September 1, 2021

RIP Geronimo. We heard the news of his passing yesterday, and so, today, a nation mourns.

Except, of course, it doesn’t. We’re not nearly so crackers about animals as we’re supposed to be. In fact, the real delusion is among those who believe that the beastly British have lost their tiny minds.

Take the other zoological saga of the last few days — Pen Farthing and Operation Ark. Did we really leave people behind in Kabul so that a bunch of cats and dogs could be airlifted to safety? If we did, then that would indeed be an outrage.

But as far as we know, what actually happened was rather different. The aircraft was a private charter. The animals were in the hold. And human beings took the seats. That’s a net gain for Homo sapiens.

It does seem that a Special Advisor in Whitehall was spoken to rudely, but Farthing has apologised for that. Meanwhile an “MoD source” has said that any assistance given was not at the expense of the official evacuation effort.

What intrigues me is the reaction of the commentariat. It’s not the criticism of Operation Ark (or the British Government) that stands out, but a deep unease at what this affair reveals about the British and our moral priorities.

“I don’t like it,” said Charlotte Ivers in the Sunday Times, “I don’t like it at all. And I really don’t like what it says about our country.” For the Spectator, Sam Ashworth-Hayes concluded that “Britain chose the picture of the sad puppy over people fearing for their lives.”

“What a story to tell the world about ourselves,” laments Gaby Hinsliff in the Guardian. And even Henry Hill — who is never knowingly under-patriotic — condemned “our weird attitude to animals” on UnHerd.

A new poll from YouGov provides apparent proof. Asked a question about the value of lives, only 49% of those asked said that “human lives are worth more than animal lives”. Meanwhile, 40% said that “human lives are worth the same as animal lives.” 3% said “human lives are worth less than animal lives” and the rest didn’t know.

So there you go: half the country is nuts. How can any self-respecting “voice of reason” stay silent about that?

What’s more, some parts of society are nuttier than others. Among those most likely to say that human and animal lives are worth the same are Leave voters, northerners and blue-collar workers. So for metropolitan types who believe the Brexit British have gone mad, this looks like further confirmation. More generally, this is a great issue on which to signal one’s superior rationality: I am humane; you are sentimental; she is a mad cat lady.

But opinion polls are not to be taken too literally. Public answers to pollsters’ questions should be interpreted as an opportunity to make a point. So when people say that humans and animals are of equal value, what are they really saying? In all likelihood, most of them are making the point that animal lives matter as well as human lives — but not, in fact, as much.

After all, if people really did believe that “animals are people too” then they’d stop eating them. Or, if already vegetarian, they wouldn’t be so relaxed about other people eating them. I don’t eat meat (for animal welfare reasons), but I’m a lot less upset by my meat-eating friends than I would be if they took up cannibalism.

Here’s another example. In 2001, the Labour government dealt with the foot-and-mouth outbreak by ordering a mass slaughter of livestock. Across the country, millions of dead farm animals were incinerated on flaming pyres. The nation was horrified — and yet in the subsequent general election the politicians responsible were returned to power with a thumping majority.

Now can you imagine the current government using similar tactics to halt spread of Covid? Obviously, it’s unthinkable. And that’s because, whatever people might say in polls, they recognise the vast gulf between man and beast.

But that being the case, how does one explain or justify the existence of animal welfare charities? Why are there so many of them in this country, when so much human need is still unmet?

The first thing to say is that, contrary to popular opinion, charitable giving in this country isn’t dominated by donkey sanctuaries. In fact, less than one donated pound in every ten goes to a charity that primarily benefits animals.

Nevertheless, there are those who resent the very existence of charitable juggernauts like the RSPCA. It was founded in 1824 as the plain old Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals — the first animal welfare charity anywhere in the world. In 1840 it added the R to its initials after Queen Victoria became a patron.

But this is a long running bone of contention. Why is the RSPCA “Royal” and the NSPCC merely “National”? Doesn’t this show that the British accord a higher value to preventing cruelty to animals than to children? It’s a fatuous comparison, of course — an accident of history that says nothing about the overall allocation of money and status in our society.

Still the essential problem remains. Why should animals get any help at all, when people need it too?

The reason why the Operation Ark story made such an impact is that — as perceived by the critics — it symbolised this moral dilemma. Spaces on a plane are limited, but so are other resources — from money given by donors to time given by volunteers. Shouldn’t it all be allocated according to rational priorities?

Then again, why limit this question to charitable work? It surely also applies to spending on pets — which currently runs at £8 billion a year in the UK. In fact, never mind the animals, there’s a hierarchy of need among human beings too. Does your child really need that new bicycle when the money could go to Afghan children? Or what about the fripperies you buy for yourself — couldn’t those resources be better allocated?

If Pen Farthing didn’t exist, then, for the sake of our troubled consciences, it would be necessary to invent him. Indeed the entire charitable sector provides a convenient distraction from the spending decisions we make in our own lives.

We’re losing sight of the true meaning of charity, which transcends the merely rational. The concept of “effective altruism” — that is, methodically working out where philanthropic resources can be most productively allocated — has its place; but we need to remember that compassion is also about the relationship between the helper and the helped. The word literally means “to suffer with”.

A compassionate act is, therefore, good in and of itself. It cannot be dispassionately judged on the basis of outcome alone — still less as a comparison of theoretical outcomes.

Compassion brings the strong down to the level of the weak, the rich to the poor, the healthy to the sick, the happy to the sad. And because it does so without coercion, it is profoundly humanising, even when the recipient is an animal.