Heavy petting

The discussion of a 'bill of rights' for animals enshrines a low-life view of people.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Politics

A ‘bill of rights’ for animals, proposed by the UK Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has been greeted with some degree of ridicule (1).

However, when UK animal welfare minister Elliot Morley called for new laws to protect animals kept by farmers, circuses, zoos and pet-owners after a government consultation exercise, it was welcomed with open arms (2).

But while the idea of an animal ‘bill of rights’ is clearly ludicrous, in substance it is little different to the apparently moderate proposal for more stringent animal welfare legislation. Both proposals betray an unhealthy sentimentality towards animals, and a degraded view of people.

Current animal welfare legislation, dating back to 1911, requires evidence that an animal has ‘suffered’ before an offence can be claimed to have been committed. But, on a recommendation put forward by the RSPCA, the UK government is considering creating an offence of ‘likely to cause unnecessary suffering’. Law enforcement agencies would not even need to find evidence of actual cruelty before prosecuting and convicting.

The aim is not to increase prosecutions and convictions, we are told, but to educate: according to the RSPCA, putting the ‘p’ back into the RSPCA. The charity would like animal welfare officers to have a similar role as social workers, educating owners who fall short of the RSPCA’s animal-care standards about how to treat their pets better.

The RSPCA proposal includes a statutory requirement to provide animals with freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease – including providing rapid veterinary treatment; and, freedom to express normal behaviour – including having enough space and company.

Many commentators have rightly pointed out that such a ‘bill of rights’ would be a legal minefield. What is the legal definition of ‘hunger’, ‘thirst’, ‘discomfort’, or even ‘injury’? Would we be causing an offence if we forgot to feed our goldfish one day? And what about trying to cut corners by not getting our pet cat’s injured paw seen to?

Also, it is ‘normal’ for animals to hunt, sometimes tear apart, and kill other animals. Are we denying them a basic freedom by not allowing them to ‘express’ this ‘normal’ behaviour? And house-training of pets is of course not ‘natural’, but surely nobody would argue that it was tantamount to animal cruelty and abuse?

Elliot Morley has admitted that the establishment of a ‘bill of rights’ would be ‘silly nonsense’; but he has argued for the ‘need to modernise the law by setting minimum standards for animals in our care. We have an obligation to treat them in the way a civilised society would expect’.

This discussion betrays a rather silly view of animals – blurring the distinction between gratuitous cruelty and less-than-luxurious living, and endowing animals with similar needs, feelings and entitlements as children. Furthermore, it demonstrates the government’s lack of confidence in the public’s ability to act in a civilised way – in the absence of an array of guidelines and codes of conduct. How on Earth could we be expected to take care of our pets – a fairly elementary task – without being subject to expert guidance and the threat of government regulation?

While the law cannot enforce behaviour that conforms to New Labour’s view of a model citizen, it can dictate it. And presumably the government believes that giving animal welfare workers powers on a par with social workers – and granting them easier access to our homes – will keep us within the authorities’ sights, and on our toes.

The RSPCA, of course, has always had a sentimentalised view of animals, coupled with a nightmarish vision of human cruelty. Working-class areas in particular have been presented as hotbeds of depravity. As Sue Dawson, education officer at the RSPCA, once said of residents on an urban housing estate: ‘Torturing animals is part of their culture. Young people go around setting their dogs on cats, and it is like a rites of passage. We also found that their parents were supportive of this kind of cruelty.’ (3)

Yet it is increasingly clear that the RSPCA is not alone in its degraded view of people. A similar mindset is driving the government towards greater codification of our behaviour and interference in our lives. If it is not how we date, whether and when we get married, how much time we spend doing homework with our children, or when we send our children to bed, it is how often we feed our cats, walk our dogs, change the water in our goldfish bowl or organise visits to the vet.

Read on:

spiked-issue: On animals

(1) Bill of Rights for pets is ‘nonsense’, BBC News, 30 April 2002

(2) Bill of Rights for pets is ‘nonsense’, BBC News, 30 April 2002

(3) ‘Wolf in sheep’s clothing’, Brendan O’Neill, LM magazine, November 1999

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Topics Politics


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