11/10/2013 08:31 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Why Are We So Horrible to Other Animals?

Some animals inflict dreadful pain on others. Some chimps and lions engage in infanticide. Bottlenose dolphins have been seen to kill for fun, or at least for no obvious gain (like food or territory). Orang-utans sometimes rape females of their species. Domestic cats play with mice they have wounded. All of which humans might describe as cruel.

But cruelty means the deliberate - the planned intention - to inflict pain. We cannot know how much forethought might be involved when other animals attack each other. But - since we associate intention with responsibility - we do know that we would not hold them responsible for their actions.

Perhaps that is one of the greatest differences between humans and other animals: that, unlike them, we understand what cruelty is. Yet when it comes to its infliction the scale and extent to which we are capable of imposing torment and misery is phenomenal.

Kopi Luak is the most expensive coffee in the world and costs hundreds of pounds a kilo. Extracted from the faeces of civets - cat-sized wild animals that are similar to mongooses whose diet includes the fruit of the coffee plant - aficionados claim the fermentation that takes place in the digestive tract improves the flavour by adding a musk-like aroma. Traditionally the digested coffee beans were collected in the wild. But now - in China, Vietnam, India and the Philippines - civets are being reared in battery cages and force fed the beans. Undercover filming has shown these naturally solitary, shy and nocturnal animals cowering in corners of filthy, barren cages, one animal gnawing at its own legs, others passing blood in their urine. They have nowhere to hide; no space to exercise. Mortality is high. But poachers ensure a good supply of replacements.

Bears are also unfortunate. Of all animals their bile has the highest content of UDCA (Ursodeoxycholic acid) and for that reason bear bile is much in demand in Chinese medicine. Traditionally brown bears were killed for their gall bladders but now - in China, South Korea, Laos and Vietnam - they are farmed for their bile. Bears on bile farms might spend 10 - 12 years in 'crush cages' in which they cannot move. Twice a day bile is milked through a catheter, a technique that is not only painful and intrusive but a pathway for infection. Bears have been seen moaning, banging theirs heads against cages and chewing their own paws. These animals are malnourished, dehydrated, diseased; with atrophied muscles; often with multiple tumours; and some have teeth and claws extracted. Mortality is high. Yet UDCA is available in synthetic form and there are also herbal alternatives.

All over the world animals are kept in cramped, barren cages: mink, chinchilla and foxes for their fur; hens, quail and game birds for their eggs; rabbits, piglets and dogs for their meat; ducks for their liver. Sows in gestation crates. Calves in hutches. Dairy cows and goats in stalls.

We hardly give a thought to what it might be like for the animals that suffer for our idiosyncrasies and faddish whims. Civet coffee is not much more than a scatological gimmick - which is why Stephen Fry gave some to Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles as a wedding present. Those in China who buy tiny living turtles or fish in plastic bags as ornaments for their key rings are mindlessly indulging in the latest fad. Bacon butties and shish kebabs are likely to be eaten with similar indifference. But that does not mean we do not understand our involvement with the cruelty involved. Or that we are incapable of feeling responsible. Sometimes some of us even take pity.

Petitions are written and signed. And sometimes results are achieved. Thanks to a Viva! petition Amazon no longer permits the sale of foie gras. The petition against farming bears for bile has resulted in the Chinese Government closing some bear farms - although progress is slow. There are petitions against farming civets: 50,000 on the petition to Harrods to stop stocking civet coffee. There is even a petition against using living creatures in key chains. The Companion in World Farming Trust's petition to bring attention to the dreadful conditions that thousands of Europe's pigs endure in contravention of EU legislation has over a quarter of a million signatures

But we all know the reality: that humans' inhumanity and gratuitous disdain towards the animals in our control will continue. Nevertheless, when petitions are signed and a little more thought is given to what we eat, wear, use for medicine, the number of animals that are forced to suffer so dreadfully might be just a little smaller.