I'm sorry, but Phoenix must die

April 26, 2001  The Independent (London) by Paul Vallely

INEVITABLY, THEY called it Phoenix. Loyal readers of this newspaper could be forgiven for not knowing this fact. But several other papers yesterday were emblazoned with the news that a calf had been found alive among a pile of cattle and sheep, slaughtered in a foot-and-mouth cull in Devon. The farmer who owned it was now defying an order from Maff vets to allow the animal to be killed, anyway.

Even by the grotesquely sentimental standards of the British public's attitude to anything small and furry, there was something singular about this. "The calf they couldn't cull fights on," said the front page of The Telegraph in its new guise as "The Farmer's Daily". "Save Phoenix from Ashes," proclaimed The Mirror, which evidently felt that its readers needed the full-out version of the classical reference.

The vocabulary was revealing, too. The "traumatised" female calf had been found "huddled" according to a red-top - or "nestling", as the more lyrical turn of phrase of a posh paper preferred - "beside her mum". The victim of this anthropomorphism was now "recovering in the tender care of farmer Michaela", who was quoted at length to the effect that "she's a lovely calf" and revealing that "she's been out playing with the dogs".

A drama had ensued. The farmer had insisted that the calf could now not be slaughtered. It was being bottle-fed indoors and was therefore effectively in quarantine at the farm near Membury. The ministry rejected the notion. The calf was an animal on a farm contiguous to a foot-and-mouth outbreak, and therefore under government policy had to die. Two vets, a Maff official and two policemen eventually left the farm after a brief stand-off, warning that they would return with a court order. Then the animal rights brigade joined the fray. "She should be spared," said a spokesman for Hillside Farm Animal Charity, "she's been through enough."

More than two million animals have been slaughtered in this country in the past two months. By and large, the public have accepted the fact as an unpleasant necessity. How then, you might wonder, can one single animal come to be seen in such a different light? It was accorded the kind of treatment that might have been given to a child pulled alive from the rubble of some foreign earthquake. The arguments applied were as emotional as those that might have been used of some condemned figure whose Death Row captors had bungled the execution and therefore must commute the sentence for fear of being accused of cruel and unusual punishment. Why can millions of animals be despatched with matter-of-fact efficiency, and yet one calf be so agonised over?

Cynics might suggest that the subsidy junkies of the farming industry will stoop to any propaganda trick to elicit the sympathy of the public. But that is not sufficient explanation. There is a genuine ambivalence in the attitude of many farmers I have spoken to all over the country during the current crisis.

"We have known and nurtured these animals since birth," one farmer's wife told me. "How would you feel if someone came to your home and set about killing your pets?" Such a sentiment seems downright disingenuous coming from a group that quite happily eventually sends the same animals off to the abattoir. Yet when you say so, the farmer's wife looks hurt. "You don't understand," she says. "It is quite possible to feel for an animal, and care for it as well as you can, until the moment comes when it has to go to market."

There is, of course, a muddle at the heart of such thinking. After all, animals would recover from foot-and-mouth in a few weeks if the disease were simply left to run its course. It is just that the beasts at the end would not be worth much. The smoke rising from the long pyres is a holocaust to the god whose name is Productivity rather than Necessity. Livestock prices and the export market are a greater concern than animal welfare here.

Yet if farmers' thinking is muddled, then so, too is that of the rest of us. We may want to save one calf and turn our noses away from the acrid smoke that hides the slaughter of two million more. But what care do we give for the 30 million animals that are routinely slaughtered to keep us in meat and shoe leather in any normal year? Let Phoenix live, we say, and then we allow her to grow into a cow doomed - thanks to our clever selective-breeding techniques - to udders stretched to the point where she will produce 10 times more milk a year than her own calves could ever possibly need.

I speak from no position of righteousness in this. I drink that milk, just as I eat the bacon which - like most British pig meat - is industrially produced from beasts who spend their lives cramped in dimly-lit sheds on slatted floors, and where the animals get so distressed they start biting each other's tails. Small wonder that 95 per cent of the 13 million pigs slaughtered in the UK in the past year carried the most common food poisoning bug, according to a recent report. (It was on a pig farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall in Northumberland that the current outbreak began in February, you will recall).

And although I make the effort to buy organic free-range in the supermarket, I happily eat chicken in a sandwich bar or a Chinese take-away - and banish the inconvenient thought that it probably was raised in worse conditions than the pigs - in some dark, cramped barn, starved of fresh air and light, among birds bred to grow so fast that their legs splay under the weight of their unnaturally swollen bodies, their beaks clipped to stop them pecking each other, routinely fed antibiotics to pre-empt disease. (Chickens now consume more antibiotics than people do).

You might expect the animal rightists to thunder on about this, just as you might have supposed they would have been out at the farm gates protesting against the Maff death squads. Instead, they have been strangely silent. Perhaps it is not so satisfying to campaign on such mundane welfare issues as it is to fight the far easier battle against a few toff fox- hunters or vulnerable medical research scientists.

In any case, we have made some progress. We have stopped force-feeding natural herbivores with the minced remains of BSE-inducing dead chickens. We have outlawed veal crates and sow stalls. And battery cages for chickens are to be banned by 2012. But what do we know of the conditions in which the meat is produced that we routinely import from Uruguay, Brazil, Zimbabwe or Thailand - to feed the appetite for cheap meat of the same public that bills and coos over Phoenix the calf?

Not that there is much new in such paradoxes. We had something similar, you may recall, at Easter, when some papers carried prominent photographs of a lamb floundering in a quagmire of mud on a Norfolk farm. The animal, mused one tabloid in peculiarly poetic mode, "features in nursery rhymes and holy writings, and the image of the gambolling lamb is deeply embedded in our national consciousness. That such scenes as this are occurring all over Britain on Good Friday is a terrible irony". The benighted creature would be dead by Easter, it lamented.

The truth is, of course, that many lambs were dead not just by Easter, but for Easter, bred to the Paschal plate just as the unknowing turkey is timed for Christmas. There was no one to bemoan their fate with fluting notes of pastoral eulogy. Rather, there were kitchens full of people preparing mint sauce.

I am not complaining at that fact. After all, we are still a nation of carnivores and - animal crises notwithstanding - seem likely to remain so. All I am concluding is that, so far as animals are concerned, in the absence of kindness, we might at least make do with honesty. Kill Phoenix the calf now, I say, and get it over with.

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