Natasha Walter : We're all hooked by woolly thinking

'There must be a way to enter the debate about animal welfare without pretending that a fish is a dog and a dog is a person'

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At least the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) has the virtue of consistency. It knows where it stands: for animals, any animals, against the hunters, the chompers, the fishers, the farmers. Its new campaign against angling in Britain has kicked off with a nasty-looking advertisement showing a dog with a sharp metal hook stuck through its cheek. Poor pup! But the caption takes it further: "If you wouldn't do this to a dog, why do it to a fish? Fishing hurts."

This isn't the first time that the pressure group has targeted anglers. I love the story about a spoof campaign it ran against a huge Texan fishing tournament. Apparently Peta threatened to tip tranquillisers into the lake in question so that the fish wouldn't rise to the bait. Even though the lake contained 40 billion gallons of water, the park rangers went on high alert to patrol the lake for the tournament – to be held on April Fools Day.

Here, Peta is much better known for its campaigns against fur, including that old advertisement, "I'd rather go naked than wear fur", starring supermodels in peek-a-boo poses, which pushed fur to the fringes of fashion for a few seasons. This new campaign is a lot less likely to be successful. It isn't just against the sport of angling, since in its usual uncompromising manner Peta has taken a stand against all killing and eating of, as it puts it, sea animals. But a generation which happily shrugged off its furs (who needed them when you could wrap yourself in the combings of Himalayan goats for a fraction of the price?) will be less likely to give up its tuna carpaccio.

I don't agree with a word that Peta says but I love it. I love it because its ferocity brilliantly exposes the woolly thinking of most people who delicately pretend to have animal welfare at heart. Almost everyone else who talks about the poor, suffering animals draws themselves arbitrary lines for their own comfort, while preening themselves on their moral superiority. Hypocrisy rules!

There are the people who are vegetarians because they pity the poor cows, but who happily chomp away on cheese produced by cows who are, yes, warehoused together with as much indignity as beef cattle and killed with the same carelessness. There are the people who won't eat chicken from battery farms but who eagerly order salmon from fish farms where the fish are crammed together at higher densities than battery chickens. There are the people who condemn the dog-eating Chinese, but do dogs feel more pain at being made into chops than pigs do? There are all the people who can't eat a bit of an animal that looks like an animal – an ear, a tongue, a head – but who munch away at reconstituted burgers. And there are the people who wept over the pictures of cows culled for foot-and mouth, when those same cows, if not shot by Maff, would have been shot the following month at the abattoir.

The almost unbroken silence over angling, as opposed to the furore over fox hunting, has always shown up this woolly thinking perfectly. British town dwellers get so hot under the collar about fox hunting because they don't like the people who hunt and they think that foxes have rather sweet faces. But they are never going to rise up against angling, because – well, ordinary people do it, don't they, and fish are slippery creatures. But if you don't like the idea of foxes being torn apart by hounds for sport, how can you approve of fish being speared by metal hooks for sport? Especially when Peta has brought you some research purporting to show that even if fish don't scream, boy, can they hurt.

But logic hardly ever gets a look-in when it comes to animal welfare. That's because we don't rely on arguments about animals, we rely on feelings and habits. And those feelings and habits go way back. We grow up steeped in sentimentality about animals. Now that I have a child myself, I spend days plunged back into the themes and visions of early childhood. And what do you know, it's all about the cuddly bears, and the enthusiastic tigers, and the intelligent foxes. My daughter sleeps surrounded by animals keeping guard over her, wild carnivores recast by the toy makers into fluffy bundles. Every book she opens plunges her into a world where the animals, from ducks to caterpillars to rabbits, are chatting away to her, inviting her into their jolly worlds.

Indeed, although I'd like to be absolutely unsentimental about animal welfare, I'm still affected by my own childhood training. Over the past few years I've realised that although I've munched through dozens of lambs and calves in my time, I still couldn't force down a mouthful of rabbit or horse, because, well, they might come from Watership Down or be friends with Black Beauty. Uh-oh, how absurd. The only statement I can make in my defence is that I know it's absurd, and I won't be trying to force anyone else to stop eating rabbit because I once cried when Bigwig took his stand against General Woundwort.

Most people who are hung up on animal welfare are still caught in the nets of the anthropomorphism of childhood. But would it make animals any happier if we treated them more like people? You only have to look at the so-called animal lovers who turn animals into pets to see the horrid effects of anthropomorphism.

The dinky dogs who go about all clipped and cleaned, dragged along on leads to the local park for a few minutes, miserably whining and struggling as they are dragged back home again; the cats kept in tiny houses every night, scratching at suburban doors in desperation to get out to have sex and caterwaul on the rooftops.

I wish we could lay this sentimentality about animals aside, without losing all admiration for non-human life. There must be a way to enter the debate about animal welfare without pretending that a fish is a dog and a dog is a person. Instead of trying to suggest that all life has independent value (an argument that gets beached long before the bacteria, usually around the rights of rats and wasps), let's remind ourselves that animals don't have rights, but they have beauty. And if we want to retain that beauty, we'll have to build a world where animals can just be animals. And that means letting them live their own lives even if those lives end, as they always will, in sudden death.

For instance, I can't help thinking that the fox who snuffles around woods and fields, pouncing on chickens and running through gardens at night, mating and breeding when it likes, who dies after just one day of fear and pain, has a better life than the cow who is brought up in a concrete barn, standing in rows to be milked by a machine twice a day, separated from her calf a day after its birth. It's typical of our sentimentality about animals that the few dozen foxes which get killed every year should command such acres of newsprint and aeons of government time. But if we wanted a world in which animals could be animals, we might be less worried about hunting, and more worried about the lives of farmed animals and the wider effects that a degraded environment has on animal habitats.

And when Peta's angling campaign has, thankfully, faded from our minds, we might still try to keep alive some anger at the farmed fish industry. After all, a carp that has lived its life in a great clean lake, flashing in and out of weeds and warm shallows, chasing the little fish and whisking through the moonlit waters, who ends up caught on a hook, must have lived a better life than the farmed salmon, caged in with half a million other fish, eating antibiotics and colourants to turn his flesh fat and pink, unable to swim to clean water. As Peta might have it, free the Orkney millions!

n.walter@btinternet.com

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