Cull all parents!


Here is the news. Regrettably, an urban fox got into a house in Bromley, South East London, whose back door was seemingly open while it awaited repair, and it bit a four-week-old baby. The baby’s finger was bitten off. (Surgeons were able to re-affix the finger, which is good news. Not much else about the story is good news.) Our balanced, responsible newpapers also reported “­puncture wounds on his face”, although when the baby’s photo was published on the front of the Mirror and the Sun this morning, none were visible.

The story was related in terrifying, lurid detail, and we learned that the baby’s mother was “in the next room”, when she “heard a scream” and a “loud thud” when the baby was apparently pulled from its cot. She also described his little hand being trapped “halfway down the animal’s throat”. The three-hour operation was described as “tense.”

I don’t for one minute doubt the facts of the story. It’s a nasty story that will unnerve parents everywhere. You wouldn’t wish it on anyone. However, what bothers me is that those with an axe to grind against foxes, and animals in general, are already jumping all over this poor mother’s anguish. London Mayor Boris Johnson thundered, “We must do more to tackle the growing problem of urban foxes. They may appear cuddly and romantic but foxes are also a pest and a menace, particularly in our cities. This must serve as a wake-up call to London’s borough leaders, who are responsible for pest control.”

The first wake-up call surely goes out to Bromley council, who had left the mother without a working back door, certainly by her account. The family have, it seems, been rehomed by the council, but if it’s a council deficiency that caused a door not to be repaired or replaced then the real wake-up call goes to the Government, who are decimating council budgets up and down the country in order to pay for their rich friends’ lifestyles and various colonial military adventures.

It’s essentially a tabloid story (and you have to admire their cheek with the way the photo of the poor baby is telescoped so that its injury looks as big as another baby), but well done to the Telegraph for this added flourish: “A child’s red pair of shoes and a deflated football remained in the front garden of the end of terrace property.” A neighbour, Khadine Peters, 36, was doorstepped by the eager Telegraph reporter, said, “I wasn’t there at the time, I was walking home down the street when I saw the ambulance outside the house.” Not much use as a witness, then. However, she had an opinion. “I definitely won’t leave my back door open again. Something needs to be done about all these foxes roaming freely around all these homes. They’re disgusting, they’re not cute pets, they’re vermin. The council should get rid of them.” (Who, by the way, leaves their back door open, and unmonitored? It’s the 21st century. A burglar is more like to come in than a fox.)

Thankfully, we heard from a spokeswoman for the RSPCA, who said the only reason that a fox would ever attack is due to fear, adding, “It’s extremely unusual for foxes to attack young children or anyone. It’s not typical fox behaviour at all. Foxes will come closer to a house if there are food sources.”

The truth is, like it or not, we share our cities with animals, including foxes, and it can’t be long before we hear the c-word: cull. Cull the foxes! Cull the badgers! Cull the deer! (It sounds a bit like “kill” but it’s more socially responsible.) People who live in towns are mad for culls. They resent wildlife encroaching upon territory they have helpfully marked out as their own by putting up fences and gates and walls around. How dare “disgusting” animals fail to recognise that boundary? (Any cat owners ever observed a cat when a door in the house it expects to be open is closed? Ours just sits there and looks at it, until somebody opens it. Animals do not recognise physical boundaries. At best, they confuse them. At worst, they frustrate and irritate them.)

What do urban foxes live off? Food we throw away and leave outside. We feed them. That’s why they thrive. If I were a fox, I feel certain I could live off the food that various householders round my way leave out on refuse-collection day, because they helpfully put it out the night before, not in a bin, but protected by a special fox-deterring meniscus of thin black plastic called a bag. (On my Monday morning walk to the shop for my newspaper, I measure out my progress by the torn-open bin bags containing fragrant leftover food. Oh, and our bin collection occurs after breakfast, so putting it out the night before in exposed bags is nothing short of stupid.)

Assuming it’s adults who leave the bin bags out, then why not cull them? Cull the parents! Cull the idiots!

I don’t have a newborn baby. If I did, I would not leave doors and windows open, which is usually the way when babies are attacked by foxes. And yet, nobody ever blames the parents. (Me? I always blame the parents!) It would be a preposterous and unthinkable idea to cull people. So would culling foxes because they inconvenience us, and expose our slovenly habits, and our knackered infrastructures. We have to learn to live together. Either that, or stop feeding the animals. (It always amazes me how bloodthirsty some people are. You may or may not remember “WHY I HATE SQUIRRELS!”, the SCREAMING Daily Mail manifesto in 2010 for urban blood sport and the judicious use of the back of a spade by the obviously-bullied Quentin Letts, which I wrote about here, at the time.)

