Britain plans an animal welfare revolution

Nasally amazing: A proboscis monkey from Borneo. © Mogens Trolle

Is the world too geared to humans? We love animals – so why do we treat them so badly? Yesterday a fierce debate began over new UK laws to drive out cruel and inhumane practices.

For the investigative journalist, working in an abattoir came as a shock. He found himself standing by a motorised track with dead sheep hanging from it; every metre or so, a worker removed a different part of them. “In a windowless space,” he writes, “the animals go from things you would see in a field to things you would see on a supermarket shelf.”

This is a scene from a new book, How to Love Animals in a Human-Shaped World. In it, Henry Mance explores a fundamental inconsistency in our approach to our fellow creatures: the wilful blindness which allows us to eat them even though we dote on them.

“Put simply,” he argues, “love for animals is one of our society’s core values. Rational thinking is another. The way we treat animals doesn’t fit with either of these values; it is guided by tradition and inertia.” Nobody would vote for the exploitation or extinction of other species, yet we allow both to happen.

On Monday, the British government unveiled a series of bills designed to address the problem. Its Action Plan for Animal Welfare includes bans on the export of live animals for slaughter, the import of hunting trophies from endangered species and the keeping of primates as pets.

Microchipping cats will be compulsory, and training collars for dogs outlawed. Farrowing crates and the caging of poultry are also under examination.

Most fundamental of all is the Animal Sentience Bill, which recognises that animals can feel hunger and pain and are aware of what is happening to them.

“These announcements will make a real and lasting difference to animals’ welfare,” said an RSPCA spokesman. “We can no longer ignore the inextricable link that exists between the way we treat animals, our own health and that of the planet.”

Others, however, point to a fundamental problem: none of the measures will apply to food from animals reared abroad. Leaving the EU has already opened the door for imports from countries which have lower standards of food production. According to the National Farmers’ Union, to implement the animal welfare plan while allowing those in would be “just hypocrisy”.

But what is really needed, Henry Mance argues, is for all of us to change our attitude towards animals. “My belief is that appreciating animals should not simply be lip service,” he writes; “it should change the way we live.”

The answer, he believes, is to embrace veganism. This would end cruelty towards farmed animals. Cows, for example, have their calves taken away so that the milk they produce can go to humans instead.

Agriculture is also a huge factor in the deforestation of the Amazon, which in turn contributes to global warming. Much of the land is being cleared for growing soya beans, three-quarters of which go towards feeding farm animals. Meanwhile, the rainforest’s wild animals face extinction from the loss of their habitat.

“We should not just ask what animals can do for us,” Mance concludes; “we should ask what we can do for animals.”

Is the world too geared to humans?

Fuelling cruelty?

Some say, no. The natural world is based on hierarchies, with the stronger and more resourceful imposing their will on – and often eating – those below them. Humans are at the top of the food chain, so of course we call the shots. If the animals we eat were in a position to eat us, they would not hesitate to do so: we should have no qualms about exploiting them.

Others argue that the world is a finely balanced ecosystem which humans have disrupted with disastrous consequences: climate change and diseases transmitted from animals are two of them. Yes, animals eat each other, but only in order to survive: we eat them through pure greed. If we are to save the planet we need to show more respect for all our fellow creatures.

You Decide

  1. Would you be prepared to become a vegan?
  2. Should there be a law against killing animals?


  1. As a team, make a list of everything your class has eaten in the last 24 hours. Work out what proportion consisted of (a) meat, (b) dairy products and (c) fruit and vegetables.
  2. In pairs, write a dialogue between an octopus and a fisherman. Perform it for your class.

Some People Say...

“To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being.”

Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948), Indian politician

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that humans consume an enormous amount of meat. The average British baby born today will eat in his or her lifetime the equivalent of five cows, 20 sheep, 25 pigs and 1,785 chickens. Eleven million pigs a year are killed in Britain, 16 million in Japan, 53 million in Germany and 130 million in the US. In Japan, where people eat more fish than in most countries, the consumption of meat has doubled in the last 40 years.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether the government has its priorities right. A ban on farrowing crates implies that the mental well-being of a sow is more important than the lives of her offspring. The Animal Sentience Bill applies to vertebrates but not to cephalopods, even though – as the Oscar-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher shows – these are intelligent and capable of friendship with humans.

Word Watch

A French word for a building in which animals are slaughtered.
A piece of legislation which has been proposed is called a bill. Once it is approved it becomes an act.
Microchipping cats
At present dogs must have a microchip with their owners’ details inserted, but not cats. There are around 2.6 million unchipped cats in the UK.
Training collars
Some collars are designed to control dogs by giving them electric shocks.
Farrowing crates
These restrict a sow’s movements to reduce the risk of her accidentally crushing her piglets, but are believed to cause her anxiety.
Lower standards
In Australia, animals can be transported for 24 hours or more without food or water. In the US, cows are commonly treated with hormones.
Lip service
Saying something without meaning it or doing anything about it.


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