Responsibility for animals used by man rests with us both morally and legally, including for animals we “watch”. This association chose to discuss at its most recent symposium the topic of Animals in Entertainment. One of the papers considered the subject of ethical tourism. When I was in New Zealand earlier this year I engaged in watching sperm whales, dusky dolphins, fur seals, yellow eyed and blue penguins and Southern albatross, and I enjoyed the experience of observing and learning more about these animals. These are all wild animals living in their natural environment and I was impressed with the degree of care and planning that went into licensing and operating these activities for tourists. In the case of penguins and albatrosses the fact that there was a charge meant that money could be returned into research, care for sick and injured animals and providing protection for nest sites. Times and numbers of visitors were strictly controlled and it was unlikely that the birds could see the visitors although we did have to be silent – difficult when you are seeing something so exciting for the first time.
However when I was on the open sea and able by chance to observe a feeding frenzy of tens of thousands of barracuda and tuna on Antarctic krill, fur seals hanging upside down in the water waiting for the fish to swim into their open mouths, and albatrosses and shearwaters trying to steal a meal from the fur seals when they surfaced to breathe, I felt this was a “David Attenborough” moment. But were we actually causing any harm or distress to these wild creatures? I did not think about boat engine noise, pollution from exhaust, bilge water, small amounts of oil that seep into the water until afterwards. I was not fulfilling the concept of “Take nothing away, leave nothing behind”. Organisations like Born Free foundation, SPANA, WSPA and Brooke are all in their different ways urging us to be more careful and responsible about our activities when we travel abroad. Ethical tourism is possible but needs a great deal of thought and planning by the operators and the customers alike. Even the Daily Telegraph of 4 August 2012 urges us to do our homework before we go abroad and importantly to report observed abuse and lack of care to the appropriate authorities.
Other animals may need more positive attention. All people who care for animals know that this involves obligations such as inspection to ensure that they are healthy, uninjured and alive. But how often should these inspections occur? Every day? Every week? What about once in 6 years? Shrek was a hermit merino sheep who evaded musters at the Bendigo station, Tarras, Central Otago High County in New Zealand south island. He was eventually found carrying 25kg of wool and could not see for the wool hanging over his eyes. When he was shorn and the wool given up for a children’s charity (Cure Kids) this caught international media attention. But Shrek was in need of much special care and had to wear a coat to keep him warm after he was shorn. This story is true and had a happy (and televised) ending, but it illustrates the difficulties of caring for animals that are kept on very large stations where gathering sheep for routine tasks like shearing is difficult and daily inspections are not possible. In fact gathering sheep kept on 50,000 acres has to be done by using a helicopter, and as this account illustrates not all sheep can be attended to.
And it is not only abroad where attention can be lacking, as I was reminded by the car sticker campaign “Don’t Cook Your Dog” supported by Dogs Today, British Veterinary Association and Missyredboots. The power of social media in this case also illustrates that tweets and facebook posts can have dramatic and immediate effect by gathering attention and spreading messages globally within a few minutes – incidentally about the same time it takes for a dog to die in a car from heat stress.
For many years now I have supported Guide Dogs, one of my favourite animal/man interface charities. However it is very distressing to me and much more so for the guide dogs and their visually impaired owners, that these dogs are being subject to unprovoked attacks from other uncontrolled dogs. The association is spending money on research to help understand what is different about working guide dogs that seems to make them vulnerable. Some dogs even have to be retired early from useful work because they are becoming too stressed. Mankind is well served by these faithful companions and we owe them the best possible life in return. Assistance dogs provide a wide range of help and support to man. In addition to guide dogs, there are hearing dogs for the deaf, dogs for the disabled, ‘PAT’ dogs that go into schools and hospitals, medical detection dogs that can draw attention to an impending epileptic seizure or provide alerts to people who may have cancer. This assistance is not all directed towards individuals. Dogs are also used to provide protection for the greater public when used for detecting drugs, explosives or bush meat and for mountain rescue. And animals can also benefit from each other. The Pet Blood Bank is a dog-centred charity, well organised and caring for its donor dogs, whose donations are not voluntary but the outcomes may well be life saving to another dog.
In this column I have touched upon a number of issues concerning how we attend to animals in our lives socially, professionally and on holiday, because we all have to think quite widely about how we relate to animals in our lives.
Thank you for your support to AWSELVA and I look forward to our future meetings.