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27 August 2021

The row over Afghan pets shows the UK’s animal obsession has gone too far

The clamour to put pets before people during the Afghanistan evacuation is a symptom of misguided priorities.

By Jonn Elledge

On 25 August, a woman rang Tom Swarbrick’s show on LBC to talk about ex-marine “Pen” Farthing’s attempt to get several hundred animals out of Afghanistan. “You’re so dismissive, by saying, ‘Oh it’s just dogs and cats and donkeys’,” she told the presenter. “A life is a life.” A true animal lover, she added, would not treat the life of a human as more important than that of an animal. (Operation Ark, as it’s been dubbed, will not include donkeys, although Farthing’s Nowzad shelter in Kabul did.) 

She went on to argue that, while the UK did have an obligation to get its interpreters out, many of those Afghans crowding around Kabul airport this week weren’t actually interpreters at all; they were just random people fleeing the Taliban. “Well so what?” asked Swarbrick, with the air of a man who’s horrified by what he’s about to hear, but thinks there might be a viral clip in it. “Are you saying, if they’re not an interpreter let’s get a dog on?”

There followed six of the longest seconds you will ever hear. If you listened very carefully, you could hear the caller debating whether she was about to make a terrible mistake. “Do you want the honest answer?” she said eventually. “Yes.”

In other words, scarce time and resources should not be focused on the evacuation of people now facing repression, violence and execution by the Taliban, but on the animals who, to the best of our knowledge, do not. A true animal lover, it turned out, values the life of a human at less than that of an animal.

The clip did indeed go viral. Most of those who shared it accompanied it with a comment beginning “what the actual…”, but some thought the caller had a point. 

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And if you want further evidence that people’s love of animals has gone too far, consider this report from the Daily Mail. Yesterday, defence secretary Ben Wallace tweeted – “somewhat provocatively”, in the paper’s eyes – that his “priority will be people not pets”. He hit out, too, at “the bullying, falsehoods and threatening behaviour” some people had directed at those trying to help with the evacuation. 

Here’s how the paper headlined its story, criticising this “hostile tone”: “The toxic battle of Noah’s ark: It’s a bizarre sideshow to the Afghan horror – an ex-marine fighting to evacuate pets in a rescue linked to PM’s wife Carrie… versus the Defence Secretary who has savaged the operation. So whose side are you on?”

It’s fairly clear which side the Daily Mail expects its readers to be on. The comments section is divided on the matter.

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Some have interpreted the sizeable minority of the British public who openly care more about foreign animals than foreign people as simply racist. That’s no doubt part of it – there’s an entire Twitter account dedicated to people expressing racist views from behind pictures of their pets – but I think there’s more to it than that. Partly, that’s because there’s also a sizeable minority of the British public who openly care more about animals than they do about British people.

More than that, there’s plenty of evidence that the British are weird when it comes to animals. The RSPCA existed for over half a century before a similar charity for abused children was founded. In 2008, consultancy New Philanthropy Capital reported that the three main domestic abuse charities – in a country in which as many as seven million women had been affected by domestic violence – had an annual income of just £17m between them. By contrast, in 2006, a single Devon donkey sanctuary, looking after just 12,000 donkeys, received £20m.

In 2019, a family law firm released a survey that found that one in six Britons claimed to love their pet more than their partner. This was obviously shameless linkbait and I don’t believe for a moment that the survey was scientific but, honestly, would you be surprised? There is a reason the Labour Party bangs on about fox hunting: because that works better as an attack line than “the Tories hate the poor”.

I don’t want those dogs or cats to suffer. I like animals, and I instinctively feel that people who don’t are at least mildly suspect, and those who are cruel to them are actively malign. I certainly don’t want to be rude about Farthing, whose convoy was turned away from Kabul airport by the US military, and who at time of writing is still stuck in Kabul with 200 animals, 68 staff and no clear plan of escape. Nobody deserves that, certainly not a man who has spent years putting himself in harm’s way to make the world better.

Nonetheless, to mangle Maya Angelou, when someone shows you who they are, you should believe them. A significant slice of the British population has been showing that they care more about animals than people for a long time. So what should we believe?

[See also: Why Joe Biden got everything wrong in Afghanistan]