Fur flies as performing pets receive a clawing

Animal crackers: TV presenters go into battle after Johnny Morris condemns popular BBC show as disgusting and unpleasant
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The fur flew; the claws were out. The man who brought the natural world to life for generations of children had gone on the offensive on behalf of the animal world.

Johnny Morris, the presenter who gave voices to animal characters such as Dotty the Lemur and Brolly the Umbrella-Cockatoo in the classic television series Animal Magic, condemned Pets Win Prizes, BBC1's hit Saturday evening show, as "disgusting".

Pets Win Prizes features animals playing games and performing stunts, to the joy of their owners and the amusement of 5million viewers.

But Mr Morris, now 80, said that it was "not pleasant for the animals and not nice to watch.

"This is a case where animals are being used for the benefit of the presenter and little consideration is given to the animals".

Certain creatures suffered stress much more than others, and the warning signals could be difficult to spot, Mr Morris said from the home he shares with three cats in Hungerford, Berkshire.

"Animals like dogs are used to being with us and doing what we ask them to do. But pussycats, for example, don't like strange situations. They want to be at home."

His objections had nothing to do with the argument that the animals were made to look fools. "They don't know what that means," he said dismissively.

Mr Morris suspected that the real fools were the viewers and the producers.

"I'm concerned about the level of intelligence of the audience going to watch this programme. And the BBC are definitely out of their minds. They are bloody bonkers."

Mr Morris and the BBC parted company on the subject of animals some 13 years ago when the 21-year-old children's classic series Animal Magic, which was based at Bristol Zoo, ended amid acrimony over the corporation's attempts to update it.

The former presenter still receives scores of letters from people asking for a return to the old days - "when I think we paid respect to animals", and children were informed as well as being entertained.

"We all knew what our families liked and we considered very carefully what we did. [Pets Win Prizes] is devoid totally of any concern or consideration to animals."

Dale Winton, the 41-year-old Pets presenter adored for his camp asides, was stung by the criticism. "I'm upset - Johnny Morris is such a lovely man. I'm a big fan of his," he said.

He issued a public appeal to the veteran presenter to pay a visit. "I wish I'd known he was thinking that because I'd have had him down on the show," Mr Winton said.

"Half the games are what the animals do at home anyway. For Johnny Morris to criticise it is terribly unfair, because if you look at the way the animals are treated, you'll see they are looked after better than the artists."

The BBC affirmed that animals' welfare was paramount. Terry Nutkins, the naturalist, and Mary Nicoll, a vet, were on hand to ensure their well- being.

"We have no doubt that the millions of people who enjoy Pets Win Prizes appreciate that great care is taken to ensure animals are properly looked after," a spokeswoman said.

Bill Swann, assistant chief veterinary officer of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said the society had written to the programme over incidents in the past, such as when hamsters were placed inside plastic spheres. "One of our basic guidelines is that animals should not be put in circumstances where they cannot extricate themselves if they become frightened or distressed," he said. Personally, he did not approve of animals being used in this way. "I don't find it suitable family entertainment," he said.