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Top dog: how animals captured politics

How pets became the national priority

4 September 2021

9:00 AM

4 September 2021

9:00 AM

‘Bishops are a part of English culture,’ T.S. Eliot wrote in 1948, ‘and horses and dogs are a part of English religion.’ It was a joke. Is it still? Today the fervour for animal lives is so strong that at times it can certainly feel religious. Politicians like to tell us that we are a ‘nation of animal lovers’ because it is such an uncontroversial truth. But if love for animals comes at the expense of humans, that’s not an example of moral worth. It’s a sign of moral collapse.

The evacuation of Kabul offered a clear example. Pen Farthing, a former soldier who had settled in the city, was offered a flight home, but said he would not travel without the dogs and cats in his animal sanctuary. It seemed preposterous. There were days left to evacuate thousands of people. But after the public outpouring of support in Britain for his campaign, known as ‘Operation Ark’, the military yielded. An aircraft left Afghanistan with the animals while the abandoned humans, including members of Farthing’s staff, looked on.

Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, told MPs last week that he has ‘soldiers on the ground who have been diverted from saving those people because of inaccurate stories, inaccurate lobbying’. He later said that Farthing’s supporters had taken up ‘too much time’ from senior commanders. Dominic Dyer — an animal welfare activist, friend of Carrie Johnson, and Farthing’s chief supporter — thanked Boris Johnson for backing Operation Ark ‘because he knew it was the right thing to do’.

Farthing and his supporters deny that they prioritised ‘pets over people’. They say they wanted to leave Kabul with their staff as well as the animals. But for plenty of people the animals were what really mattered. In a call to Tom Swarbrick on LBC last week, one member of the public came to the defence of Operation Ark. ‘A life is a life,’ she said. ‘Are you saying, if they’re not an interpreter let’s get a dog on [the plane]?’ asked Swarbrick. There was a long pause, then: ‘Do you want the honest answer? Yes.’

The debacle exposed the popularity of the belief that human lives have no more value than those of animals. Indeed, some consider animals superior because their in nocence lends them virtue. ‘Everything is good in the world, apart from us humans,’ Prince Harry said recently. He was mocked for this, but he had identified the zeitgeist. The RSPCA is given more money in donations each year than the NSPCC; the Donkey Sanctuary receives more than the three most prominent domestic abuse charities combined.

A YouGov poll last week found 40 per cent of the British public believe animal lives are worth as much as human ones — only nine points behind those who believe human lives are worth more. It’s also a position more favoured by the young than the old, so likely to become more prevalent.

How did we end up here? A lot can be pinned on the philosopher Peter Singer and his 1975 book Animal Liberation. His wholesale rejection of the belief that human life has intrinsic worth laid the foundation for the modern animal rights movement. ‘Mere membership of the species Homo sapiens,’ he wrote, ‘need not be crucial to whether a life is taken or spared.’


In a 1995 article for The Spectator, Michael Sissons argued that Singer and his followers took things too far. ‘I have no doubt that if animal rights is allowed the momentum to move on to its final targets, public opinion will in due course find it increasingly irritating and ridiculous,’ he wrote. ‘I believe that 20 years from now, when those issues have been properly confronted, the animal rights movement will suffer the same fate as other utopian doctrines which have wrought such havoc in the 20th century.’

Instead of abating, the trend has accelerated. Singer proposed a hierarchy of intelligence and sentience. What we have now is a hierarchy of cuteness. Singer’s philosophy is rational — coldly, rigidly so. Britain’s modern cult of animal worship is sentimental. It is survival of the Instagrammable.

And where the public heads, politicians follow, scrambling to keep up. In the post-mortem examination of the 2017 election Tory strategists acknowledged many failures — Theresa May’s proposed ‘dementia tax’, for example — but one of the conclusions was that the party had underestimated the huge political power of the animal rights movement.

During the election campaign, May committed to hold a free vote on hunting, adding casually: ‘As it happens, personally I’ve always been in favour of fox hunting.’ More people shared articles about this moment than stories about Britain leaving the EU. YouGov found that 56 per cent of voters could recall the policy. Only 11 per cent supported it. A few weeks later, not long before polling day, a story claiming the Tory manifesto ‘scraps the ban on elephant ivory sales after bowing to millionaire antique lobbyists’ became one of the most-read on Facebook. It was shared 70,000 times — more than any other story about the manifesto.

