Fireworks: the killjoys’ pet hate

Miserabilists want to make Bonfire Night a less explosive, less colourful affair in the name of protecting pets. No way.

Barry Curtis

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Topics Politics

As with every bonfire night in recent years, in the run-up to this evening’s festivities there has been the usual torrent of guidance on safety and how to enjoy ourselves in a responsible manner. Some groups have tried to ban fireworks altogether on the grounds that they are unsafe, but a compromise seems to have been reached. Officially licensed pre-designated zones of fun have been marked out, or, if you adhere to a set of rules, you can have a private display with low-noise fireworks.

But for some animal-rights activists, this is not good enough. Instead, they have called for even tighter controls on fireworks on the grounds that they distress pets.

In 2003, the Fireworks Bill limited the sale and use of fireworks to certain times of the day and introduced a compulsory permit for public displays. Under-18s are not allowed to buy or handle fireworks and fireworks cannot be used between 11pm and 7am, except on four festivals: Diwali, Guy Fawkes night, New Year’s eve and Chinese New Year, when we are allowed an extra couple of hours of fun. The 2003 Act also introduced criminal sanctions for contravention of fireworks regulations – an offence punishable on summary conviction by up to six months’ imprisonment or by a fine of up to £5,000.

The 2003 bill was celebrated by the Animal Welfare Fireworks Coalition, led by the RSPCA, who had handed 75,000 signatures to parliament demanding that the noise levels of fireworks be reduced to 95 decibels – about the same as a house door slamming (1). In 2004, an amendment to the bill settled on 120 decibels as the limit for private displays (2). Bill Tynan, the Labour MP who introduced the Act, did so on the grounds of protecting animals from distress, as did his colleague Rob Marris in 2008 when he sought to get the noise level down to the RSPCA-approved 95 decibels (3).

In other words, the UK law already seems pretty tight, but for animal welfarists, it does not go far enough. The UK group Ban the Bang! wants to restrict public fireworks displays to Guy Fawkes day, New Year’s eve and Diwali. They think fireworks should only be available for purchase in the two weeks prior to these festivals and they should be bang-free, ground-based and have a dispersal range of no more than two metres. Under Ban the Bang!’s proposals, each British household would also be able to apply for one special party license per year, which would allow them to purchase fireworks from licensed shops. Professionally organised public displays would have to abide by a string of rules, including a max noise threshold and being confined to open, designated areas in order to protect wildlife. Displays should, Ban the Bang! argues, be a minimum distance of around 1.5 km from rural habitat areas such as trees, woodlands and heathlands, and at least 2 km from stables, zoos and farm animal locations (4).

Despite all this, Ban the Bang! insists it is not a killjoy organisation because, it says, you can still have visual fireworks on the ground. But there is no doubt that without the loud rockets, big bangs and massive, thrilling, colourful, sky-high explosions something will be lost. And that something is the fun.

So what about the animals? Isn’t it worth reining in people’s fun if it means ensuring our pets’ welfare? There are several accounts of animals having suffered or died as a consequence of being distressed by fireworks. For instance, there was the story headlined ‘Family nightmare as dog dies of fear “in war zone”’ (5). It involved a dog on a chain who panicked and asphyxiated herself. It’s a sad story, but in no way does it justify a clampdown on fireworks. Instead, pet owners should be urged to keep their dogs loose during firework displays. My own dog Fern often gets distressed when there are bangs, but she just goes upstairs and hides under the bed until it’s over. There’s no real problem.

Another story involved a rare parrot who was spooked by fireworks and thrashed itself to death (6). According to a spokesman, ‘Any excuse for a holiday, and it’s like Baghdad out here’. But again this is not an argument for banning fireworks, it only points to the need for better sound-proofed enclosures for protected species.

If pets are kept indoors and if their needs are catered for by their owners, the problem of fireworks causing them distress fades away. They get over it. There are also techniques to train a pet to get used to loud bangs. And if this fails, there’s always the option of getting tranquillisers prescribed by the vet. Essentially, the concern of animal welfare is simply not strong enough to justify further controls of fireworks. As Ban the Bang! itself points out, ‘even the sight of noiseless fireworks can cause pets to run away and get lost’ (7). In other words, pets can freak out at anything and so the obsession with noisy fireworks is totally irrational.

The whole idea of animal distress is anthropomorphic – it projects qualities associated with human subjectivity on to the animal realm. Animal rights activists often compare animals’ reactions to fireworks to war trauma. But when people hide and quake from a bombing raid, they are frightened because they might die or lose their family and friends, their home, and their job; an animal can’t worry about such human things. It can’t even think ‘I might die’ since it lacks awareness of what ‘I’, ‘might’ and ‘die’ involve. Humans are distressed by the brute sound of bombs or earthquakes because of their consequences. By contrast, animals are scared of bangs because they do not understand what is going on and cannot be reasoned with.

If we go along with the misguided proposals of groups like Ban the Bang!, then we could conceivably soon see fireworks users convicted under the 2006 Animal Welfare Act, which makes it an offence to cause any unnecessary suffering to any domestic or captive animals. The penalty on conviction is either imprisonment for up to 51 weeks or a fine of up to £20,000, or both. A pet’s distress is an issue only for its owner, not society. So let’s send these killjoy attacks on loud, noisy, colourful festivities off with a bang.

Barry Curtis blogs for Independent Minds here.

Previously on spiked

In 2001 Jonathan Calder wondered whether our obsession with health and safety is ruining bonfire night? Brendan O’Neill asked why Britain is scared of Halloween? Munira Mirza looked at the truth behind stories about banning Christmas. Elsewhere, Patrick West criticised the anthropomorphism of nature programmes. And Stuart Derbyhsire pointed out that humans are more important than animals. Or read more at spiked issue Moern life.

(1) Ban fireworks say animal groups, CBBC Newsround, 4 November 2003

(2) See Fireworks Legislation – Safety and Anti-social Use

(3) See Fireworks Act 2003 (Amendment), House of Commons Hansard Debates, 5 March 2008

(4) See the Ban the Bang! campaign on the Looking-Glass website

(5) Family nightmare as dog dies of fear ‘in war zone’, Northern Territory News, 3 july 2009

(6) Rare bird, spooked by fireworks, thrashes itself to death, Palm Beach Post, 1 January 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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