Ellie has asthma. I know when it’s getting bad because her body is racked with coughing and every breath is an effort. She’ll allow me to comfort her but the only real help is medication. She’s shy, too. When it’s just her and me, everything is fine. She looks to me for reassurance and love but when confronted with a group of people, she’s out of her comfort zone. She frets when it’s night-time and I turn the lights off, preferring a room with a lamp and me in it.
Then there’s Seamus. A little lad who wants to be everyone’s mate, he seeks out hugs and kind words, the world is his friend. He likes everything and everyone, hasn’t a bad bone in his body, and is liked by everyone who meets him. But he suffers badly from recurrent bouts of flu, never really seeming to get over them.
Connie, however, is a different proposition. Like Ellie, she’s not a fan of company but she’ll stay around if the mood takes her. An independent sort who only shows affection on her own terms, she is nevertheless a good soul, always on the lookout for a new experience. But inclement weather of any kind puts her in an irascible temper. Rain, wind and snow are on her list of dislikes; warmth is her priority.
I love them all and relish their different personalities. I love Ellie for her neediness and, because of her nervousness, I worry when she’s gone for hours. I love Connie for her obsession with the front seat of cars and her rule of iron over the over two. I love Seamus for his sweet nature and constant desire for love, and the fact that he’ll let Ellie muscle in on his dinner without a murmur of complaint. When I’m away I miss them and I wonder if they miss me too. Coming home to their expectant faces can turn a crappy day into a good one.
Ellie, Connie and Seamus are cats. But I’d wager that, while reading this, a part of you wondered if I was talking about my kids. That’s the effect that animals have on us – they come into our lives and, before long, we can’t imagine our homes without them. I expect that you have nicknames for your animals, names that only you know. And, if you have a pet, I bet you have the same stories about who they are, what they are like, and why you love them. Which brings me to the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove.
In November last year, Conservative MPs voted not to incorporate part of an EU treaty recognising that animals could feel emotion and pain into the EU Withdrawal Bill. This centred on the principle that animals are sentient beings, and struck at the heart of a country that considers itself to be a nation of animal lovers.
How we treat cats, dogs and all manner of other creatures is indicative of how we function as a society. It’s well documented that a significant number of people who go on to commit heinous crimes against men and women first honed their taste for violence by hurting animals. But the flip side is the way in which an early introduction to household pets can encourage gentleness and empathy, and lead to a love for a species other than our own in later life.
Depending on what research you believe, there’s evolutionary evidence to back up the tendentious theory that we have now lived and evolved long enough with dogs, cats et al for it to constitute a mutually beneficial existence. A new book by John Bradshaw of Bristol University’s school of veterinary science called The Animals Among Us: The New Science of Anthrozoology posits that evolutionary psychology (no, I’m not sure what that means either) means we are now hard-wired to love sulky cats and noisy dogs because it’s in our nature to do just that.
Bradshaw is one of the pioneers of the emergent field of anthrozoology, the science of human-animal interactions. Writing about his most recent publication in The Guardian, the author Will Self reflected: “About a decade ago something strange happened to me: slowly but surely, I fell in love with a dog. I say ‘fell in love’, because this seems the only available language with which to describe my feelings of intense protectiveness towards, sympathy with and joy in the presence of what even I could see was objectively a rather yappy little terrier.”
When you turn to literature, it’s perhaps no surprise that writers use animals to exploit our emotions. Consider Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. A key element is the human-dæmon dynamic, an ingenious invention whereby characters each have what some commentators describe as “a physical manifestation of a human soul”. However you choose to interpret it, the dæmon is an animal, a pet, a companion. Sound familiar?
Returning to last year’s row over animal sentience, let’s take a closer look at the root of the argument. When the Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009, it amended the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and introduced the recognition that animals are sentient beings. Article 13 of Title II states that: ‘In formulating and implementing the Union’s agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage.’
Essentially, this EU-speak is a roundabout way of saying that animals experience pain, have emotions, and should not be treated like chattel. I applaud the EU for putting this into law but am also ashamed that it was even necessary. As anyone who has ever stood on a cat’s tail will tell you, animals feel pain.
In the wake of the subsequent social media backlash and a petition signed by more than 300,000 people, Michael Gove released a statement saying that the Government is “committed to the very highest standards of animal welfare”. Well, whoop-de-fucking-doo. He went on to say that “no one in the House of Commons disagrees” that animals are sentient, but added that it would have created “legal uncertainty” if MPs had included the protocol in the withdrawal bill. Legal uncertainty? Oh Mr Gove, please jog on.
Anyway, the upshot of immense public pressure was a flip-flop by ministers. My favourite headline during the fiasco sums it up. Thank you to the BBC for this. ‘Michael Gove: I’ll make Brexit work for animals too.’
The official statement from Gove, a prominent Brexiteer, reads thus: “This government will ensure that any necessary changes required to UK law are made in a rigorous and comprehensive way to ensure animal sentience is recognised after we leave the EU.” While it’s impossible to know how our legal framework will work post-Brexit, the Government did publish a draft bill to strengthen animal welfare in December. Happily, it looks like this bill will go further than the Lisbon Treaty as it applies to all areas of government policy, not just isolated topics. We can only hope that the legislation will become enshrined in UK law.
Know this Mr Gove – we’ll be watching.