Saturday, July 24, 2010

Waterboarding Timmy Tiptoes

Rather horrifying to find how many people seem to see nothing wrong with cruelty to squirrels. As usual, Pete Wedderburn the Telegraph columnist, stands up for animals in a well-argued piece.
"Under the law, it’s perfectly legal to kill squirrels: they’re not a protected species. But the squirrels must be killed humanely. The law is absolutely correct in its view that drowning is not humane."

The recent prosecution for drowning a squirrel in fact has little to do with changes to the legal situation brought in by the Animal Welfare Act.

The old Protection of Animals Act (1911) stated:
If any person shall cruelly beat, kick, ill-treat, over-ride, over-drive, over-load, torture, infuriate, or terrify any animal, or shall cause or procure, or, being the owner, permit any animal to be so used, or shall, by wantonly or unreasonably doing or omitting to do any act, or causing or procuring the commission or omission of any act, cause any unnecessary suffering, or, being the owner, permit any unnecessary suffering to be so caused to any animal ... such person shall be guilty of an offence of cruelty within the meaning of this Act.
The concept of unnecessary suffering would have been sufficient to establish the illegality of drowning squirrels instead of killing them humanely (and interestingly there have been no complaints about an almost simultaneous prosecution of two people for drowning a hamster).

It does point up the general confusion over the distinction between protecting animals from suffering and saving animal lives.

At one extreme, I suppose it would be possible to prevent any animals suffering by simply exterminating them all (which I hope no-one would see as something to be welcomed!).

At the other extreme, there are some belief systems which insist on the preservation of life even if it means the continuation of severe suffering.

Some campaigners reject the concept of the RSPCA's Freedom Food scheme, which aims to improve the welfare of farmed animals, because they believe humans should never kill animals for food and that farm animals should not be bred, but allowed either to go feral or become extinct.

Some people think we should have an entirely "open door" policy for RSPCA shelters—if necessary humanely killing animals that have not found homes after a certain period in order to make room for new admissions.

I guess the main practical outcome of all this is firstly that we evidently need to be very cautious about loaning out humane cage traps to anyone we don't know, and secondly that some of the people who would have drowned squirrels may try to put us on the spot by bringing them to us to put down. One of the comments below the Daily Mail article gloatingly promises to trap squirrels and bring them in to RSPCA charity shops; another treat in store for our put-upon staff.

Arguably, by analogy with Freedom Food, we ought to put down squirrels, if garden owners demand this, rather than risk having them killed by even more unpleasant methods. This was certainly the view of early animal campaigners who promoted the use of chloroform to put down unwanted kittens as a better option than allowing them to be killed by drowning. The present-day hangover of that is the way RSPCA clinic euthanasia statistics are recorded (because HQ wanted to know if it was still happening) giving rise to another bonanza for people who want to claim we put down thousands of healthy pets.

I'd much rather see a push for humane methods of control such as immunocontraception, and deterrence but we're not magicians. Some days it seems as though we've not brought the moral feeling of the country very far since the days of Humanity Dick. (Actually I don't think I believe the Quentin Letts article because unless the squirrel in question was ill or very badly injured it wouldn't have let a child get close enough to try to pet it.)

Squirrels are more interesting and intelligent than their reputation would suggest. Did you know they are able to learn by watching the behaviour of other squirrels; something that used to be considered only possible for primates? They're also capable of altruism and have individual personalities.

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