The British relationship with animals isn’t so much complicated as peculiar.
At one end of the spectrum there is anthropomorphic pet-owning, cats doing “amusing” things on YouTube and ridiculous events like Crufts dog show. At the other, in spite of the best efforts of vegetarians and vegans, we’re still a meat-eating society and for most of the time, apart from the occasional horsemeat revelation, we don’t much care how that meat reaches us. Who wants to get back to the good old days when food accounted for about one third of household spending instead of the present one tenth?
Between the extremes there are some of the reported reactions in the past week or so to jockey Ruby Walsh’s quite legitimate view that horses are replaceable, humans are not; whether ritual Muslim and Jewish methods of slaughter should be banned; whether animal testing on animals such as beagles is justified by helping advances in medicine for humans; a report on intensive pig, poultry and dairy cow farming asking whether such systems need to be rethought; and whether low or no care extensive systems for sheep, as practiced in Australia and New Zealand, is acceptable on British farms.
There are no easy answers, but the gap often seems to be between those who work with animals for a living – jockeys, farmers and stockmen, research workers testing animals, slaughtermen, meat processors, butchers – and those who think of them as humans with four legs or, in the case of poultry, two legs and feathers.
Most of those who earn a living working with animals treat them with respect, but not sentimentality. Not all, of course. There are cases of animal cruelty involving horse trainers and farmers just as there are involving dog and cat owners with their pets. But it makes commercial sense, if nothing else, to treat animals with consideration if the intention if to make a profit.
Intensive livestock farming is never likely to produce agreement between those who practice it and animal welfare campaigners who oppose it. The recent inquiry by the RSPCA, even if billed as independent, indicates that. Chairman of the inquiry, solicitor Duncan McNair said: “I am concerned that 90% of UK poultry is now factory farmed, one third of pigs never get to exhibit their natural foraging or societal instincts and about 15% of cows are zero-grazed (never out at grass).”
Apart from jibbing at the emotive “factory farmed” label, farmers can argue that methods can only change if the public is prepared to pay more for meat and livestock products. Chicken is the prime example. When shoppers can buy an intensively reared chicken for about £2 they do. Some because they can afford no more, others because they think why pay £6 to £10 for a free-range or organic bird?