Our obsession with animals is unhealthy

You can hit a child — but you can’t hit a dog.

Poor Mary Bale. The woman who, in a "moment of madness", dumped a cat in a wheelie bin has been charged with animal cruelty. The RSPCA is prosecuting her with causing unnecessary suffering to a cat and "not providing the animal with a suitable environment". It would make you giggle if it didn't have the potential to ruin her life. The woman appears to have led a blame­less existence for 45 years and then she did something silly; we've all done silly things. She has said she is profoundly sorry. It was an odd thing to do and a little cruel; but odd, too, for the cat's owners to have security cameras around their house in what looked like an ordinary street. People who love cats often seem to be paranoid and suspicious of human beings.

My cats do far worse things to little voles, mice and even baby birds than Ms Bale did to that cat in the bin. But that's OK, because it's "natural". Among the dozens of rules for owning a cat, introduced in the ridiculous Animal Welfare Act four years ago ("groom" it!?), is making sure your cat is able to "exhibit normal behaviour patterns". Funnily enough, the RSPCA's advice on kitties doesn't extend to explaining that normal behaviour may mean carnage from the natural kingdom appearing on your kitchen floor twice a day.

I once had a visit from the local animal home, which was checking whether my house was suitable for a stray cat. It wouldn't give me one because I refused to fence my garden sufficiently to prevent the cat from "escaping". Isn't escaping exactly what cats naturally want to do? A man I know was told absolutely seriously by an RSPCA chap to build a platform under the skylight of his London flat, in case the cat wanted to climb out on to the roof.

Sweet charity

A sense of proportion is beyond the wit of animal lovers, themselves often rather in­humane creatures, as viciously self-righteous as a parade of cardinals. Look at the thousands who joined the Facebook group "Death to Mary Bale" after the cat-in-the-bin episode. She became an international hate figure and customers of the bank where she works threatened a boycott. I bet most of the people posting these sorts of (over)reactions eat pork pies and cheap chicken. Factory farming amounts to far greater cruelty than the actions of a few callous pet owners. Yet in 2009, the RSPCA spent ten times as much on its "inspectorate", a quasi-military force with the power to break into places without a warrant, than it did on the Freedom Food campaign to encourage high welfare standards in animal farming, which has a far wider impact on animal welfare, given the numbers involved.

The RSPCA seems to be more interested in harassing members of the public. Two years ago, it used its new powers to frighten off schools from keeping pets, asking them to name a sole individual responsible for rabbits' welfare - so it knew whom to threaten when the play got a bit noisy.

Last year, only a few per cent of Britons gave more to children than they did to animal charities - and more gave to animals than to the disabled (though charitable giving is complicated, not least because people lie about it when they are surveyed). But animal charities also have more savings - the Donkey Sanctuary alone has more assets than Barnardo's.

The British are profoundly hypocritical when it comes to attitudes to children and animals; just because it's a cliché, it doesn't mean it isn't true. Where is the list of rules instructing parents to provide outdoor space, healthy food and appropriate company for a child - on pain of prosecution? Abandon an animal and you get prosecuted; abandon a child and you get to join Fathers 4 Justice.

I once worked in the animal centre at Heathrow. Not very glamorous - it was full of boxes of fish on their way to pet shops in Chorley and confused pets moaning and mewling in crates. Apart from the thought that pet owners do terrible things to the animals they profess to "love", freighting them around the world in frightening conditions, the one thing that really struck me was the stringency of the rules for the size of animal crates. The dogs had to be able to stand up, lie down and turn around; it was extremely strictly enforced. Would that human beings on planes were given the same courtesy.

Pets rule

I know, it's different - we have a choice, we understand what's going on. But children don't. You can hit a child; you can't hit a dog. The RSPCA has had countless people convicted of animal cruelty since being given the power to prosecute four years ago. It doesn't even need to prove an animal was suffering: now, it can step in when it thinks that it might be about to suffer. Meanwhile, kids are left in overcrowded accommodation, getting fat on McDonald's and displaying behavioural difficulties associated with too much telly and computer games. It isn't only dogs that need exercise.

Look at the list of things I have to provide for the gerbils that are about to arrive for a child's birthday, according to my legal duty of care ­under the Animal Welfare Act. The "five welfare needs" that the politicians thought they were agreeing to when they passed the bill have bred like gerbils. There are now dozens of rules for each type of pet. The gerbils' "five needs" include: a cage, a nest box, bedding, burrowing material, water from a bottle with a spout, a "mixed diet" of grains, fruit and veg, occasional sunflower seeds and peanuts, an exercise wheel, toys, a gnawing block, friends, peace and quiet and a vet. For cats, it's separate beds and toys and hiding places, company when they want it, solitude when they don't, a well-balanced diet and allowing them to behave naturally. Does that mean I have to let them chase the gerbils?

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter