Mary Wakefield: Those clever animals deserve better treatment from us humans

Saturday 09 January 2010 01:00

Did you see Betsy the border collie on TV on Wednesday night?

She was the star of a programme which claimed that dogs are far cleverer than we ever imagined. Betsy herself can remember more than 340 words and as she waited for each new command her eyes glowed with the sort of devotion to learning last seen on a human child in the 1950s. But the curious thing is that it's not just dogs whose brain power we've radically underestimated. If you think back over the past year, there's been what looks almost like a planned attempt by the animal kingdom finally to show humans what they can do.

It started with the crows – remember the crows? For several weeks in late 2009 they monopolised the feel-good end of the news with their amazing corvid skills: fashioning hooks to pull worms from narrow tubes, solving problems involving water levels and eureka cans, hopping with excitement at their own cleverness. Next up were the chimpanzees, who began their campaign with a spate of stories suggesting that, given enough love, nine-month-old chimps are just as advanced as nine-month-old human babies. Good photo opportunity. Nice move, chimps.

The submarine animal IQ PR has been dominated, obviously, by dolphins. Last Sunday it turned out that dolphins are so quick witted and sociable that some scientists are convinced they should be referred to not as animals but as "non-human persons". This would mean giving them special rights – like the right not to be throttled by tuna nets or spend their lives doing somersaults for fish. Even the sticklebacks managed a small news item: "Sticklebacks learn like humans despite tiny fish brains."

Yes, it's exciting – but it's also frightening. I'm all for farming, even (useful) drug testing on puppies. I'd never suggest that a dolphin was the moral equivalent of a man. But if animals keep proving themselves ever cleverer, some time soon we'll have to take stock of the great weight of misery we inflict, all the unnecessary harm.

I've been trying to think up ways around the issue all week; none of them work. I've tried imagining that IQ is irrelevant: if it's not human, let it bleed. But that won't really wash, will it? If intelligence is irrelevant, on what basis do we claim our own superiority?

I know it's a mistake to imagine that animals don't think or feel in the same way we do – but it doesn't follow that they don't suffer. And there is an autistic academic in Colorado who claims to think like a cow. She's called Temple Grandin, and she says that though cows don't mind being milked by machine, they are less keen on rotting in the dark covered in sores.

Loophole three nearly saved me: if animals behave like animals, I decided, then why shouldn't we? Even the kindliest dolphin doesn't give a monkey's about my welfare, so why should I consider his? But then, who'd trust a toddler to give a toss either? And if we treated animals only as they treated us, we'd chew the faces off a few pitbull puppies and leave the rest alone.

The story this week that has finally forced me to consider taking animal ethics seriously wasn't about animals at all, but about Kepler, the satellite that's roaming space in search of life-supporting earth-like planets. I was struck then, and still am, by the awful thought that if we continue to treat intelligent creatures with casual cruelty on a grand scale, then we won't have a leg to stand on when super-bright carnivorous aliens land on earth and treat us the same way.

Spot the true blue Tory policy if you can

Is he a principled Gladstone-style type keeping his strongly held beliefs secret for tactical reasons, or is he a pragmatic Disraeli, trusting just to instinct? With respect to all the right-wing thinkers, I think they've got the question quite wrong. If the tragicomedy of Monday's health policy launch is anything to go by, it doesn't matter a jot what Cameron's ideology is or isn't – the crucial question is whether he and his team can actually function effectively at all.

On Monday the big DC, pictured, laid out his party's health manifesto, and health is what he really, really cares about remember. But by the end of the day, all his main policies had turned out to be either untrue or nonsensical. Some were even Labour policies, and up and running already. When the press called to clarify matters, they were given two separate contradictory briefings, so they shrugged and just picked their preferred interpretation. By Monday evening the Cameroons were poised for a disaster, and the health fiasco would have made front-page news but then – a miracle! Saved! Cameron made another gaffe – this time about his proposals for a marriage tax break, and the health story was old news. It's going to be jolly exciting when they're in power.

*So much talk of snow, so many pictures of snow, but no talk of how the old people are faring. Where are they all? How are they coping with pavements made of sheet glass? How are they buying food? I haven't seen a soul over 70 out and about for weeks. Shouldn't we be worrying?

Cougars on the prowl put tigers in the shade

This is not the year of the tiger; it is the year of the cougar. Madonna (51) threw down the gauntlet by parading Jesus (22) around London and New Year and since then our UK cougars have really risen well to the challenge. Earlier in the week, Boris Johnson's first wife, Allegra Mostyn-Owen (45) wrote a long piece in the Daily Mail about her deep love for her 24-year-old Muslim boyfriend, soon to be husband.

And now we have the über-cougar: Mrs Robinson herself. Iris (60) the wife of the Irish First Minister Peter Robinson, has confessed that her lover, a handsome youngster called Kirk, was only 19 when they had their affair. That's under a third of her age. So the ball's back in your court again, Madge.

Diets? Don't even think of them

Sophie Dahl deserves a prize for truly world-class chutzpah. She's written a piece in Waitrose Food Illustrated warning girls that diets are evil and of no use to womankind.

Of course Sophie owes her celebrity to more than being a model who is thin. But presumably her dramatic transformation from heffalump to waif owed at least something to going on a diet. You've got to admire her nerve.

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