Animal lovers? Actually, Britain is a nation of sentimental hypocrites

We British, who like to think we’re a nation of animal lovers, have been given an opportunity to bask in the warm glow of this reassuring self-image now that more than 150,000 people have signed a petition calling for the West Ham footballer Kurt Zouma to be prosecuted after a video emerged of him kicking his cat. Within two days of his being shamed, the RSPCA had seized Zouma’s cats and his club had fined him £250,000. One-nil to the good old animal-loving Anglo-Saxons.However, we also ought be somewhat shamefaced that a different petition, calling for a footballer who lost a civil rape case to be released by his club, garnered fewer than 6,000 signatures. It took three days for Raith Rovers to do a U-turn on David Goodwillie’s signing . In the minds of many, however, all this shows is that we sometimes love our animals just a bit too much, which is not much of a confession. If we really were worried that we cared more for cats than rape victims, there would have been more outrage at the airlifting of 173 cats and dogs from Kabul at the potential expense of people. Instead, we mostly shrugged our shoulders, agreed it might have been a bit excessive, but still felt pleased that the beasts had escaped the Taliban’s extreme version of sharia law.

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: Forty-five percent of pet owners say they occasionally (or frequently) buy presents for their animals.

However, our hypocrisy is much worse than this, for believing that our only flaw is that we love animals too much conveniently disguises the fact that, more often than not, human interests completely trump those of other animals.

The truth is that the attitude we show towards most animals is not always real love; often it is an unhealthy anthropocentric sentimentality. Yes, we have tender feelings towards fluffy companion animals, gambolling lambs and alpacas under threat of involuntary euthanasia. But these feelings are only directed towards animals when and if they are pleasing to us. Whenever protecting or enhancing an animal’s welfare brings costs to ourselves, our so-called love mysteriously vanishes.

Teach your dog to file his or her own nails by attaching sandpaper to a piece of wood.

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The perfect symbol of this is pet food. We make sure our darling pets get their nutritionally complete meals and smile warmly when we see them tucking in. But that food is made mostly of other animals, and very little of it comes from high-welfare meat. So we keep one set of animals in industrial farms where many never see the light of day while we treat others as though we are honoured to be guests in their homes.

No true animal lover would be indifferent to the wellbeing of one used to feed another. Yet most people not only do it, they don’t give it a second’s thought. They are as mesmerised by heartwarming animal stories as they are blind to disturbing ones. Hence they can get indignant about the court order to put down one alpaca called Geronimo but do not blink an eye over the estimated 60,000 nameless dairy bull calves slaughtered at birth so we can have our daily milk.

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: Have you ever wondered why your dog curls up in a ball when they sleep? It’s actually an age-old instinct to keep themselves warm and to protect vital organs while they sleep.

What’s more, the way we treat our pets suggests that it isn’t true love anyway. Take so-called dog lovers. Centuries of breeding have meant that many of the most popular breeds have lifelong health issues. The flat snouts of pugs and bulldogs, for instance, often cause them respiratory and eye problems. Dachshunds suffer spinal problems, and are prone to obesity. Pretty much any hound other than a mongrel or a rescue dog is the product of an industry perpetuating animal suffering.

These facts are well-enough known, but people conveniently forget them. They see facial and bodily distortions as cute rather than as harmful deformities. But real love requires an appreciation of the object of that love as it really is. Otherwise your affection is for a fantasy, an image of the beloved that bears no relation to the reality.

Have an extra kitchen drawer? Use it as a dog food holder.

We may not care about or notice the contradictions contained in our relationship to animals, but politicians have. They know that moral consistency doesn’t matter as long as they push the right emotional buttons.

For instance,the most popular policy in Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 Labour manifesto was the pledge to keep the foxhunting ban in place. Labour campaigners pushed this hard, especially among younger voters on social media. The Conservatives, meanwhile, tried to burnish their own animal-friendly status by talking up their plans to ban the ivory trade, even though this wasn’t in their manifesto. Neither party said much about the meat or pet industries, which have a far greater impact on animal welfare.The strategy of trying to create an animal-friendly image – call it “fur-washing” – is alive and well today. For instance, the government has been drip-feeding news of its plans to ban foie gras. But many of the duck and geese reared for foie gras have better lives than the broiler poultry cooped up in intensive units in the UK. And all the while the government is boasting about ending paltry sales of a niche product, it is also seeking to negotiate trade deals with countries such as Australia and the US that will open our borders to lower-welfare meat and dairy.

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Our wildly inconsistent attitudes to animals persist in part because formulating consistent ones is difficult. Even going down the vegan route and opposing all use of animals for human ends doesn’t guarantee proportionate responses. Most vegans are probably more revolted by foie gras than they are by Turkey Twizzlers .

The price of our anthropocentric sentimentalism is high. It means that we too often put animal welfare over that of humans. Animal welfare is the most popular cause for charitable donors in the UK, above children and medical research. At the same time, that concern is often misdirected so the animals that suffer most are not just ignored, they are eaten with pleasure. To top it all, politicians know how to tug on these warped heartstrings, and so our irrationality becomes a means for our own manipulation.

Always keep an ID tag on your pet. Consider getting your pet microchipped as well to help identify him if he is lost or stolen.

A more mature and nuanced attitude to animals is sorely needed. But when an immature and simplistic one is so deeply embedded in the national psyche, I can’t see how we’re going to get it.

  • Julian Baggini is a writer and philosopher; his latest book is How the World Thinks