Animal Farm: the behavioural benefits of castration

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

A vet prepares a horse for gelding at a Berlin animal clinic. (Photo: Getty)
A vet prepares a horse for gelding at a Berlin animal clinic. (Photo: Getty)

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.