Barking Bill(Filed: 29/04/2002)
TOMORROW the Government will propose new laws, described as a "Bill of Rights for animals", that would guarantee a minimum quality of life for domestic pets.
Their purpose is to make all owners of animals - including farmers, circuses, zoos and petshops - liable to prosecution if they fail to provide adequate food, water and room to exercise for the creatures in their care.
It should be said at once that the idea of animal rights is a philosophical absurdity. Like plants or tables and chairs, animals do not and cannot have rights. They are incapable of distinguishing right from wrong, and therefore free of all the responsibilities from which rights are inseparable.
The cat that tortures a bird can no more be said to be infringing its victim's avian rights than it can claim feline rights for itself when it is mauled by a fox. Bird, cat and fox inhabit a kingdom in which the concept of rights is meaningless. Those who describe the Government's proposals as a Bill of Rights for animals are therefore talking nonsense.
People, on the other hand, do have rights, with all the moral responsibilities that go with them. And one of those responsibilities is the duty not to cause unnecessary suffering to our fellow creatures.
It is neither right nor wrong for one animal to inflict pain on another, because animals know no better. But human beings should know better than to cause suffering unnecessarily, and they degrade themselves by doing so. When they ill-treat the animals in their care, they are doing wrong.
The law as it stands reflects that fact, in 11 separate Acts of Parliament governing our treatment of animals. There is now a strong case for updating and simplifying those laws, so that all those who deal with animals know exactly where they stand. But there is no case for the sort of extension of the law that the Government is proposing.
Until now, it has been an offence to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals, and that is as it should be. But the Government plans to introduce a new offence of treating animals in a way "likely" to cause suffering, whether or not it actually does.
This will be a charter for busybodies to report their neighbours to the police or the RSPCA if they feel that the budgie next door has not enough room in its cage, or that Mrs Jones has been snapping at her dog.
Like so much else that this Government seeks to do, it will further undermine the Briton's ancient right to liberty from the state's interference.