms through ours after pudding and asked if we'd be their pal, the answer would have to be no.

And if a friend ill-treated her children in front of you, locked them out in the snow or screamed at them that they were useless and loathsome, then clearly you'd be morally wrong not to tell her exactly how you felt. Similarly, if a friend of mine brutally beat her dog, I'd find it hard to be best chums. I'd say something. And if nothing happened in either case, it would be curtains for the friendship, naturally.

But I think that unless a friend is being actively and intentionally cruel, which Jenny's friend isn't, we should try to stick with her until outrage obliterates the friendship and we can no longer live with ourselves. This doesn't mean keeping our mouths shut, for friends should be moral guides as well as loyal companions. A friend who blindly endorses everything we do, whether it be right or wrong, is useless. Just one friend saying the words: "I think in hindsight you might have handled this differently, because it wasn't entirely fair, but having said that, I'm here to help you make the best of the hash you've made," is worth a million screaming girlfriends saying: "He what? And then you slept with his best friend in revenge? Good for you!" when deep down you know that what you did was wrong. You want your friends to hate the sin and love the sinner.

And not to go on about it. Because there is no more undignified sight than someone scrabbling up to the high moral ground and dancing on it, shrieking and pointing.

Rather than say that whenever she visits her friend she feels as sick and guilty as if she were to sit in the middle of Belsen with a drink and a steak in front of her, Jenny can simply comment, once more, that she feels the birds must be lonely and that they surely need mates and bigger cages. If her friend won't reconsider the bird position, then Jenny can arrange for them to eat out together in future, knowing that she has done all she can for the poor creatures back home. And hope that, when the birds die, her friend will reconsider before she replaces them.

readers' responses

I met a man in Sri Lanka recently who was troubled when a neighbour got a pet parrot. On his next visit, he went up to the cage and said to the bird: "You must have done something really wicked in a previous life to be so imprisoned in this one." The next time he went to see her, the bird had been released.

It worked in a Buddhist country. It just might here.

John Harrison, Bristol

You are not responsible for your friend's morals. Even if her keeping birds is unkind, the degree of cruelty must be kept in perspective. These birds may be prisoners, but are well fed and cared for.

I am a vegetarian and hope that I am a good advertisement for that way of life. Most of my friends eat meat, but they will probably not remain my friends for long if I subject them to a moral lecture each time we eat out and they choose a meat dish. However, I don't feel that I am compromising my own beliefs by eating with them. Similarly, you would not keep birds yourself, but this does not mean that you shouldn't set foot in your friend's house.

I try to live my life according to my own ethics, but it is dangerous to judge others who are undoubtedly doing the same. We all see the world differently. You have let your friend know how you feel, but if you value her friendship, you will need to accept this aspect of her lifestyle.

Felicity Dwyer, London

Jenny should do a little more investigation before she decides her friend is cruel. There is all the difference in the world between a bird bred in a cage (and therefore secure in a small place) and a wild, or even aviary, bird. To put cage-bred birds into a very large space is a bit like expecting Jenny to take her bed out into the middle of her local park and go to sleep there.

Perhaps Jenny should spend a bit of time looking at shops with caged birds. If after talking cage sizes to the shop keepers she still thinks that the cages her friend has are too small, she could buy her a larger cage as a combined Christmas/birthday present, and hope she buys some more for the other birds.

If Jenny's friend has five birds, she probably knows exactly what she is doing; and if she is "kindness itself", she would be the first to spot a bird that is lonely and cramped.

I'm saying this from experience: my husband is slap-bang in the middle of a bird-keeping obsession. At one point we had 81 birds in our dining- room and garden. Like Jenny, my first instinct was to think it cruel. But having found out more about it, like me, she might, eventually, even find it interesting.

Elaine King, Birmingham

next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I have been married for two years and after trying for six months I became pregnant. I am in complete turmoil, however, because a test has revealed that the baby will almost certainly be severely handicapped. My gynaecologist, like my husband, while saying it is up to me, clearly thinks an abortion would be sensible. I myself can't imagine my life caring 24 hours a day for a handicapped child. One minute I feel I should go ahead with an abortion, the next my friends look at me, shocked at the idea, reminding me of how wonderful Down's children can be (a very different scenario), and then I read about these Siamese twins and how their parents are coping and I feel like a murderer. Am I the only one who feels they can't cope with a handicapped child?

Yours sincerely,

Bridget

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.

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