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

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

Show Hide image

Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.