THE Animal Man is coming to my son's school again, a visit I am not looking forward to. Not because I don't think he does a good job, with his menagerie and talks, rather because he succeeds too well. I know the effect that half a dozen furry, charming, large-eyed little creatures has upon children. They want to own them. Realising that they will not be able to have a marmoset, salamander or kinkajou, they set their hearts on a more obtainable rabbit or guinea-pig. No, I tell them, you may not have a pet.

The main reason I am against keeping pets is that I think it is just not in their best interests. And it's not the children I'm thinking of, it's the pets.

Why is it that when people tell me about the animals their children 'look after', it is always in terms of the terrible things that happened to the creatures? Tropical fish tanks bursting; kittens trapped up the back of the piano; tortoises strangled by Russian vine; cats eating gerbils; hamsters escaping behind the central heating boiler and being found, mummified, weeks later. All this, to develop a sense of responsibility in the youthful owners?

'We would look after it,' my children have protested. I am sure they would, given the definition of 'looking after'. Looking after means confining the creature to a small space, from which it will try to escape at the first opportunity. If small mammals liked being caged up, why do they make a dash for freedom the instant the door is opened?

I am not impervious to persuasion. After some debate, our family took in a cat from the Cats' Protection League. The Cats' Protection League is a sensible and compassionate charity that is campaigning for responsible ownership, including the neutering of cats and kittens. Its work, however, relies not just upon monetary donations but also the willingness of the public to look after cats that would otherwise be put down. Cats, I reassured myself, are independent. They cannot be caged, only stay with humans on their own terms, and like to come and go. The cat we ended up with had spent its kittenhood, before being rescued by the league, cooped up with a large tom in a small room. It is still terrified of other cats, will not go outside, loves its carrying-basket and shows no signs of ever becoming independent. A victim of inner-city life, or of plain stupidity?

My children live in a London house with a small garden. Keeping pets when there is sufficient space may be different. Chickens, ducks, goats, ponies, even pot-bellied Vietnamese pigs can be taken on with confidence provided there is room; but a dog, in a small city garden? Or a rabbit, in a hutch on a balcony? It ill behoves city dwellers to carp on about what country folk do to foxes and badgers in the name of sport, when they are busily perpetrating their own brand of misguided cruelty upon animals in the name of kindness. Big dogs go mad in little flats. Tropical snakes and other 'novelties' die from the cold and the wrong diet. Turtles, terrapins and damp-skinned creatures cannot survive in centrally heated bedrooms. My children think that I am just a mean old mummy. Pet-keeping is equated with warmth, generosity and motherliness. They speak fondly of households where pets are welcomed. Playful kittens, a basket full of puppies. Carpets full of fleas, trays full of cat-litter, I mutter - all dealt with capably by a presiding paragon of womanly skill and affection, no doubt.

Pets are kept for reasons that have nothing to do with love and care. Animals are bought to satisfy a11 sorts of complicated needs which parents think their children have. Fair enough, but the animals suffer. Young children treat animals like toys. They tend to pull them around until they learn, often the hard way, to handle them properly. Animals fare slightly better with older children, but even teenagers forget about their pets' feeding and cleaning needs. Watching kittens being born may be an education for the children, but I'm not sure it enhances the experience for the cat. Finding Hammy Hamster dead in his cage may help children come to terms with loss, but it's a brave parent who can face the question of why he died, without coming to the sad conclusion that it probably had something to do with the way he lived.

Some pets survive. I have heard of rabbits happily lolloping round the conservatory for years, and tortoises that go on and on. I hear more often though, of creatures meeting an untimely end after a futile existence. Over the years, there has been a change in attitude towards zoos and circuses. Why can this not be applied to pets? We know that caging animals in unnatural environments not only harms them, but also offends their dignity. Watching a neighbour lying on the ground, furiously dragging a resisting rabbit out from underneath a shed by its back legs, makes me think that it is not just the dignity of the animal that is at stake, either.

It might be argued that you can't simply let a defenceless pet loose in the wild. Some animals are not equipped to survive. Having seen the way a rabbit kicks, however, I'm wondering which ones. Flightless birds? Toothless hounds?

I am not a natural worshipper of the wild, nor do I have strong views on the nobility of God's creatures. But I do feel that if there is a purpose to animals' lives, it should be more than merely providing amusement, or 'education'. I am hoping the Animal Man will have thought this one through.

Meanwhile, I am grappling with the pet question and can get no further than deciding that cats and possibly tortoises are just about acceptable, but anything caged, captured or confined in an aquarium, hutch or run and I am not happy. Neither, I suspect, are they.

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