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Manchester Dogs' Home Fire: What Does It Say About How We See Animals?

19/09/2014 12:11 BST | Updated 18/11/2014 10:59 GMT

Last week's news of the fire in the Manchester Dogs' Home was heart-breaking. It's not hard to imagine how the dogs must have felt - hearts racing, feelings of panic and desperation, as one-by-one the other residents fell silent, the smoke becoming too much for their little bodies to bear. People were united in their sadness at the sheer unfairness of 60 lives being taken so wantonly, so unnecessarily.

There was some comfort to be drawn from the generosity of the public response. Whilst no amount of fundraising will bring back lost lives, it may improve the lives of those who remain, as well as those who need shelter in future.

However, there's something about this story, beyond the loss of these dogs' lives, which reveals a double standard. One week previous, there was a fire in Andover, which killed a family of pigs. It would be reasonable to assume each pig felt just as afraid, just as desperate to survive, as the dogs in Manchester. Yet for some reason, the incident barely registered in the public consciousness. There was no outpouring of grief, no public anger about the incident that led to their unnecessary deaths.

Why could this be? Was it just a one-off that hadn't been picked up by the mainstream media? It doesn't appear to be. Incidents like this, involving farmed animals, aren't uncommon. In April, a fire in Northern Ireland killed 2,500 pigs, and only last week a fire in Russia killed half a million chickens.

The reporting of such stories is handled very differently to the Manchester story. Their emphasis is usually on property loss rather than the tragedy of lost lives. Imagine people's response if the dogs' home fire was reported in this way? People were outraged at Jack P. Shepherd joking about dogs but nobody batted an eyelid when the Northern Ireland fire was referred to as 'hamageddon'. And this is the problem: when a tragedy involves farmed animals, it just doesn't elicit the same kind of emotional response for most people as it does when animals who we regard as pets are involved. Is there a good reason for this? What is so different between a dog and a pig that the needless deaths of one species can cause mass outpourings of grief whilst the deaths of the other barely even register?

If we wish to be completely honest with ourselves, then we need to acknowledge that there really isn't that much difference between dogs, chickens, and pigs, at least not in the sense that they all suffer, all value their lives, and wouldn't like to die. As Philip Wollen said in his well-known speech, 'In their capacity to feel pain and fear, a pig is a dog is a bear is a boy'. Of course he is absolutely right; the reasons we love some and eat others really are arbitrary.

The matter becomes even more poignant when we acknowledge that there is no longer a dispute over whether we need to use animal products to live a full and healthy life. The United Nations has urged people to move towards a meat and dairy-free diet. The British, American, and Canadian dietetic associations all state that people at any stage of life can live healthily on a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet. Knowing that it is not necessary to use and kill animals for food, how can we honestly justify continuing to do it? What makes the unnecessary deaths of farmed animals any less of a travesty than the unnecessary deaths of animals we regard as pets?

We have seen this last week that a great many people strongly believe strongly it is wrong to kill animals unnecessarily. We know it is not necessary to use animals to live and thrive. So is it not time that we asked ourselves, why do we love some but kill others? I know some people will argue that animal products taste good, that this is the way we've always done things, that it's tradition, that we don't know any other way. I understand those reactions - there was a time when I used to think along similar lines. But let's be serious for a moment: are any of these really a good enough reason to carry on killing animals? I don't think that many people would believe so, deep down, if they were to really think about it.

So that presents a dilemma. If we really believe it is wrong to unnecessarily kill animals, and we know that it is not necessary to use or kill animals to live and thrive, how can we continue to do so? Surely if we believe it is wrong to harm or kill animals unnecessarily, the only way we can live consistently with that belief is to go vegan?