Several years ago I was invited to serve on a European Council relating to the welfare of performing animals. I don’t know whether it actually started or disappeared into the mists of EU bureaucracy. I have interests in teaching animals and recently took an opportunity to spend some time with a delightful camel in France.
She was friendly and as we walked about we encountered a group of Algerian teenagers who had never seen a camel in the flesh and, being typical cheeky teenagers, started to tease the camel. I warned them that camels have a very unpleasant habit of spitting at people and they might be covered by horrid stuff. The teenagers responded well and we all got along together.
A dog may bark, and a cat may hiss. A camel will spit. It is not really spitting; they bring up the contents of their stomach, along with saliva, and project it out. This is meant to surprise, distract, or bother whatever the camel feels is threatening it.
How I started in animal welfare
Animal welfare has been a recognised branch of scientific inquiry for at least 40 years, and differs from animal rights which are primarily political. I became involved when I took a post at the University of Birmingham with the intention of continuing work I had started at Manchester on human organ transplantation.
I was situated in a building, formerly described as the Department for Infectious Diseases. It had a notorious past involving an escape of small pox virus in 1978 which led to a couple of deaths including the tragic suicide of the director.
Obviously the small pox leak attracted worldwide attention. It was the inspiration for Patricia Cornwall’s novel, Unnatural Exposure. She does not explain how the virus escaped.
In my time the department was connected to the prestigious laboratory for animal experimentation which despite being a leading cancer research unit had drawn the wrath of animal rights people. The director was keen to establish the highest levels of animal welfare and fairly soon we set up a postgraduate course in animal welfare law and ethics. The course was successful and attracted veterinarians from all over the world who were working on behalf of wild endangered species – many like the Moon Bears are subject to harsh and cruel treatment. My Newfoundland dogs have supported charities involved in rescuing the Moon Bears from captivity.
Eventually our course was transferred to the University of Cambridge where I taught it for over a decade.
Teaching Zoo animals
Teaching wild animals or keeping exotic pets is generally frowned upon, partly due to allegations of cruelty in circuses, accusations that events like the chimp’s tea party are degrading, and risks associated with keeping wild animals in the home. There are animal welfare experts who strongly disapprove and others, including me, who maintain that animal welfare can be enhanced by constructive teaching.
My role at Marwell Zoo
As a member of the Ethics Council at Marwell Zoo I thoroughly approve of the constructive teaching programme for the animals, which is a great help in husbandry and cooperation with veterinary inspection.
Here is one of the keepers training a Rhino, using a target stick, with clicker and reward, exactly the same as I teach my dogs.
And another keeper with a Snow Leopard with reward treats fed with metal tongs, as the big cats might not distinguish between the treat and the hand.
The philosopher who lived with a wolf
An excellent account of teaching a wild animal is found in a book by my former student, Mark Rowlands, The Philosopher and the Wolf, Lessons from the wild on love, death and happiness.
I admitted Mark as a philosophy student at Manchester University. He was a fellow hard drinking Welshman, and making his living out of boxing matches in the very tough Moss Side area of Manchester where I lived at the time. After graduation he went to Alabama where he met his wolf.
Mark brought the wolf over to the UK and kept it in his home for over ten years. They taught each other how to live together and shared their lives until the wolf was finally nursed by Mark during the end stages of its life.
Mark’s book captures advice I give to all aspiring writers; acknowledge and apply Ludwig Wittgenstein’s distinction between saying something and showing it. The subtitle of Mark’s book is indicative of what is actually shown, not said.
Don’t try to say what should only be shown. What can be said makes easy reading but showing something within the words, transcends the limits of language into an ethical sphere.
Mark’s book will make you laugh and certainly make you cry, but beyond what he says is an insight into virtues and values which make the great writer.
Perhaps I should end this piece with a short video from Mark, who is now rated as a world leading philosopher. Here he tells us what is actually shown in all of his books: the value of life.