THE BLOG

Things NOT to Do When You Are 11 ¾ - Or Ever, Four: Keep a Pet In a Cage

17/11/2014 13:52 GMT | Updated 15/01/2015 10:59 GMT

A robin in a cage? Wouldn't that be cruel? And, odd?

It would certainly be illegal. In the UK it's against the law to keep British wild birds in a cage. But caging non-native species like budgerigars and other parrots? That's legal. Goldfinches - Siberian, Himalayan, Gouldian or zebra? That too is sanctioned by law. But the UK's European goldfinch? If you confined one of those you could be prosecuted.

How perverse! That a law allows some birds to be re-invented as 'cagebirds' but others not. In doing so it seems an endorsement. The law permits it therefore it must be right. The same regulations apply to a host of other animals we call pets and keep in cages: hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs; rats and mice; chinchillas, rabbits; a host of 'exotic' birds. Not to mention reptiles. And monkeys.

But what must life be like for them? Their owners profess to love them and, with affection, indulge them with treats and toys. But that pandering is from a human perspective, not an animal's. However enhanced, a cage is still a cage.

Budgerigars are the world's most popular pet bird. In their natural habitat - the deserts and dry grassland of Australia's outback - they fly up to 400km a day. Being social birds they need company. Robins on the other hand are solitary - they will fight to the death to defend their territory. You could say a robin might be more suitable for caging. But that wouldn't make it right.

Like humans, animals need freedom: the freedom to forage for food; choose which of their kind they like to spend time with; the freedom to choose a mate; to live in a place of their choice; and the the freedom to fly, run or hop, depending on their species, wherever they like.

Just a couple of rabbit hops cover 7 feet. Surely that makes the average rabbit hutch - even with a run - cruel? The plight of all those other animals we call pets and whose incarceration is permitted by law is no different. Their lot is, in effect, torture. Because, whichever way you look at it, the opposite of freedom is imprisonment. If pets could talk what would they say? Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple) puts it this way:

"Animals can communicate quite well. And they do. And generally speaking they are ignored."

Given a choice would any animal choose to be trapped in a cage?

That animals feel emotions just as humans do is well documented. Darwin, in The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, was in no doubt that animals, from dolphins to goats, feel anxiety, grief, despair, anger, joy, devotion, boredom - this last a tedium that owners of pets often feel once the novelty of their new possession has worn off. Though surely not to the anguished degree that trapped, listless, miserable pets must feel it.

To cage an animal is to treat it appallingly - the cage alone is proof of that. The cruelty is seldom willful but largely due to the ignorance of their owners who misunderstand their animal's needs. As if being confined wasn't bad enough. At best owners keep their caged pets clean and fed and watered, with one or two toys as a pathetic attempt to serve their needs. But many owners have as little concern for their caged pets as they have for a discarded bauble, thoughtlessly ignoring them without the slightest consideration that they might be lonely, miserable and longing for freedom.

If you really do like animals and want to know about them watch them in the wild. Capture them on camera. With binoculars watch how they behave in their natural surroundings, how they behave with each other, how they nurture their young, how much they play, the fun they have. And how like us they are. To listen to their sounds and watch their movements is to be surprised at how much they communicate. Notice how they like being with some of the individuals in their group yet seem not to get on with others - just like humans. None of these things could you learn from observing animals in a cages.

The worst thing for humans is solitary confinement. Why would it be any different for the animals we call pets?

Better, surely, to have a camera, a pair of binoculars, a sketching kit, a wildlife camera-trap or a book. But not, absolutely not, a 'pet' to keep as removed from a natural existence as it could possibly be.