There’s an urban fox attack every couple of years. That’s a lot of foxes not attacking a lot of babies in the interim. It’s rare. They are not hunting for babies. They are trying to survive. When we get hungry, we go to a shop and buy a thing that somebody else has made for us in a factory. When an animal gets hungry, unless it’s one of our pets, it goes to forage and hunt for food, wherever it can find it. We sometimes get in the way with our fences and a our plastic bags and our broken doors and our babies’ hands.


Arctic role

Eek. I know nature is red in tooth and claw, and I know nature documentaries are as much about death as they are about life, but this particular scene really upset me on Frozen Planet last night. What a hypocrite I am for printing this still. Having whined about the news media showing us Colonel Gaddafi’s final moments last week, BBC1 showed me the final moments of a Weddell seal, ingeniously rounded up by a pod of killer whales in the Antarctic, who broke up the ice floe it was basking on from beneath, then, in a coordinated attack, made waves to wash it off with pinpoint accuracy into the icy water. And I’m showing it to you. (Although out of context, it’s nothing like as sad.)

As with all dramatic vignettes captured, or created, for nature documentaries (the ultimate in “scripted reality”), this one was cleverly personalised – one seal versus about eight whales – and narrated, by the nation’s favourite, ancient, immortal David Attenborough, to accentuate the narrative, which was then underscored by accompanying music. We were led to believe that the seal was doomed, and then safe, and then doomed again, and then safe, until, exhausted and outnumbered by the chase, the poor animal seemed to submit to its fate and allow a whale to pull it down by its tail. It’s all in those eyes.

I’m an inveterate animal lover, as you well know. I am the kind of person who would give my last pound to a donkey sanctuary over a children’s home. I’m soppy as hell, and more likely to cry at the TV, or in the cinema, if a pet dies than if a man or lady dies. (Fuck me, the fictional character Oregon’s fictional horse, Roulette, had me blubbing on Fresh Meat last night, its acting almost as affecting as Jack Whitehall’s. If you didn’t see it, I won’t bother contextualising it, or indeed spoiling it. Just watch it will you?) But I accept that the natural world is a finely balance ecosystem based on one species eating another, and that species eating something smaller, and so on. I am a part of that ecosystem, and I don’t even have the nobility to catch and kill my own prey. It’s always tough to see death on the television, even in the broadest zoological, ecological and geophysical context.

The Antarctic, and the Arctic, may be in long-term, man-made trouble – something Attenborough’s series will not shy away from, you can be certain of that – but the Weddell seal is not endangered. It’s doing fine. Killer whales eat to live. They kill to eat (the clue’s in the name, although all carnivores should have killer before their name, strictly speaking). Earlier in the same edition of Frozen Planet, some wily Canadian wolves ate a young bison to live. Like the whales, they picked their prey off from the herd and brought it down. It is truly amazing to see animals do things like this, in the wild. It’s their gig.

When I interviewed Paul McCartney in 1997, as I am over-fond of relating, I spoke to him about his vegetarianism, which I admired. As a man who has lived in rural surrounds, he backed up his personal decision to not eat animals by conceding that other creatures ate other creatures. When, he said, a hawk swoops down to eat a bird, he doesn’t complain, adding. “It’s his gig.” I’ve always loved that attitude.

As long as the humans aren’t actually intervening and manipulating the drama as it unfolds, I don’t mind if they help dramatise it in the edit, and even though I have now watched a Weddell seal’s final moments in HD, you might say that it adds to my greater understanding of – and empathy for – the natural world, one for which I already have a hell of a lot of respect. It’s better, in many ways, to see a beautiful male polar bear covered in the blood and scratches and bite marks that are a part of his life cycle, as we did last night, than cling to a Fox’s Glacier Mint fantasy.

Rest in peace, Mr Weddell. You did no die in vain. As for the killer whales who still haunt my dreams, especially since shamefully and self-gratifyingly paying to see one in a swimming pool in Vallejo, California, in 1994, it’s their gig.

Don’t touch that donkey

Mark Cousins’ glorious Story Of Film on More4 continues to delight on a weekly basis, and, after this week’s chapter about Bergman, Bresson, Tati and Fellini, I have even more films on a list of must-sees. I was particularly taken by Robert Bresson’s Balthazar (or Au hazard Balthazar), which I have never seen; made in 1966, it apparently tells the tale of a donkey through his various owners, who, Cousins said, mistreat him. The moment a black-and-white clip came onscreen, I started to feel uncomfortable. Were they about to show a clip of a donkey being mistreated? If so, it being a French film made in 1966, there seemed to be every chance that actual cruelty might be involved. Fortunately, this was not the case. In fact, Cousins merely showed a fixed shot of Balthazar, looking noble, which was his point about Bresson. But will the film itself upset me? It seems a possibility. I have the celebrated new Greek film Dogtooth sitting there in my Sky+ tank, but I know it has something about cruelty to cats in it – a boy seems to be going after one with some garden shears in the trailer – so I haven’t dared watch it yet.

