Anyone involved in hunting with hounds has no doubt heard the misquote, erroneously attributed to Oscar Wilde, regarding the edibility of foxes – it is often used in a rather self-satisfied and arrogant way by those commenting on hunting through both traditional and latterly noisy social media channels. The fact that is taken completely out of context and is uttered by a fictional character in a play is of no concern. To the lazy keyboard warrior, it avoids the need to think of an insult and is easily copied. The truth however is somewhat different, but when have our opponents or certain journalists ever let the facts get in the way of the opportunity for sensationalistic, misleading headlines?
It is an open, and a rather tawdry secret that the UK news media is unreliable in terms of factual news dissemination. Dry, fact-laden news does not gain readers and is therefore not good for circulation figures, which are the determining metric upon which advertising spend is based. A long time family friend was Senior Editor of a tabloid newspaper with circulation in millions and to him only Headlines matted as they stimulated conversations in tea rooms, coffee shops and pubs – Headlines not facts mattered as Headlines sold papers or gained online subscription. Repeat an untruth regularly enough and it becomes accepted as being ‘the truth’. In fact a verbatim quote from Oscar Wilde captures it succinctly
“In old days men had the rack. Now they have the Press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralizing. Somebody — was it Burke? — called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism”
All of which brings us to the recent ‘debate’ around ‘animal sentience’. Press reports capture the issue rather neatly with an abundance of selected misquotes from the usual pressure groups. However, once a safety net for considered thought, it seems that certain members of the House of Lords have forgotten their role which is to scrutinise and act as a ‘check and balance’ on attempts to pass ‘bad’ or poorly thought out legislation, yet the preamble to the animal sentience bill is littered with statements provided by external pressure groups. Take for example the comment that “In this consultation, 80% of respondents requested that sentience be explicitly defined in UK law.” And yet since there is no explicitly agreed definition of what ‘animal sentience is’ how can anyone use the law to define it? In addition, the House of Lords online record repeats the Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare which states that there is “scientific evidence for sentience in all vertebrates and at least some invertebrates” However, what this government record fails to mention is that this Universal Declaration is not a government derived and agreed declaration at all but one that has been produced by a pressure group, the World Society for the Protection of Animals now rebranded as World Animal Protection (who doesn’t love a rebrand?).
This group has become so inveigled in promoting their own agenda within government that they gleefully boast that “WSPA have been working closely with and part-funding the Metropolitan Police’s Wildlife Crime Unit (WCU) since 2012, when there were fears for the Unit’s future.” But what is the reputational cost of this funding and any fact-based decision making process- just how much has it been compromised by this sponsorship? You can be certain that pure altruism was not the motivating factor, it is more likely to be the ability to influence decision making and policy. On that basis, a reasonable person could be forgiven for asking how much of the groups thinking about animal sentience has been swallowed by government? That is a fair question because the government drive for rules around animal sentience and any discussion about what it is- and more importantly what it is not -is coloured by its interpretation of the public mood through ‘snapshots’ provided by petitions such as
However, this ‘vox pop’ should once again be treated with extreme care as it does not indicate a populist drive for the government to discuss animal sentience. What it actually shows is that only 0.32% of constituents responded. This equates to 150 people or less in each constituency of 60-70000. This tiny group were able to use a trigger mechanism to get the government to make time to debate the issue … Give up to 0.3% a voice to impact policy at the expense of the other 99.7%, how can that be democratic?
Discussions concerning any animal sentience should be carefully handled within strict parameters and an agreed definition and not hijacked by a small vocal group for their own agenda,
Government pandering to the strident demands and exaggerated claims of pressure groups is unhelpful and does nothing to improve either domestic or wild animal welfare but it does provide an insight into the dangerous road that is being travelled, and the apparent unwillingness for ministers to challenge such claims in public. The fact that animals demonstrating a response to a stimulus are labelled as showing ‘sentience’ as in the examples given by interested pressure groups does little for Animal Welfare, and opens a whole new can of (presumably sentient) worms regarding inalienable Animal Rights. Consider this, for example, a fox being pursued briefly by hounds is declared by opponents of hunting to be a thoughtful, terrified animal. Yet the same fox having outwitted hounds once again, is soon on his nighttime journey to the hen house, where he kills a large number of ‘sentient’(?) chickens. On his return home to a loving caring family, having failed to check for danger, he is killed by traffic whilst crossing a road – surely a sentient animal would have waited until it was safe? Or do we as ‘animal lovers’ only ascribe sentience to those animals we like, during certain events we detest?