A few years ago, the wealthy aunt of a friend died and left all her money to a donkey charity – nothing to family or friends. Donkeys are sometimes abused by cruel owners and I am glad charities rescue them. I feel the same about other animal charities. But I remain puzzled that this elderly lady had no human being she cared for as her inheritor, and ever since I have observed the sometimes peculiar British relationship with animals.
I should say that as a dog owner I cannot bear to see animals mistreated. I agree with Oscar Wilde that fox hunting is "the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable". But when I once chaired a TV programme about animal rights, some in the audience were actively prepared to engage in a kind of terrorism against those whom they believed acted cruelly. These activists were part of a movement that justified releasing mink from farms, freeing dogs used in scientific experiments, and vandalising places where animals were held.
Their criminal acts raise complex moral issues. Personally I cannot understand why anyone would wear a mink coat, but I do wear leather shoes. I don’t like the idea of scientific experiments on animals, but I accept that scientists may sometimes need to test drugs on animals before giving these drugs to humans.
Reasonable people may disagree, but on these issues sometimes reason disappears.
On the TV programme some animal rights activists proclaimed that they would never hurt or kill any animal of any species because all animals had an absolute right to a good life, although if they hurt another human in the process of "animal liberation", that was acceptable. “A mosquito,” I responded, “has landed on your arm and is about to suck your blood. Would you kill it or let it feed on you?”
One of the animal activists was outraged that I dared ask what he called such an unfair question. But I wanted to shake away absolute ideological positions to see if there was any common ground. I am sure most people would kill a mosquito or stinging insect. But a mouse? A dog or cat? A gorilla? Where do you draw the line?
In England in the past few days, lines have been drawn in an unpleasant way. A flight organised by British animal rights activists arrived in the UK from Kabul, rescuing 170 cats and dogs with, the activists claimed, great public support. Commentators and some MPs wondered if this was a good use of limited resources in a war zone, during one of the worst humanitarian crises of our lifetimes.
The pet rescue came amid the prospect of Afghan women being given as supposed war brides to Taliban fighters, girls denied an education, Afghan men who co-operated with American and British forces being murdered, and much more. But those sceptical about the cats and dogs airlift were deluged with negative and sometimes very hostile comments on social media.
To animal activists the rescue plan was not saving “either” animals “or” humans but a scheme to evacuate both pets and Afghan charity workers. Perhaps these activists confused Kabul airport under siege with Heathrow or Schiphol on a normal day, because – obviously – the Taliban did not allow Afghan workers to enter. None were rescued. Tom Tugendhat, a former soldier and now MP, quoted an Afghan he had worked with, saying that he was appalled that to some British people an Afghan life proved less valuable than a dog or cat.
What emerges is a series of cultural clashes. Animals should not suffer harm but around the world, and particularly in Afghanistan, there must be a sense of bewilderment about the priorities of animal rights activists at such a time. The activists claim that their hard work has been misrepresented and they did what they could. Yet what concerns me is whether that supposedly great deal of popular support for the animal rescue mission will be replicated when Afghan refugees try to enter Britain, including those who cross the English Channel in small boats from France.
I know charities that help these human victims. I also know their work is not always praised by some of our fellow citizens. Some are openly abusive. Last year, the British politician Nigel Farage spoke of migrants as a "shocking invasion on the Kent Coast". British government ministers once backed a “hostile environment” on undocumented migrants, although for now at least the British government appears more sympathetic.
Like the elderly lady who left her money to donkeys, not everyone shares the same moral priorities. For some, a sad-eyed dog or cat tugs the heart much more than an Afghan child. But when it comes to arguments over priorities, you may not have heard of the British parliamentary hearing on Afghanistan in which some MPs demanded to know whether a Kabul British embassy portrait of Queen Elizabeth II had been properly destroyed to prevent its capture by the Taliban. I doubt the queen – or most other people – would find the destruction or otherwise of an embassy portrait a truly important subject for parliamentary contemplation.