RSPCA Press Office
I’m sure you will not be surprised to learn that the RSPCA has received a complaint following your column dated 21 November.
We were surprised, however, that it was felt appropriate to trivialise and broadcast a criminal act which may well have led to animal suffering.
Can I remind you that whatever your personal ‘sliding scale of values’ may be it remains an offence to fail to meet an animals needs and/or cause it unnecessary suffering? Those found guilty face a maximum six-month prison sentence and/or a £20,000 fine.
Obviously we urge everyone who buys a pet to be sure they have the resources and commitment to care for it for the rest of its life. Should you nevertheless ever find yourself in a similar situation again we would urge you to contact a reputable animal rescue organisation so that your pet has the opportunity to live out its life free from harm.
Regards, Emma Nutbrown
Is this a threatening letter? I think it probably is, don’t you? And if it’s not threatening, it’s definitely creepy, menacing and a little bit sinister. What Ms Nutkin is saying to me here, unless I’m being paranoid, is: ‘We’re on your case, mate. We could have you, easy, for this criminal offence you’ve committed. We could cost you loads of money or put you behind bars. But we won’t this time, because we’re nice that way, we Animal Rights people. Next time, though, you might not be so lucky. Got that, hamster murderer?’
Let me tell you how it started and you can make up your own mind. (Sorry to those of you who’ve already read the original Telegraph article). Two or three years ago, my kids borrowed the official school hamster for the weekend and it got killed by a visiting child in a tragic, wooden-train-related accident. So off we hurried to the pet shop to buy a replacement hamster for the school, plus a hamster for us because, clearly, our hamster-care skills needed a bit of work.
They came from the same litter but had very different temperaments. One was placid, the other a vicious biter. Naturally my son wanted to keep the vicious biting one because it was more exciting. But it was incorrigible. It kept drawing blood. So we tried asking the pet shop to take it back. ‘Sorry — your problem now,’ was their charming response. Then, rather naughtily, we tried palming it off on the school. ‘We can’t have this hamster,’ said the teachers. ‘He keeps biting the children.’
There was, I knew, no point in trying to keep it in the cage with his brother in the hope he got nicer. We tried that once, when I was a kid, with two hamsters named Topsy and Tim. Then one day we found Tim lying there minus his head and Topsy grinning bloodily and contentedly.
Oh dear. There was clearly only one way out of this for Devil Hamster and me and it wasn’t going to be pretty for either of us. But how? I thought about a brick: too visceral. I thought about drowning: too slow. Eventually, I took the coward’s way out and released him into the park. A really nice bit of the park we call ‘The Secret Garden’. ‘Run free, little biter! Run free!’ I said as I let him loose. The urban foxes would take care of the rest.
And now apparently, I’m a criminal. Not even an ‘alleged’ criminal, you’ll note from Ms Nutkin’s letter. My daughter got very upset by this when she read the letter over my shoulder. ‘Daddy, are they going to take you away?’ she said tearfully. ‘Look, you’ve gone and upset her now!’ said my wife. ‘What? It’s hardly my fault if the RSPCA starts sending me threatening letters. Is it?’
But I get the impression from the letter that Ms Nutkin thinks it is. ‘I’m sure you will not be surprised,’ it begins, as though I wrote it deliberately to provoke. I mean obviously, I’m thrilled that it did provoke, but I can honestly say that this thought barely crossed my mind when I wrote it. Rather, I was hoping to get a smile out of all those parents who’ve found themselves in similar situations.
It’s one of the reasons we give our kids small furry animals, isn’t it? As a gentle way of initiating them into the grim secret that, contrary to the impression given by Teletubbies and Tweenies, life is in fact nasty, brutish and short. Yes, it’s jolly sad, and one doesn’t want it to happen — especially when, as parent, you invariably do far more of the small, furry animal care than your kids do and consequently grow ridiculously attached to the gormless bundles of fluff — but it does happen, quite a lot. And when it does, one of the ways of dealing with the death is to have a macabre laugh about it.
The RSPCA’s way, though, it would seem, is to bully us into silence. And this is what really bothers me about that letter. I’m not so worried on my own account — go on then, RSPCA, put me in prison for hamster abuse, and see what that does for your publicity — as I am on the issue of freedom of speech. To its credit, the Telegraph has not tried to tick me off or expressed any regret about having run the piece. But generally newspapers are growing noticeably more craven in the face of any kind of pressure from their dwindling readership. All it would take is a few more vexatious bunny-huggers like the one who contacted the RSPCA to write in, and suddenly here would be another subject that columnists had to treat in future with such kid gloves that they might as well avoid discussing it altogether.
One of the things I’d hoped would happen in these dark times of Islamist threat and economic crisis is that we’d all get a sense of perspective. Animal rights, it has always struck me, is the product of a spoilt, decadent age when pampered bleeding hearts have nothing better to do than throw themselves protectively over TB-infested badgers or try to stop people in red coats enjoying themselves. Once these nutcases had something real to worry about — keeping their job, say; not seeing their country incorporated in the Dar al-Islam — I naively imagined that rationality would be restored.
Apparently not though. Look at the Damian Green arrest; look at the new plans to make it even easier for speeding motorists to lose their licence; consider the case of my friend Vivienne, handed a £50 ticket by a policeman in crime-infested Elephant and Castle the other day for having thrown her cigarette butt in the gutter. The deeper into chaos we plunge, it would seem, the more hysterically desperate the agents of our socialist nanny state become to police every aspect of our lives. Dave’s Conservatives ought to be talking much more about this. We want our liberty back. There are votes in it.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 13, 2008