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World Animal Day: Battery hens, cramped cattle, and circus animals - there's still a long way to go

The treatment of animals in Britain is appalling, and something needs to be done.

Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”.

During a week that marks both the Mahatma’s birthday and World Animal Day (4 October), we might well ask, if Gandhi were still alive, how would Britain fare in his eyes?

Not very well, I’m afraid. We can easily shake our heads at past failings, but it is hard for us to honestly examine our current behaviour. We need to take off our blinders and see that animals are sentient beings whose lives are their own, not “things” for us to use as and when we please.

Danny Boyle and the Olympics organisers failed to do this when they planned the opening ceremony of the summer games. Here was a unique opportunity to showcase dazzling state-of-the-art animatronics to a global audience of billions. Instead, they wanted to subject more than 100 animals – sheep, horses, goats, cows, chickens and more – to a terrifying environment with bright lights and 80,000 noisy fans. To add insult to injury, their idyllic portrayal of farming is about as far from reality for more than 95% of the animals raised for food in this country as you can get.

The majority of farmed animals in Great Britain today are subjected to intensive confinement – treated more like widgets than the thinking, feeling beings that they are. Crammed into cages and crates, their babies are torn away from them shortly after birth and they are kicked, prodded and deprived of everything that makes their lives worth living. Piglets have their teeth clipped and are castrated without anesthetic. Chickens are in constant pain, bred to grow so large so quickly that the bones in their tiny legs splinter because they cannot support all that extra weight.

Chickens are in constant pain, bred to grow so large so quickly that the bones in their tiny legs splinter because they cannot support all that extra weight.

In a story now making headlines across the country, the High Court has kowtowed to cattle farmers and the hunting lobby, giving the OK to start shooting badgers in a misguided attempt to stop the spread of bovine tuberculosis. These animals are convenient scapegoats but killing them won’t change the fact that the crowded, filthy conditions on cattle and dairy farms are the perfect breeding grounds for diseases. Farmed cows commonly suffer from udder infections, painfully swollen knees and hoof disorders – including foot rot, ulcers and abscesses – that can result in lameness and premature death. We would all be better off not drinking their milk or eating their flesh.

Last year, Britain’s last remaining “circus elephant”, Anne, was finally retired after 58 years of servitude but other elephants, exceedingly intelligent and social animals who protect one another, care for orphaned babies and travel many miles a day, suffer from confinement, crowds and chronic boredom in our zoos. The London Zoo once featured an exhibit of caged Homo sapiens, but after four days, the men and women were more than ready to go home. Animals do not have this option.

In laboratories, animals spend years in fear and misery. They are burned, poisoned, sliced open and starved, despite the fact that in the 21st century, whole human DNA is on the Internet, we can programme high-speed computers with human data and we have amazingly accurate and efficient non-animal research methods.

Change has to come. There is a compassionate alternative to every cruel thing, but we must seek out these kinder choices and stop exploiting other beings for our own ends if we are to have any hope of living up to Gandhi’s standard for a truly great nation.