I believe it was Winston Churchill who said “Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals”.
But now an editorial in the Journal of Animal Ethics (yes, there really is a Journal of Animal Ethics) tells us that to describe domestic animals as “pets” is demeaning and derogatory to them, and fails to respect their status as independent sentient beings. Oh No, No, No, says the Reverend Professor Andrew Linzey, editor of the Journal, and a theologian and director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, who once received an honorary degree from the Archbishop of Canterbury for his work promoting the rights of “God’s sentient creatures”. Nor should any of us dare to describe ourselves as “owners” of these animals, though that may be our legal status. We should call ourselves “human carers”.
We shouldn’t even refer to “wild” animals, as the term has pejorative connotations. We should call them “free-living”. This amazing stuff is straight out of the “You couldn’t make it up” department. I’m wondering when that well-known dog-food company will change its name to “Pedigree Companion-Animal-Foods”.
The whole point of respect and courtesy is that we should try to avoid giving unnecessary offence. But the detail that seems to have escaped Professor Linzey, is that animals don’t take offence at being called pets, because they don’t understand the word. Dogs, cats and horses have no conception of language — though they have an excellent and instinctive understanding of tone and body language.
You can offend a dog by shouting at it, beating it, starving it or abandoning it. But you can’t offend it by calling it a pet.
Occasionally I will whisper, sotto voce (but ever so affectionately) to my rescue greyhound Brindle the phrase “You stupid fat beast”, and she is comforted and reassured. But if I were to adopt a hostile and aggressive tone and shout “I respect your rights as an independent and sentient being and I will no longer call you a pet”, she would cower in a corner wondering what she’s done wrong.
I should add in defence of my greyhound, by the way, that she is in fact no more stupid than other greyhounds (they are a small-brained breed with narrow heads). Nor is she fat. Indeed like Cassius, she “hath a lean and hungry look”.
I picked up Brindle several years ago from the dog rescue establishment. She was well fed and cared for, but she lacked the close personal loyalty and affection that matters so much to dogs. Now, she’s part of the family. She sleeps by the Aga (sometimes with the cats). She’s well fed and watered, and exercised. She gets vet treatment when occasionally required. And as she couldn’t look after herself, she’s quite content for me to do that job for her. She is, in short, extremely happy with her lot, and doesn’t give two hoots what I call her.
The Reverend Professor Linzey has one fault that he shares with Walt Disney: he is anthropomorphising the animals. He is attributing to them human sentiments and reactions that they just don’t have. They’re not little four-legged human beings, for heaven’s sake — they’re dogs!
This is why all talk of animal rights is so much nonsense. Animals don’t have rights, and generally can’t exercise responsibilities. Perhaps Prof Linzey should reflect on the ways in which a rabbit being eaten by a fox might seek to exercise its rights, or indeed a fox, dying in a ditch from gangrene after being injured by a shotgun or a passing car. He might also reflect that following the hunting ban, there will be a great many more foxes dying slow deaths from injury, illness or starvation.
Animal welfare, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter. Unlike dogs, we humans are able to understand ethics, and we have quite rightly decided that we have a duty of compassion to animals generally and to our pets in particular, and we therefore have responsibilities to them. I have a particular responsibility for Brindle because she’s a pet and I own her. It’s because of that duty of compassion that I have done quite a lot of work in the European parliament, for example on the vexed and still unresolved issue of the transportation of horses.
Professor Linzey, in short, has less common sense than my greyhound. Readers of a nervous disposition who seek to avoid clichés should look away now, because here comes a big one: this is political correctness run mad!