The older I get, the less tolerant I become about animal cruelty. And by animal cruelty, I don’t just mean actual animal cruelty – you know, those disgusting stories you read in the papers about kids putting pets in tumble driers, or animals being left to fend for themselves by neglectful owners in sheds or bedrooms, or even, that deranged woman who put a cat in a wheelie bin and walked away – I mean implied animal cruelty in fiction. Of late, I have seen two dogs being subject to implied violence and cruelty in Tyrannosaur, and what looked to me like actual cruelty towards two dogs in the forthcoming Wuthering Heights by Andrea Arnold. (Having mentioned the latter, someone from the film’s distributor Artificial Eye reassured me that animal trainers were on set. I don’t doubt this. But having seen the film, this did not reassure me, unless both scenes were done with CGI, which I doubt.)

I’m well aware that we live in enlightened times with regards the treatment of animals on films sets. And certainly in Tyrannosaur, the two dogs are not harmed on camera. One is pulled about on a dog lead, but this is as far as it goes; the other is also restrained on a lead while it barks madly at someone. I have no doubt that both dogs are handled by trainers who love them and respect them, and I understand it’s very difficult to train a dog with anything other than love and rewards, so it might be said that dog actors are likely to be even better treated than dog non-actors. So we’re going to put this one down to my own over-sensitivity on the issue. The two dogs in Wuthering Heights, who must, again, be loved by their handlers, looked to my eyes to be at least made uncomfortable for a few seconds of screen time each. If you’ve read the book, this happens on the page, and is significant in describing the nature of a human character. However, I don’t believe we need to see animals squirm to make a dramatic point. (If anyone else has seen this film, I’d be interested to hear how you felt about it. It’s released on 11 November, and has much to recommend it, artistically. I’ll review it nearer the date.)

I realise to see Tyrannosaur, a film about horrific domestic abuse meted out to human beings, and be affected so deeply by abuse meted out to pets, I am falling into the cliche of an animal lover. I can’t help that. Human actors choose to act in films. Animals do not. In this country, I think I’m right in saying that a film cannot be certificated if it is not passed by animal cruelty organisations. That’s as it should be. (Is it voluntary to be passed by the Humane Society in the United States? I think it is.) Again, I think I’m right in saying that laws are more lax in other territories. Remember the video nasty era, and the mythology surrounding “snuff” films? Well, I understand animals are dismembered and killed in films like Cannibal Holocaust (again, how ironic – films about eating humans do not harm humans, but do harm animals). I haven’t seen those films. I don’t wish to. I’m pretty squeamish about screen violence, but it won’t stop me seeing a film – hey, Drive, Kill List, Tyrannosaur, I’m seeing brutally violent films on a regular basis at the moment, and on TV the likes of Boardwalk Empire and forthcoming French import Braquo are pretty damned violent, too. But I’ll never get used to cruelty towards animals.

Techniques like tripwires to trip up horses used to be commonplace. S0 when I see some of my favourite classic westerns, I know I am watching animal cruelty. In Apocalypse Now, perhaps my favourite film of all time, an ox is ritually slaughtered before our very eyes, in slow motion, the descending machetes hacking its flesh shown repeatedly. I can’t say I enjoy it, but it’s in the past. Heaven’s Gate had a high body count, too, apparently. I loved Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, a sometimes overblown Euro-pudding epic about fascism, but in one scene we are invited to understand the cruelty of one character, played by Donald Sutherland, by watching him hang a cat by its collar on a hook on a wall and headbutt it to death. Clearly, Sutherland doesn’t actually kill the cat with his head, but – and here we go again – it is seen squirming on that hook, clearly distressed and confused. I have to look away, or fast forward. I can’t bear to watch it. As a huge fan of European cinema of the 50s, 60s and 70s, I am always on guard for such moments, when animal life is declared cheap.

