25 MAY 1985, Page 32

Nature red in tooth and claw

Wilfred De'Ath

IN DEFENCE OF ANIMALS edited by Peter Singer

Basil Blackwell, f15, f4.95 The heat of the summer city was unbearable. The pigs were waiting, small eyes intent on the men they had learned to fear. Ears and tails flicked with irritation at the tugging pain of scratches, the caked mud clinging to their bodies, and the ever-present insects. One animal lay stretched out, his sides heaving, lost in the agony of a heart attack. Another stood, her head trapped firmly in a gate, moaning with helpless misery. Panting from the heat, several individuals stood near these two sufferers, gently nudging at their bodies to express their sympathy.

The young sheep lay dying in the stockyard pen, her broken body filthy with dust and urine, patches of wool torn from her hide. A straw thrust painfully at the edge of her nostril, as she drew breath after struggling breath. Flies crawled industriously over her oozing wounds, and tickled her half-closed eyelid. Other sheep milled around by her side, dazed with exhaustion, yet restless with fear. The horror of her memories drifted through her mind: the harsh cries and painful thud of sticks driviiig her into the truck; the endless, thirsty ride on metal flooring, slip- pery with blood and dirt; the crush of panicking bodies as she stumped down the ramp into the straw; the nightmare cycle of mounting fever, nausea and fear.

These two passages, culled from an unpublished memoir, Echoes of a Cana- dian Stockyard, by Harriet Schleifer, one of the more extreme contributors to this fascinating symposium on the topical theme of animal rights, fall into the famil- iar trap of attributing human emotions and feelings to dumb beasts. Later, the same author complains that the meat, dairy, and egg industries should depict smiling cows, dancing pigs, and laughing chickens on its packaging and vehicles. Yet in writing so emotively of pigs and sheep she is doing almost the same thing.

I was once shown round a pet food factory in Scotland; the cows went in one end as live animals and came out the other in small tins. It was undoubtedly a brutal process and it made me feel pretty ill at the time, but there was no overlooking the fact that the contents of these tins would in due course be consumed by the pet dogs and cats of so-called animal lovers. Not one of the contributors to this book has been prepared to grapple with the inescapable truth that nature is red in tooth and claw, that animals — as well as human beings eat other animals and always will.

That said, as a carnivore with a con- science, who has often wondered about the appropriateness of cuddling one animal while sticking a knife and fork into others, I found parts of In Defence of Animals extremely convincing. The ethical argu- ments in favour of extending more rights to animals strike me as impeccable and over- whelming, although — and this is,,perhaps, the real point — they will not make me take tonight's chicken casserole out of the oven. I can even understand the militants' (i.e. Hunt Saboteurs') impatience with the more traditional animal welfare societies who, in the words of Dick Course, execu- tive director of the League Against Cruel Sports, 'didn't give a damn about people. They're the kind who lavish a lot of money on a pet poodle while an old tramp might be abused in their own street.'

The collection of articles has an impress- ively international flavour, but our own Stephen R. L. Clark of Liverpool Universi- ty contributes the most thoughtful essay on what constitutes 'a good dog': — 'A good dog is discriminating in her choice of mate, faithful to her cubs, prepared to spare her rivals and to accept her place in the social hierarchy of the group with good grace.' Speaking of hierarchies, to the theory of which these essayists are all so opposed, the universe consists of nothing except hierarchies. Any fool should be able to see that 'a good dog' is more elevated than a fish. Or than a cow or a pig or a chicken. Professor Clark makes the all- important point that animals themselves do not necessarily live 'like animals': 'Good animals of any kind (including the human) have some grasp of the physical and social worlds in which they live and prefer the paths of friendship to those of war.'

It was Shaw who wrote that 'eating the scorched corpses of animals — cannibalism with the heroic dish removed — becomes impossible the moment it becomes con- scious instead of thoughtlessly habitual.' And the Ms. Schleifer referred to above reckons that every person who becomes a vegetarian is directly responsible for saving between 40 and 95 creatures every year, depending, presumably, on his or her level of meat consumption: 'It is the single most effective step one can take to assist indi- vidual animals,' she writes.

A year or so ago, my daughter became a vegetarian overnight after walking round Oxford's covered market one day and seeing the raw animal carcasses hanging there; rather to my surprise, she has stuck to it. I find the ethical arguments for vegetarianism more persuasive than the health considerations which may, or may not, make vegetarian diet an attractive option. The fact is: I enjoy eating meat. No amount of publicising the vegetarian alternative, informing people about its potential and preparing meals for them to demonstrate its culinary attractiveness, will persuade me that vegetarians aren't mis- sing something — some of them even look as though they are — although this may be a mere rationalisation for the fact that I intend to go on eating steak dinners.

There is no doubt that the 'animal rights' issue is here to stay, replacing, if we are fortunate, the movement for women's li- beration which has been boring us silly for nearly two decades. If anything, I find myself marginally more in favour of animal liberation, particularly if the interest focus- sed on the one per cent of animal suffering which in the past has been most conducive to sentimental fund-raising efforts — that of dogs, cats, baby seals, horses and primates — may be shifted to the 99 per cent of animal pain suffered by the beast- lies who will never make it in the popular- ity stakes (mice, rats, snakes). But, really, what next? Insect rights?