Foot & Mouth Crisis: To Be Killed for Having Flu Is As Sick As It Gets
Published on Sunday, March 4, 2001 in the Independent / UK
Foot & Mouth Crisis
To Be Killed for Having Flu Is As Sick As It Gets
by Joan Smith
Isn't it time somebody stood up for animals? Up and down the country, cows, pigs and sheep with the equivalent of a heavy cold, and others without symptoms that have been in contact with the affected animals, are being slaughtered and burned on ghastly funeral pyres. We have all seen pictures of the sky glowing a baleful red, while yet more animal carcasses are silhouetted starkly over the pits of death. Yet the whole business makes as much sense, in everything but economic terms, as putting down an entire primary school class because a few of the children happen to have sore throats.

Foot and mouth is not a fatal disease. When government ministers, farmers and vets prefer to shoot thousands of animals rather than wait a few weeks for them to recover from an illness that does not pose a threat to human health, it is clear that something has gone hideously wrong with our relationship to the non-human world. In this case the cause is money, the fact that most modern farms are run, despite subsidies, on a tight budget that does not allow for looking after sick animals or a delay in the date when they can be sent for slaughter.

Farmers would say, I suppose, that most of these creatures are destined for the abattoir anyway, so the cull merely brings forward what is inevitable. But the same cannot be said of feral animals, the deer, badgers and wild boar that may be hunted and shot as a consequence of the outbreak. What angers many people I have talked to in the past week is the way in which the photographs of burning carcasses symbolise the fact that farming is an industry, and a ruthless one that cares very little for animal welfare.

And yes, I accept that most of us prefer not to know what goes on in slaughterhouses. One of the effects of the crisis has been to make me think about returning to a vegetarian diet, not out of concern for my own health but because of the horrors that modern farming imposes on animals, and I doubt whether I am alone in this. It also signals the need for an urgent reconsideration of our responsibilities towards the non-human world. In recent months, largely as a result of the debate over hunting with hounds, we have been subjected to a barrage of hostile propaganda about animals, from foxes to domestic cats. We are told about the damage foxes do to pheasants and chickens, and the number of rodents and birds killed by our moggies when they go hunting at night.

There is no moral equivalence here, as the American philosopher Lori Gruen has pointed out: "It would be nonsensical to hold a lion morally responsible for the death of a gnu." (As I once explained to Clarissa Dickson Wright, a keen supporter of hunting, I expect human beings to have a more sophisticated grasp of moral responsibility than a fox.)

You and I may have a duty to reduce the opportunities for predation of our domestic pets, as people already do by law in Western Australia, where a curfew operates and all cats have to wear collars with bells. But the natural behaviour of animals, which lack the capacity for moral choice, does not in any way justify our mistreatment of them in return.

If you insist on arguing that it does, by the way, you should logically accept that some humans who cannot make moral judgements, patients in a persistent vegetative state or the severely demented, do not have rights either – and, presumably, are free to be experimented on for medical research.

Most people rightly find this kind of reasoning unacceptable, without recognising that we live in a myopically anthropocentric culture. What I found astonishing about the Alder Hey organ scandal was the assumption that tissue from dead humans is too precious to be used for research, even to benefit people with debilitating diseases, while experiments on live animals are perfectly OK.

All the evidence shows that the most destructive predator on earth is not the fox or the domestic cat, nor even the tigers whose natural habitat shrinks alarmingly every year. It is the human race, whose pitiless exploitation of other species diminishes our claim to belong to a higher moral order. (Even other primates such as chimpanzees and bonobos, which share almost 99 per cent of our genes, have not been spared.)

Only in a twisted universe would mildly sick farm animals find themselves rounded up for premature slaughter, as is currently happening in Britain. That, rather than the economic plight of farmers, is what the grim policy of mass destruction confirms to many of us today.

© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.