And then there’s The Shadow Line, Hugo Blick’s phenomenal highbrow police drama from earlier this year. In one now infamous scene, Rafe Spall’s sadistic villain proves his sadism by threatening to drown a cat. He appears to dunk a real cat in a barrel of water. In real life, he doesn’t. It’s very cleverly staged. But, in real life, a wet cat runs away from the scene. To even make a cat wet is, to my mind, cruel. Cats hate being wet. Flicking a few drops of water on a cat makes it uncomfortable. So I was against this scene. Also, and here’s a grey area, there are a lot of stupid people out there. For most sensible people with the basic degree of empathy for God’s creatures, seeing a woman put a cat in a bin would remind you never to put one in a bin. For a tiny minority, it might give them an idea. (We live in a YouTube world, where people will it seems do anything to get themselves noticed, whether that’s putting themselves in danger, or a mouse.)

This post is not really about animal cruelty. For the majority of us, it’s a given that harming an animal for no good reason is wrong. (In one of the incidents in Tyrannosaur, the character is harming the dog because it has harmed another character; I don’t agree with it, but you could argue self defence in a court of law, if it was human against human.) Also, there are those who lead a vegan lifestyle, which does not include me, and that kind of respect for animals is near-religious and about as admirable as any lifestyle choice can be. I allow animals to be killed so that I can eat them, but I choose to spend more money on meat in order than it comes from animals that were not raised in cages or cramped barns without sunlight, and were not pumped full of drugs in order to speed up their lives. That’s as much as any carnivore can do.

What worries me is that animal cruelty, the implied kind, seems to be creeping back into the fictional mainstream. The Shadow Line was not making a point about animal cruelty, it was making a point about a character. Wuthering Heights is not making a point about animal cruelty, it is making a point about a character. In many ways, these fictions are respectful to animals; they are saying, this character is such a villain he will harm a cat or a dog – imagine what he might do to a human! But that doesn’t help me out. I suspect that as I get even older, I will become even more of a sentimental sop on this issue.

When I was a kid, I was taken to the circus on more than one occasion. And to zoos. I loved them. It took me a long time to change my attitude towards the captivity and exploitation of animals. But once I had turned that moral corner, I could never go back. Circuses no longer use animals as performers. Zoos are all about conservation. Life for animals has improved immeasurably. So let’s stop putting them on the stage, Mrs Worthington.


Homage to Catalonia

I illustrate this blog entry with an awe-inspiring painting by Spanish master Diego Velázquez, because otherwise, I would have to illustrate it with a picture of some bullfighting, and there’s no such thing as an awe-inspiring picture of some bullfighting. As you may have read, the autonomous Spanish region of Catalonia staged its last ever legal bullfight over the weekend. The regional ban comes in on January 1, but since that’s the end of the bullfighting season for this year, apparently, it’s adiós to a tradition that stretches back at least three centuries, if not back to Ancient Rome. We have petitioning and lobbying by animal welfare groups to thank for the ban, although some commentators in Spain say that it’s a bid for nationalism by the Catalan parliament, a ban further separating Catalonia from the rest of the country, where bullfighting continues, albeit in a much reduced form as its popularity everywhere shrinks. (At the beginning of the last century, Barcelona had three bullrings; since the 70s, it has had just the one, although its popularity has waned at a faster rate than in the rest of Spain.)

I love Spain, and I love Barcelona, the Catalan capital where the final corrida de toros took place on Sunday before a stadium packed with 20,000 enthusiastic fans of spectacle, colour, tradition, ritual and animal abuse. You may or may not be astonished to learn that I’ve always had a problem with bullfighting. On our first trip to the glorious if touristy city of Barcelona (a picture only spoiled by the dogs in tiny cages on sale on main drag La Rambla), I remember buying the Time Out Guide, which contained a rhapsodic essay in support of bullfighting by none other than Robert Elms, who seemed to have bought into the 1920s-forged Hemingway myth that it represented an “authenticity” that runs counter to more trendy bohemianism and given it the thumbs-up. I have no doubt that the bullring was a vital social and familial hub at its height, and just as I went to the circus as a boy and accepted its rituals – despite the evident displacement, humiliation and confinement of the lions, the elephants and, once, some clearly sedated crocodiles – I’m sure many Spanish kids were brought up on the bullfight, and thought little of the prolonged cruelty involved.

