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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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear