A vet prepares a horse for gelding at a Berlin animal clinic. (Photo: Getty)
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Animal Farm: the behavioural benefits of castration

A week in which I neutered 40 calves, two colts, three dogs and a raccoon.

Sometimes a week passes and the part one plays as an animal doctor seems at best farcical, at worst preposterous. I review this week with some disturbance at the remarkable number of animals I have sterilised. I counted the castrations: 40 calves, two colts, three dogs, one cat, one ferret and a coatimundi (a raccoon-type thing from South America that has very long teeth). I counted the ovariohysterectomies (spays): two cats, two bitches and one rabbit.

All of these mutilations were elective, mostly for behavioural rather than medical reasons. The latter can come into play later on (prostatitis, uterine adenocarcinoma, pyometra and so on), so sterilisation is often seen as preventive surgery. Since the advent of general anaesthesia, dominion over animals through sterilisation has been, by and large, easily achieved.

Companion animals – pets to most but a category that also includes horses – can fulfil their role only if they can be adapted to the way of life and the expectations of their owners. For instance, a tomcat (an entire male cat) is an unsuitable household companion: first, because he stinks (tomcat urine) and second because, unsurprisingly, his behaviour becomes obsessive when he scents a female. To condition him, he is castrated; otherwise there are repeated visits to the surgery for cat-bite abscesses, incurred in fights late at night when he and his mates are out prowling the neighbourhood, looking for a sexual partner.

The testosterone gone, the potent cheap perfume of his urine is no more and he purrs comfortably on his owner’s lap. Occasionally, I do come across older tomcats who are domestic animals – but frankly the homes where they live are deprived and the owner has never noticed the smell.

Years ago, a very old woman brought in her middle-aged tomcat with a broken leg. I pinned his femur and castrated him at the same time. I did not mention this to her. When I saw her later, she remarked: “You know, he smells and behaves so much better now that he’s had his leg fixed!”

The behavioural benefits of castration are enormous: dogs do not thrust themselves on anything that passes by; queen cats do not try to break out of the house when they are in season/oestrus; geldings will graze peaceably in fields, while a colt will jump fences to clamber on top of any mare that winks at him; rabbits will not mate with their siblings and those of the same sex are less likely to try to maim each other.

In the agricultural world, tup lambs are mostly ringed with rubber bands in the first 48 hours of life so that they don’t mate with their mothers. Likewise cattle – although some farmers do like the job of sterilisation to be done surgically when the calves are six to nine months of age, to enjoy watching the vet being kicked around, I presume.

Such routine mutilations have enabled the animal-care industry to thrive. But what sort of brave new world is this in which we practise? If an animal’s sexual activity is problematic, it is either sterilised or euthanised. Animals are tied to our social contract. The development of dog breeds shows how natural selection has been undermined: some breeds can give birth only by Caesarean section; many have inherited disorders that can now be treated. The breed of the dog is an easy indicator of what conditions are likely to affect it.

So it is that many mutilated creatures with inherited defects roam the country. Our dominion over the animals is fragile, however: one colt kicked me across the yard as I cut into his left testis. I vomited, re-exerted my power by immobilising him with ketamine and removed both testes in peace. My own left testis was intact. A colleague cut through the tendons of his wrist while castrating calves –
all for the sake of shaping animals to our own ends. By removing their reproductive organs, we have engineered asexual and (mostly) pliable beasts. Freed from desire, they appear to be contented – never questioning obedience, the rule of law and reason. Brave new world! Time to sharpen the knives for Homo sapiens.

 

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.