By the 2019 election, the Tories were more savvy. Johnson committed to ‘put animal sentience at the heart of government policy’. The result is the upcoming Animal Sentience Bill which will ‘formally recognise’ animals as sentient beings and create an ‘Animal Sentience Committee’.

But there has never been any question as to whether parliament recognises sentience in other species. From 1822, when the government passed the first animal protection legislation, it was accepted that animals have the capacity to suffer. What the new bill might mean in practice is unclear. Especially as it does not include a definition of sentience. As it stands, the legislation just says the committee — which will include whoever the Environment Secretary wants — can produce reports and direct on pretty much any legislation it likes.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the potential problems. Parliamentarians and countryside groups have already pointed out that the committee could seek to block new homes, schools and infrastructure projects. It could obstruct trade deals with countries that are deemed to have lower animal welfare standards. It could become almost impossible for farming and fishing communities to earn a living. Baroness Deech, a bioethicist and crossbench peer, has pointed to the use of ‘mice, ferrets and primates’ in the successful development of Covid-19 vaccines and suggested ‘it would be tragic if the animal rights lobby got in the way of this vital progress in research, by putting animal welfare ahead of human life’.

‘In more than 35 years in both Houses, I have never seen a more badly drafted bill,’ complained Lord Forsyth of the Animal Sentience Bill. All it does, he said, is set up a committee. Why is legislation needed to do that? Why is there no definition of ‘sentience’? The answer is that the policy is the consequence of political Darwinism. To survive, the Tories think they need to side with the animals. The bill now making its way through parliament was born not of principle but out of the Tories’ fear of missing out on a fashionable cause.

If all policy could in theory be influenced by the whims of an animal rights committee, it’s sensible to ask who might be on it. Shortly before the parliamentary recess, the Defra select committee took advice from a range of experts, including Dr Penny Hawkins of the RSPCA. Hawkins welcomed the possible involvement in the committee of Peta, the biggest animal rights organisation in the world. ‘I think it’s really important to make sure that it’s not just a closed shop, that it includes a whole spread of experience, expertise, perspectives,’ she said.

Peta’s ‘perspective’ is perhaps the purest example of the dark logic of the animal rights movement. Peta wants to elevate animals by humanising them. In doing so, they dehumanise people. They have compared pet ownership to slavery and cows to rape victims. Peta’s 2003 ‘Holocaust on Your Plate’ campaign featured billboards that juxtaposed two images: on the left, concentration camp inmates; on the right, battery hens; above them, in menacing black-on-red text, the words: ‘To animals, all people are Nazis.’ Campaign groups are free to use whatever analogies they like, but the prospect that an organisation such as Peta could heavily influence UK government policy is alarming. Where does concern for animal welfare turn into anti-human radicalism?

For as long as the Tories have no answer, they will be at the mercy of the activists. Pen Farthing knew that he could use Britain’s love of animals to whip up a response. His greatest asset was the public. In a voicemail he left for an MoD adviser, he threatened to mobilise the mob: ‘You either get permission to get on to that airfield — or tomorrow morning I’m going to turn on you and the whole country. And everybody else who’s invested in this rescue is going to know it’s you.’ Many MPs received calls, abuse and even death threats from constituents over Operation Ark, even without Farthing’s rallying cry.

When political priorities are decided by cuteness, uglier problems are easily ignored. If you want to know what happens when animal welfare comes at the expense of human life and dignity, Operation Ark offers a glimpse of the answer. Much has been said in the media in the past few weeks about how the Taliban treats women, yet many people in our country would rather help dogs and cats.

We are a ‘nation of animal lovers’, but we have also historically assumed our superiority over the animal kingdom. Indeed, this superiority is the basis of our duty of care to nature. It’s admirable to treat animals well, to conserve habitats and to protect the powerless. But that’s not the same as treating animal life as equal to human life.

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