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Richard Barr Writer (and lawyer)

Mistaken Priorities

"The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable" was how Oscar Wilde described fox hunting. The last few days have seen many incidents both of uneatability and unspeakability. More of our food is being threatened because of health worries (milk and salmon have been added to the list). We have seen the appalling tragedy of little Anna Climbie, who was entirely let down by social services, and children of the world offered for sale to people in this country and elsewhere.

Against these examples of the way that humans treat humans, at least as much press coverage and emotional energy has been expended on matters relating to animals. We saw first of all the free vote in the House of Commons to end fox hunting. Not many would regard a fox as being a cute cuddly animal (particularly those who have had their chickens wantonly torn to pieces by the creatures). Nonetheless many hours of parliamentary time was spent debating whether a small group of landowners should be allowed to continue to pursue a pass time which only very occasionally results in the death of a fox.

At the same time a group of people who would certainly be regarded as “unspeakable” by the proprietors of Huntingdon Life Sciences virtually brought that company to its knees with their threats and attacks. Having failed to bankrupt the company they now threaten to take similar action against the pharmaceutical companies who are its customers.

Somewhere there is a paradigm shift of values. No one would dismiss the concerns of those who genuinely feel that fox hunting is a cruel sport. It is, but so is chasing pheasants into the air so that those paying large sums of money can shoot them down again; and so is boxing (a sport where the objective is so to damage your opponent that he cannot get up again). Testing and experimentation on animals can be cruel, but so are the activities of any abattoir which dispatches gentle farm animals so that they can be sliced up, rolled up and placed in polythene wrapping for us to buy at the supermarket.

What is it about this country which drives a fanaticism about the welfare of animals but either ignores or pays lip service only to the well-being of children? According to Home Office statistics, dozens of children are victims of homicide every year. A child killed by her uncle and aunt in circumstances of the most appalling cruelty and neglect causes revulsion for a day and is forgotten. We are disturbed by the "babies for sale" internet sites and yet we accept complacently that there is nothing that can be done. Babies will continue to be sold and protestors will not seek to close down the offending web sites. Picketing cyberspace has less appeal than harassing real people.

There must be a balance. A modification of the rules of fox hunting which would retain the spectacle and the thrill but remove the barbaric way of pursuing and killing could surely be found. And as for experiments on animals, nobody likes the idea, any more than they like the idea of animals being killed for meat, but it happens and it is still a necessary part of testing and investigation of a pharmaceutical product. Far better to find problems with a new treatment among a small group of animals than to injure human beings because a drug has not been properly tested.

However strongly we feel about animals it is still our own species which should receive the lion’s share of our care and concern. It is a pity it does not.

Published in Solicitors Journal 26 January 2001

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