But you formulate your ideals as you grow up. And mine coalesced around a respect for animals that, in my early 20s, drove me to join pro-welfare organisations like the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society and BUAV, and, later, in my 30s, to support the RSPCA, Greenpeace, the WWF, Cats Protection, Blue Cross and the PDSA. (I actually withdrew my support for the RSPCA when they endorsed Freedom Food, a farm assurance and food labelling scheme which, though a move in the right direction, seemed at what was a more militant time for me, to be a dilution of meaningful animal welfare standards in farming. I have calmed down a bit, but still cleave to basic animal welfare principles – and 19 birds per square metre of floor space, as set out by Freedom Food, still seems like a lot to me.) Yes, I used to be a vegetarian, but since the proliferation of organic standards and availability of organic produce in the 90s, especially meat reared to the standards set down by the Soil Association, I find it easier to eat meat with a conscience. Needless to say, vegans have my utmost respect for their more extreme lifestyle choice. (Apparently, the meat of fighting bulls is excellent, as these bulls are, ironically, raised free-range: looked after like prize fighters and then made to dance and suffer before they die.)

Prompted by the last Catalan bullfight, a deliberately inflammatory pro-bullfighting blog was published by a man called Brendan O’Neill in the online Telegraph – which, in the interests of balance, I’ll link to here. To use his phrase, I am one of his “Bambi-influenced animal rights activists.” I have no time to refute the simplistic idiocy of this generalistic smear. I am not an activist, anyway; I just call animal cruelty when I see it. And no amount of bullshit about – to use O’Neill’s imagery – the “ennoblement” of the bull, as it is ritually humiliated, injured and killed to cheering crowds (elevating it “from being a grubby and dumb beast into a performer in a piece of beautiful, arcane theatre”), will convince me otherwise.

I heard an item on the Today programme this morning about the British Horseracing Authority bringing in a new ruling that limits the amount of times a jockey can whip its horse during a race – seven in flat races, eight in ones where the horses have to jump. I don’t follow the sport, and I am prepared to believe those who insist that simply riding a horse is not cruel, and indeed that a horse may love being ridden, but jabbing it or hitting it to make it go faster so that a man can win at a sport is, to my “Bambi-influenced” eyes, cruel. Dog-fighting, bear-baiting and cock-fighting are banned – as now, is fox hunting – so the reduction of officially sanctioned whipping is reduced to eight times a race is surely just one legal sport dragging itself into the 21st century. (To a hand-wringing animal lover like myself, eight times seems like, I don’t know, eight times too many? These owners and riders profess to love their horses. I would not whip my cat. Nor, as a Telegraph website user suggests, would Brendan O’Neill like to see his pet “ennobled” like a bull.) A full ban on horse-whipping seems to be predicted after this latest rule-tightening by BHA, which comes into effect next month, after which nine or more whippings will lead to suspensions and penalties. A jockey called Jason Maguire was suspended for five days for using his whip with “excessive frequency” on a horse called Ballabriggs at this year’s Grand National; his punishment would run to £40,000 if he did it again.

Here’s a quote from the BHA defending the whip: “If you are on a half-tonne of horse going at nearly 40mph over a jump and there are 20 other horses around you, you need a tool to steer, correct its stride, and balance a horse. It’s a very risky sport and we’ve got to look after jockeys’ safety.” The more I read that, the more surreal it becomes as a defence.

Another related item: on Sunday night’s Planet Word with Stephen Fry, he chatted amiably to a reassuringly white-coated man in Munich who experiments on mice in order to find out why humans developed language and, say, chimpanzees never have. Fry basically concludes that the only way we’d ever find out for sure would be to experiment on chimps, but that this would be ethically frowned upon. The implication as I read it was that Fry would be against experimentation on primates, but that mice were fair game. I realise my “Bambi-influenced” views are far too namby-pamby for the likes of Stephen Fry, but I find it hard to draw lines between which animals can be mistreated and which ones cannot, just as I find it hard to draw a line between how many beatings an animal may legally endure before the man dishing out the beatings may be fined for doing so.

So, back to bullfighting. It’s a long time since Ernest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises and Death In The Afternoon. It’s quite a long time since early British holidaymakers on package tours to Spain in the 60s and 70s came home with their names printed on bullfighting posters, along with figurines of matadors and bulls. (I remember a relative had these, and as a small child failed to see any problem with it, although the souvenir manufacturer hadn’t painted blood on the bull.) I expect a number of my favourite Spaniards, from Velázquez to Almodóvar, approved or approve of bullfighting – the latter made a female matador one of the tragic protagonists in Talk To Her and included a goring scene that was meant to make you sympathetic for the human. But, like fox hunting, some traditions are simply outrun by progress. If a bull really is a “dumb” beast, as O’Neill confidently states, does that remove its rights?

The beguiling painting by Velazquez, by the way, easily his most famous, and one which I was lucky to see up close on a trip to Madrid, is Las Meninas, painted in 1656, and – hey! – it’s got a nice dog in it.

Sorry, I’ll go back to typing out what I think about films and telly programmes for the next entry, I promise.