Bernard Trafford: Protect animals by all means - but let's focus our minds on humans

Journal columnist Bernard Trafford is concerned that in our concern to save animals we are neglecting the very serious problems we humans face

Dr Bernard Trafford Headmaster of the Royal Grammar School, Jesmond
Bernard Trafford

You know what they say: a puppy’s not just for Christmas. It’s true.

We Traffords have never been pet people but last spring our younger daughter bought a beautiful Labrador puppy. Bruno stayed with us in the summer and was adorable, fun, hilarious – and all-absorbing.

The point about having a puppy is that you can’t just let it alone. It’s a lot of work. You can’t even take it for walkies without equipment: the lead; that thing that flicks a ball; the little treats to help with training; and, rightly, the ubiquitous plastic bag.

Don’t forget the bag! I was walking Bruno down the medieval high street of Wells in August, celebrating my niece’s wedding, when he abruptly dropped a large one. I was immaculately dressed – but bagless. I stood astride the pile of ordure, directing pensioners’ mobility scooters around it while desperately phoning my daughter to bring the necessary!

More experienced dog owners probably avoid such moments: certainly the family declared me hopeless at managing Bruno. I reckon he just doesn’t recognise the natural authority of a headteacher.

Bruno has a character both loving and lovable: but, even at their most sentimental, my wife (besotted with Bruno) and daughter (his owner) know he’s just a dog.

Other animals, or their owners, apparently blur that line. Take chimpanzees. They’re our very close relatives, and it’s perhaps natural that concern is frequently expressed about their treatment. Medical experiments on primates render us nervous: they’re too close for comfort.

Nonetheless, even chimps are still animals. Till now. In a case to be heard in New York’s Supreme Court five judges must declare whether or not a 26-year-old chimp called Tommy has “human rights”.

Tommy lives in a cage in a trailer-park in Gloversville, New York State. He watches a lot of TV. Steven Wise, lawyer and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, has brought the case because he wants Tommy released into a chimpanzee sanctuary to live a wild and natural life.

He believes Tommy should be considered a person in the eyes of the law. The legal argument is that chimpanzees are capable of intelligent thought and making reasoned decisions. The underlying rationale is that, by insisting we treat some animals as people, Wise plans to get them better living conditions.

Wise claims Tommy stared at him blankly: though the cage was dark, he attests that he could see the chimp was unhappy. The manager of the trailer park, although not mounting any legal defence, commented that Tommy likes watching cartoons. Asked whether he was unhappy, she said she couldn’t tell as Tommy hadn’t spoken to her recently.

If nothing else, the case will provide material for endless discussion in the media. Nonetheless, even if Wise wins his case for Tommy, I can’t see floodgates opening in terms of human/animal rights.

My neighbours won’t suddenly start keeping rhinos or great white sharks as members of the family because they have personality. My life or safety aren’t about to be compromised.

One thing upsets me when the whole animal thing gets so far out of proportion.

It troubles me that one of the richest charities in this country is a donkey sanctuary in Devon. I don’t support animal cruelty: but while yet another child abuse scandal is uncovered in Manchester; while thousands of young people are living rough on the streets of UK cities; while child porn and exploitation are rife; and when, in other parts of the world, girls are denied an education, children starve or are killed or maimed by warfare and disease; I think we should focus our minds and spend our money on more important things.

Wise reckons that, if we start regarding animals legally as people, they’ll have to be treated as people.

I’d go a stage further. Why not start treating people (that’s ALL people) as, well, people too? The world might be a better place.

@bernardtrafford

Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer