Countryside Alliance Chief Executive Alice Barnard writes: I remember commenting about the Emperor of Exmoor last year and the furore surrounding the story. I remarked that the "British ability to maintain a stiff-upper lip when facing war, flooding or budget cuts can quiver uncontrollably at the death of a single animal." Last week's debate on circus animals was another case in point, reinforcing as it does my view about our national psyche. A packed House of Commons and a fevered reaction from our elected representatives greeted Mark Pritchard MP's debate on banning wild animals from circuses. Another story this week, when the actions of a Police Sergeant led to the deaths of two Police dogs in a hot car, bumped impending strikes, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan into the further reaches of the newspapers.
We are a nation of animal lovers. The Countryside Alliance represents hundreds of thousands of animal lovers who own and keep animals to a high welfare standard. A caller to a Radio 5 Live debate on the Police dogs recounted, voice breaking, how much he still misses his deceased boxer. It was a member of his family. We all know how that feels. But I would urge a sense of proportion when approaching stories about animals, and an understanding of the crucial differences between wild and domesticated animals.
Animal welfare/rights is seen as an "easy" issue in the sense that everyone seems to have an opinion, and for anyone making a passionate or knee-jerk response, an informed opinion is not necessary. As John Webster, Emeritus Professor at Bristol University says: "It requires very little knowledge to care passionately about animals. It requires a great deal of understanding to care properly for them." The many polls you see on hunting are a testament to that statement - a position of little knowledge bowing to an imagined moral standpoint: "I don't know about hunting but I hold a very strong view on it."
There is a clear difference between wild and domesticated animals, yet so often these different states are confused. Battery farming, wildlife management, pet ownership, the training of working dogs - these are all radically different circumstances for the animals involved. And yet you will encounter more hysteria about foxhounds expressing their natural behaviour than you ever will about battery hens demonstrably unable to express theirs.
At the Countryside Alliance we believe each case should be judged on its own merits; if an animal is seen to be mistreated by a circus then the authorities ought to be involved but, as we have seen with the Hunting Act, catch-all legislation rarely works and can end up providing no benefit to anyone concerned.
We should always ask if an animal's life could be better and whether changing legislation and the status quo can make the lives of all animals better. We owe care to animals, but that care, and a person's need to feel morally upright, cannot be measured by breast beating and moral outrage.