A few years ago I had to take my pet rat, Heydrich, to the vet’s after my youngest son threw him head first at the bedroom wall. After that, Heydrich walked oddly and began acting in an unpredictable manner, certainly not in a fit state to, say, quell unrest in Czechoslovakia. The vet prescribed a course of antibiotics and some painkillers — total cost about 50 quid — and said even then Heydrich might not regain his former glory. And then he fixed me levelly and added: ‘But, um, he is just… you know, a rat. For five quid I could…’
I paid for the treatment and Heydrich spazzed around for another week or so before pegging out, a look of relief evident on his little rat face. The day he died (solemn burial, full military honours, vicious reprisals etc) I watched that silly pet hospital programme with Rolf Harris; one lengthy section was devoted to a white mouse suffering from cancer; they’d operated, given it chemo, mouse announced it would fight the illness bravely, friends rally round doing sponsored walks, little mouse-trip to Disneyland etc. And the very next section of the programme was about a previously poorly python who was now fit and well, its grand state of health evidenced by the alacrity with which it hoovered up a tank full of live white mice — the cousins, presumably, of the brave cancer mouse in section one. Everyone was very pleased with the python.
But — ooh, it made me think, watching the back legs of those little rodents disappearing down the sinister maw of the python. At that moment I remembered too, with some disquiet, having beaten a rat to death with a shovel once, when it suddenly appeared in the kitchen of the Leytonstone squat in which I lived. How inconsistent we are towards animals; ambivalent, in the true Freudian sense of the term. We do not like them much for themselves, for what they are — only for the fictions we have imposed upon them. In a sense we treat them with the same ambivalence with which we treat children — although very few of us beat children to death with a shovel, I admit, much though we might wish to from time to time. I suppose there are too many creatures, from dust mites to elephants, for us to treat them all as if they were deserving of a right to life. And so we are shallowly inconsistent, hypocritical and capricious.
All these memories came flooding back last week when I saw the news story about those dolphins stranded up some uncongenial river in Cornwall. Actually my first thought looking at the shoal of Flippers being manhandled into nets was the rather ungenerous ‘not that f***ing clever, then, are you, you mugs?’ I’ve never much liked dolphins, to tell you the truth; I resent the universally good press they get, the aquatic equivalent of Bob Geldof. I don’t like that evolutionarily determined upturned mouth, anthropomorphised into a happy, guileless smile by human imbeciles. I don’t like the fact that all women coo over dolphins; I take it as a personal affront. A famous television presenter, a childhood icon of mine and probably yours, once told me that the happiest moment she had spent was stroking a dolphin’s penis. I was suspicious of her from then on.
Meanwhile, a few hundred yards upstream from the stranded mammals, fish — ‘fly-replete, in depths of June/ dawdling away their wat’ry noon’ — were being caught by fishermen with a hook through the gums, pike were being electrocuted by the local piscatorial society; mayflies danced unwisely before the hungry lips of trout-shaped oblivion. The carnage on that little stretch of river — much of it man-made, the rest nature doing its usual stuff — attracted no attention, of course. Maybe the dolphins have got Max Clifford.
We have imposed upon dolphins the intimation of high intelligence; not because they are truly clever (it’s a river, you moron), but because we like them. We have credited whales with a high IQ, too, because we like them — the recent Japanese ‘scientific’ research on whales, however, suggests they are even more stupid than both the defence minister Des Browne and the BBC person who commissioned another series of The Catherine Tate Show. That’s because they want to put them in a bap and eat them. There is no great evidence for dolphins having an IQ which is abnormally high for the animal kingdom; squid and octopus are a lot smarter than your average beastie, but we care nothing whatsoever for their welfare. We inflate the abilities of certain creatures, suggest that they are ‘like us’, for purely sentimental and usually paradoxical reasons. There was an interesting story about squirrels recently; in parts of Hertfordshire, the local grey squirrels are all in a quandary because the blacks have moved in: uh-oh, there goes the neighbourhood. These mutant black squirrels are cleverer, quicker and stronger than the greys and have taken over. We used to hate grey squirrels because they usurped the pretty little red squirrels; but now, in the Welwyn Garden City area, they’re feeling sorry for them.
We don’t like any animals that become too successful; when that happens — as with pigeons, rats, grey squirrels, ruddy ducks, Canada geese, herring gulls, pretty much all insects except for colourful butterflies — we persecute them. We like them best when they are endangered and cute, or endangered and noble (like the tiger and the wolf). We like animals when they are inclined to stand on two legs like us — bears, meerkats, kangaroos. We like them when we can convince ourselves that their numbers have been reduced by pointless human cruelty (foxes, whales) rather than for reasons of human expedience (rats, mice, pigeons). We ascribe to the animals we like intelligence, compassion and a sense of playfulness; to those we despise stupidity, savagery and cold-bloodedness. The wolf, as a case in point, falls into the first category these days whereas 100 years ago it would have fallen most definitely into the latter.
These musings may seem beside the point, but our attitude towards those dolphins marooned in Cornwall (a fate which, I accept, should befall none of God’s creatures) is symptomatic of a general and much more serious confusion on our part. It lay beneath the decision to ban fox-hunting and hare coursing; it misinforms the debate about what animals we should be allowed to eat and how we should treat them before they are killed. The whole business — this thing of not quite knowing what do about animals — impinges upon a whole range of other important politically crucial issues, from where we should build new houses, to fishing rights and the Common Agricultural Policy. Something to muse on the next time some bone-headed whale is stuck up the Thames somewhere between Craven Cottage and Deptford Creek and the entire population turns out to save it.