Ricky Gervais and our confused and hypocritical relationship with animals
by Ian Sinclair
12 May 2014
As a man who seems to take immense pride in his own rational and scientific view of the world, the comedian Ricky Gervais will no doubt be surprised to learn that he encapsulates our confused and hypocritical relationship with animals.
Let me explain. Speaking to the Guardian recently, Gervais said his cat was his most treasured possession and that “that one thing that really depresses me is animal cruelty.” This concurs with his many tweets on the subject and also an interview he did with GQ magazine: “I love animals. Growing up, the two things that made my blood boil were religious intolerance and animal cruelty. I’ve never understood it. I can’t stand to have an animal in pain. I’ve got to get it out of my head. It makes me angry, I want to cry, I want to stab someone.”
Like Gervais, we are, as the oft-repeated saying goes, a nation of animal lovers. And like Gervais, most of us eat meat. Now, call me old fashioned, but elementary logic suggests you can’t love animals and be a meat-eater at the same time. What with killing and eating them and everything. For example, if I was writing a list of things I wouldn’t do to someone or something I love I’m pretty sure the first thing on the list would be “not eating it or them.” I love my partner, for example. This means, among many other things, that I wouldn’t eat my partner. At best a meat-eater is someone who loves animals that are fortunate to be loved by a human being. Cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, turkeys, pheasants, rabbits, goats, deer, horses – far from loving these animals, meat-eaters are one of their main enemies.
Claiming to be an animal lover while eating animals is especially bizarre considering one doesn’t need to eat animals to live a healthy life. In fact the weight of scientific evidence suggests a vegan or vegetarian diet is healthier than a meat-rich diet. And it’s better for the planet too. Gervais and many other people claim to love animals. But what could be crueler than killing an animal and eating it when one doesn’t need to do so to live a healthy life?
This next bit will be even less popular, but I want to go one step further and ask whether keeping animals as pets, as Gervais does, is compataible with being an animal lover.
I’ll put aside the fact Gervais recently starred in an advert (he needed the money, you see) in which he encouraged people to buy Audi cars, even though the leading cause of early death for domesticated cats is road accidents. What I’m interested in is whether Gervais and the millions of other people who keep cats and dogs as pets really keep them with the animal’s best interests at heart.
Take the neutering of cats and dogs. This is an invasive and brutal operation which helps human society but seems to take away a fairly fundamental part of being an animal – procreation. How many dogs and cats try to neuter themselves before they are sent for the snip to the vet? Have you ever come home to find your puppy fumbling with one of your kitchen knives trying to sever its own bollocks? Or caught your kitten trying to dial the number of the local veterinary office on the cordless? People often put bells on their cats to stop them being successful hunters. Dogs are made to obey humans and are fed and exercised according to our timetable. Dogs and cats are often left in the house, sometimes in one room, often alone, while we go about our human business. As I mention above the RSPCA (aswell as anecdotal evidence) shows that the motor vehicle is a great danger to cats. Yet millions of people continue to keep cats in urban areas.
Clearly, then, pets are looked after and loved to the extent they fit in with our often busy human lives and all too human peccadillos. In short, human interest overrides animal wellbeing if the two clash. This is because we keep pets primarily for our own wellbeing, not for animals benefit. This is implicit in the first statement on the BBC Ethics webpages looking at keeping pets: “Keeping pets gives many people companionship and great happiness.”
To be clear, I’m not claiming the moral high ground. I’m not a vegan and have been known to get emotionally attached to domesticated animals. And I’m not making light of Gervais’s important work on animal welfare – I support all progressive activism, reformist or radical. However, I do think it’s important to think critically about a subject that is pretty much taboo today. With the environmental impact of keeping pets and eating meat so high perhaps the existential threat of runaway climate change means it is a good time to start a conversation about our mixed-up relationship with animals?