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OP-ED: Britain and its love of animals

  • Published at 12:33 am September 16th, 2021
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Sometimes people take a backseat to animal-related stories in the media

There was a time, not that long ago, when the month of August was deemed, in journalistic terms, the “silly season.” Parliament was in recess, most of the movers and shakers were away on holiday, and very little of any importance was happening in the country.    

As a result, newspapers struggled to fill their pages with anything very meaningful.  So desperate journalists instead sought out so-called “human interest” stories, like the dog that had learned to skateboard or the plague of French snails invading British gardens (any form of unwelcome migration from France to the UK is considered newsworthy). 

Most summers would often also see a story about a rogue seagull, usually somewhere on the south coast, who preys upon unsuspecting holiday-makers stealing ice cream or fish and chips out of their children’s hands. The story was usually accompanied by a picture of a sad-looking family holding an empty chip wrapper under the headline “Evil bird turned our fun in the sun into a living hell!”   

Well, this summer there have been plenty of “proper” stories to keep the journalists busy -- the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan, the continuing climate crisis across the world, and the ongoing pandemic in the UK with over 30,000 new cases still being reported every day.

So with these many news stories to choose from, what is it that has been occupying the minds of Fleet Street’s finest and the great British public this holiday season? Why, animals of course!

In spite of all that is going on -- and going wrong -- with the world, two animal-related stories have made the headlines here in Britain this summer.  

The first is the sad case of Geronimo the alpaca. Geronimo is (or rather was) a cute but inane-looking bundle of black fur who has twice tested positive for bovine tuberculosis (TB). To the outrage of the animal-loving British public (and that seems to be just about everyone) the Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) ordered that the creature be put down. Or to use the modern euphemism; “euthanized.”   

His death sentence was handed out four years and three secretaries of state ago. The grounds for this heartless assault on a poor dumb animal? Only the very unreasonable scientific conclusion that the beast posed a very real threat to cattle in the area catching TB.  

However, Geronimo’s owner, Helen MacDonald, claimed that the tests were faulty, that the animal was healthy, and has done all in her power to prevent the threat of execution being carried out.  

Her fight has led to a massive campaign in the press and on social media calling for the animal’s reprieve. MPs’ inboxes have overflowed with demands to “Save Geronimo.” Even the prime minister’s father, Stanley Johnson, an environmentalist and former conservative MEP, has been popping up regularly on TV and radio giving interviews in support of the campaign.

But it was all to no avail. Last week, a handful of DEFRA officials, dressed in overalls and protective goggles like the bad guys in ET, arrived at Ms MacDonald’s farm near Bristol, pushed their way through the lines of protesters guarding Geronimo’s pen, and took the hapless creature away to meet his end. Or as his owner described it somewhat more dramatically: “(The) hitmen ripped the animal away” and “tortured him in plain sight.” Though that wasn’t quite how it looked to viewers watching the event on television.   

The British love of animals is well-known. But sometimes, as with this and our second major animal-related story this month, it is often taken to ludicrous levels.

Paul “Pen” Farthing is a former British Royal Marine who had been running a sanctuary for stray cats and dogs in the city of Kabul. When the Taliban arrived, Farthing naturally wanted to get his staff and his animals away to safety.

But amid the chaotic scenes of desperate mothers handing their babies to the departing soldiers, Farthing demanded that an RAF plane be put at his disposal to evacuate the animals. This, quite rightly, was refused, and he was told, in no uncertain terms, that if he wanted to get the creatures out of the city, he could charter his own plane at his own expense, which he eventually did.  

But the whole episode was a massive distraction for those at the airport and those back in Westminster trying to evacuate actual men, women, and children. The British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace angrily told MPs: “I have soldiers on the ground who have been diverted from saving people.”

You would imagine that this statement would have received universal support from the British public. After all, people matter more than animals, surely? But you would be wrong. Once again, social media and radio phone-in shows were inundated with outraged contributors saying that the animals should have been given priority over the human evacuees. Moreover, a recent YouGov poll observed that a staggering 40% of respondents in the UK believe that an animal’s life is of equal value to that of a human being. 40%!

When the airlift was complete, nearly a thousand Afghans who had helped the British armed forces by acting as guides and interpreters were left behind on the tarmac.  One shudders to imagine what will become of them.  

Britain has a proud record on animal welfare, but it is sickening to know that so many of my fellow countrymen and women should want to prioritize them over people.

Never mind silly season, it’s these silly people I worry about.            

Kit Fenwick is a freelance writer and historian.

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