Terence Blacker: Chicks, dogs and human vanities

For animals to do psychological good to their owners, they must be an inconvenience
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Home life is important in the image game and so when, during the course of an author-relaxing-at-home profile for the local press, there were sounds of crisis from the chicken-run, I sensed an opportunity to show the visiting interviewer my caring side. Sure enough, we found that one of two recently-hatched bantam chicks had obligingly got itself wedged in some wire. Cooing in an attractively sensitive manner, I released the little thing.

Unfortunately, the interviewer had noticed a high-velocity catapult, lying by the gate to the run. She enquired what it was for. "Rats," I said. They had taken to scoffing the chicken food and a pebble would, I reckoned, knock them out pretty effectively.

"Then what will you do?" she asked.

"Stamp on it, I guess." The words were out before I remembered that I was meant to be promoting a heart-warming book for children. I implored the journalist not to mention the rodent-stamping. With a curt nod of disapproval, she agreed.

One of the very few things that I have discovered about the writing life is that poultry rarely serve an author well when it comes to selling books. Years ago, a publicist who desperate for some sort of angle to help sell a novel I had written persuaded me to appear in a "Me and my pets column" for one of the Sunday newspapers. Writers with interesting animals could really shift some units, she told me - publishers would sometimes rent a couple of greyhound and send them round to a novelist's flat in time for an interview, simply to provide that all-important pet angle.

I posed for a cameraman with a cockerel on my head. Neither of us were at our most dignified. Whether it was the cock, or me, or the novel that was to blame, the result was the same. Units were not shifted.

Yet the connection that the publicist made between animals and character was not entirely stupid. The right pet in the right context can change perspective on a person. Peter Mandelson, walking down Holland Park Avenue with his retriever on a lead, somehow no longer seems like a dead-eyed android down here on visit. Germaine Greer, writing about her geese, becomes approachable - cosy, even. The image of the most unlikely candidates (George W Bush, the Queen, Roy Hattersley) tends to be improved by the animal company they keep in their domestic lives.

So the news that some lucky National Health patients in Lewisham are to be given £1,000 to spend on a pet and its upkeep should be treated as rather more than a silly-season story. The therapeutic effects of looking after animals are proven and if regular - over-regular, one suspects - patients can be kept out of GP's waiting-rooms, then a few grand spent on dogs, cats or even poultry will have been cheap at the price.

A po-faced spokesman for the Patients Association has allowed himself to doubt whether this was the best use of NHS money but, as Gill Galliano of the Lewisham Primary Care Trust points out, pets make patients feel less stressed and isolated. They can also, presumably, offer the opportunity for taking healthy exercise, whether walking the dog, getting the kitten down from a tree or stamping on rodents who are trying to steal your grain.

There are signs, though, that this version of the human-animal relationship, one in which we benefit from the loyalty, kindness and stupidity of our pets, is in danger of being taken too far. In Korea, the cloning of dogs is being pioneered with, of all breeds, Afghan hounds leading the charge.

In America, the idea of pets as an extension and enhancement of their owners' characters has gone further. Animal-loving Martha Stewart, once a domestic goddess but more recently a jailbird guilty of insider dealing, has been in the news. Her rehabilitation first involved setting up a new reality TV show, then applying for planning permission for a vast barn on the $16m (£9m) New York estate where she currently lives, electonically tagged under what has been described as "mansion arrest".

It was essential, she told the planners, the building be painted in a certain sort of grey. With the exception of her little red chow-chow dog, all the animals on her farm - chickens, horses, goats, cats - were black and the new building needed to chime in with the colour of the livestock.

It is at this point that, far from being a cure for mental frailty, owning animals can become a symptom of it. Like the cloned Afghans, Martha Stewart's themed and colour-coded menagerie has become an expression of human vanity, a design accessory. For animals to do psychological good to their owners, they must be an inconvenience and an obligation; their welfare must involve human effort.

Right now, in the interests of keeping my pitifully small family of bantam chicks away from the dangers of getting wedged in wire or taken as a bonne bouche by a passing rodent, I keep them with me at all times. It is not easy - this month sees me bucketing around the country from one address to another, sometimes even into the perilous, fox-infested outskirts of London - but wherever I go, the bantams, their run and their little bag of food will follow.

Long ago, I probably dreamt that I would one day spend an August driving around the country with a couple of chicks on the back seat of the car. As usual, the fantasy has turned out to be rather different.