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So, does a dog really make a better pet than a cat ... or is that just barking mad?

Published 27/01/2016

TV rivalry: Cats Vs Dogs: Which Is Best? presenters Liz Bonnin and Chris Packham
TV rivalry: Cats Vs Dogs: Which Is Best? presenters Liz Bonnin and Chris Packham
Voicing criticism: Chris Packham

Are you a die-hard canine person, or self-confessed cat lover? As BBC Two sets out to decipher which four-legged friend makes the best pet, presenter Chris Packham tells Gemma Dunn why he won't rest until animal cruelty is stamped out for good.

It's a debate that has long divided a nation of animal lovers, and while it seems there can be no definitive answer, BBC Two's latest two-part factual series promises to get as close as is possible to resolving the issue once and for all. At least in science terms.

Presented by self-confessed dog-lover Chris Packham and cat-fan Liz Bonnin, Cats V Dogs: Which Is Best? takes the age-old rivalry and bumps it up a notch, introducing cutting-edge scientific research from around the world and a specially-commissioned "pet census" to discover exactly how the public feel about our canine chums and feline friends.

"The contest focuses on the attributes of both cats and dogs as species in their own right, but also with their connection to us," Chris explains. "What makes a cat a good pet? Or a dog? Why are people drawn to cats as opposed to dogs, and vice versa.

"To make it a bit of fun, we took sides. I championed the cause for the dogs, as my dogs are the epicentre of my universe - they are the most loved and spoilt dogs in the world and a really big part of my life."

And while the wildlife expert insists the competitive nature is just a bit of fun ("I don't dislike cats in any way - I rather admire them"), it seems the proof is in the pudding.

"There is good science behind the series. We were serious in our investigation and we do conclude - although Liz may argue - very crudely speaking, dogs are more domesticated."

It's a triumph the Southampton-born 54-year-old - recognised for his work on children's nature series The Really Wild Show in the late Eighties and, of course, being part of the Springwatch, Autumnwatch and Winterwatch team - credits to a series of demonstrations in the UK and beyond.

"Our first show is about the animals, the species, how they square up - which is stronger, fitter, faster, more intelligent, and we really get to the bottom of those debates.

"There's little ambiguity about the science - there's a bit of banter, as Liz and I try to discredit each other's sides, but that's the fun element. The factual element is there are differences between them, and we can say that dogs are more intelligent, but cats are faster. Dogs have more stamina, dogs can count, dogs can read facial expressions and so on."

In contrast, the second edition looks at which is the "better" - and more loving - pet, based on groundbreaking US research around the "love hormone" oxytocin - an experiment in which Packham includes his beloved poodles, Itchy and Scratchy.

"As they got older, they've become more clingy and don't like me leaving," says the TV personality, who lives in the New Forest with long-term partner, Charlotte Corney, director of Isle of Wight Zoo.

"I'm going away tomorrow morning and had to lock them downstairs when I was packing earlier, as otherwise they'll get in the suitcase and start taking my clothes out - it's like Disney."

They'll have to get used to him being away, though, as he gears up for a busy 2016, which, among other things, will also include the publication of his much-anticipated memoir, Fingers In The Sparkle Jar.

"A number of people had asked me previously to write an autobiography," he reveals. "I think anyone under 50 that does, is a little bit presumptuous, but I steered clear of that.

"I wanted to write a book about something that was relatively profound, I suppose. So the memoir is a vehicle; it's my life from six to 16 years of age, and explores how we develop an appreciation for life - both animal life and life generally.

"It's also about how we grapple for an understanding of death. From a very young age, I was obsessed with wildlife and I loved living things, but at the same time, I was, like all little kids, having to come to terms with why things died and what happened when they did."

In terms of the writing process being cathartic, Chris - whose sister is fashion designer Jenny Packham - isn't sold.

"I haven't reached a point where I've thought, 'Well that's done me the world of good', you know? It's a very honest and frank memoir; I can only really tell the truth. I'm not one of those people that only prints what they think other people want to see, so I think it'll raise a number of questions, but that's all part and parcel of it. I want people to think about what I'm writing about."

Admittedly not one to mince his words, he courted controversy last year when Countryside Alliance tried - and failed - to have him sacked from the BBC after he criticised conservation groups for "sitting on the fence" over fox hunting, badger culling and the plight of hen harriers in his BBC Wildlife magazine column.

More recently, he directed his "disbelief" at Amazing Animals, a company that loans out animals, including big cats, for film and photographic projects - but not because of its core purpose ("I can understand why an advertiser would want a tiger in an advert; it's one of nature's greatest masterpieces"), rather due to images that showed lions being used in a circus setting.

"These animals are being used purely for outdated entertainment," Chris explains. "My partner has a zoo, so I'm not anti-captured animals, but they have to be there for engagement, education and then conservation, and I don't think cracking sticks together to make a lion sit up and beg in a cage ticks any of those boxes.

"The fact that people would pay to sit down and watch that, I find really distressing," he adds. "That means my colleagues and I are failing in our duty to educate people ... We've got to work harder, so that everyone realises it's morally and socially unacceptable."

Quoting the numerous opposing internet pages created in response to Cecil the lion's pre-planned killing in a paid-for hunt last year as a "landmark moment", and heartened at the recent backlash to ITV's I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! using live creatures in bushtucker trials, the presenter is confident that the mistreatment of animals will one day be "stamped out".

"It's only a matter of time. I feel positive and optimistic at the moment, as I feel we're making progress more rapidly."

In a bid to do his bit to help, he pledges to "get up earlier and earlier and work harder and harder".

"I want to make a small difference before I die," he says. "We can't rest until everything is sorted.

"I know that's a utopian vision, but you've got to aim for it."

  • Cats V Dogs: Which Is Best? starts on BBC Two next Thursday at 8pm

Belfast Telegraph

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