Barmy bleating about sheep

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NEVER trust a person who claims to prefer animals to people. It is a sure sign of someone who is immature, egotistical, and often authoritarian to boot.

I am prompted to this diatribe by the story about the cargo of sheep in the hold of a British Airways flight. To make matters worse, they were on their way to the Middle East to be ritually sacrificed on arrival (hence the need for them to be transported alive, and fast: sacrificial rams and lambs must be in good condition to be worthy offerings). The passengers were practically rioting, and several cabin staff asked tearfully not to travel that route again.

Picture the scene. The aircraft takes off from Perth. The passengers (human, that is) undo their seat belts and prepare to order drinks. Wife to husband: 'I heard a sheep bleat]' Husband: 'Cripes, Brenda, and you haven't even had a drink yet]' After a few minutes, more bleating is heard, and by other passengers. Brenda to husband: 'There you are] Now do you believe me?'

No less caring, sharing a figure than Alan Clark was on The World at One, trumpeting shock-horror at these revelations. Complain to the chairman of British Airways, he recommended (that's Sir Colin Marshall, for readers who can't wait to set pen to paper); complain to your MP, the EU, the RSPCA. This brutal trade must be stopped. Dear heavens, you might as well read Mr Clark's Diaries and complain to the Marriage Guidance Council or the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In the sure and certain knowledge that animal lovers are even now sharpening their vitriol for my benefit, I shall go further still. How is it possible, in a world that contains the catastrophe of Rwanda, for people to get so steamed up about the plight of sheep? If they have energy, money and compassion to spare, it is desperately needed by dying babies, children whose limbs have been amputated, people with skulls split open by machetes, old women trying to care for orphaned infants.

Did you see the images that World in Action set before us on Monday night? Just one will do to sum up tens of thousands of mothers: a young woman tentatively lifting the rags that covered a heap of dead babies slung into a communal grave. She was searching, presumably, for her own missing child. Let your imagination dwell on that scene - you are the mother; your baby has disappeared, and you would rather find its corpse than have to speculate upon its fate - and then ask yourself, where is the sense of proportion that allows people to worry about sheep?

The question is rhetorical. They do it because the feel-good factor is more immediate and the story makes a better anecdote. Sheep - serviceable, foolish creatures - are easier to help. British Airways, like P&O, knows that nothing damages its corporate image more than a negative story about the company transporting animals.

And after all, if you send pounds 50 to Oxfam or the Red Cross for Rwanda, you're only being ripped off by the telephone company, aren't you, and as for what charities charge in administrative fees - well, it's disgraceful. And you don't know that your money gets there. Anyway, they're black - oops, sorry, shouldn't have said that, I suppose. But that's Africa for you. Tribal warfare. Whereas the sheep, though also a long way away, are white, and it's not their fault. They can't speak up for themselves. Innocent beasts, God's creatures. Expostulate, pontificate, rumble, mutter . . . feel better now?

Ovine, bovine, avian, simian, leonine, elephantine - almost any animal evokes more concern than the human one. The British have a peculiar affinity with animals. We differ from other countries in this; not even the Americans are as sentimental. Could it be the effect of Beatrix Potter and Little Grey Rabbit, or the early influence of nursery pictures by Margaret W Tarrant, showing gentle Jesus surrounded by little fluffy creatures?

The RSPB has more members than either the Labour or the Tory party. The RSPCA received nearly pounds 33m in donations last year. Its recent advertising campaign depicting a pile of slaughtered dogs aroused significantly more outrage than news film showing piles of slaughtered Rwandans. By comparison the rest of Europe seems to adopt a thoroughly down-to-earth attitude to animals, perhaps because many more earn their living from farming and the land.

Farm animals, to the Continental mind, exist to serve man. Once they have outlived their practical usefulness they are killed. I am not defending countries whose people are actively cruel to animals, but it seems to me a virtue to have an unsentimental attitude to animals; and it is surely no coincidence that such nations seem to be far kinder to children. Go into a London restaurant with a Pekingese and loving hands stretch out from every table. Take a toddler, and you will receive filthy looks.

Only the totally unimaginative (or the grossly damaged) could prefer animals to humans. But then animal lovers are often people haters - judging by the extreme wing of the animal lovers' organisations whose members are prepared to bomb laboratories and endanger research that may save human lives. I think they're barmy.

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