Stories of animal cruelty are ones that get me in gut
There are some news stories I don't want to read, because I know they'll break my heart. But here's a terrible admission. They're not the ones about human suffering. They're the stories about animal cruelty.
When Jagger, the Irish red setter, was apparently poisoned after taking part in Crufts, I took one look at the picture of his big gentle face, his brown eyes and soft floppy ears, and I put the paper down. It doesn't even have to be a case of extreme cruelty. It really pained me to learn about Kai, the shar-pei dog who was recently left tied to railings outside Ayr train station, alongside a suitcase containing all his worldly possessions: a pillow, a toy, his bowl and some food. The way Kai sat there on his haunches, expectantly waiting for his owner to come back and get him, was terribly poignant.
Let me just say here, I'm not some mad Animal Liberation Front nutcase. I don't go round throwing fake blood at people in fur coats or shrieking in the faces of four-year-old children who want to go to the circus. I'm not even vegetarian, let alone vegan. I like my steaks cooked rare.
But there is something deeply affecting and almost unbearably sad about animals being hurt or mistreated. Is this worse than witnessing human suffering? Worse than, say, the anguish endured by victims of war crimes? No, of course not. A human life is always more valuable than that of an animal. And there are accounts of human misery that I struggle to come to terms with too, especially stories about sick or damaged children. But for some reason it's the sad-eyed dogs, and other dumb wounded creatures, that really get me in the guts.
And I know I'm not alone in this. Indeed, animal abuse, or indeed any kind of tragedy or injustice involving animals, often seems to result in mass public expressions of collective outrage, in a way that even child abuse rarely does.
Remember the case of Lennox, the illegal pitbull-type dog who was put down by Belfast City Council, despite a huge campaign to save him? Everyone from First Minister Peter Robinson to the celebrity dog-trainer Victoria Stillwell got involved, social media was buzzing with indignation, and the issue seized the imagination and sympathy of people from right across the world. At one point the Facebook page of Belfast's official tourism site shut down after being inundated with messages from the dog's well-wishers and supporters. But the Lennox case also illustrates the dangers when people act on desperate gut-feeling, bypassing their brain. The city council said that staff had been subject to intimidation and abuse, including death threats by campaigners. Something's gone very badly wrong when people trying to save a dog's life attempt to achieve this by threatening the lives of human beings. That's the crazed logic of animal rights terrorists, who feel justified in firebombing the homes of scientists doing experiments on primates.
There's no doubt that many of us experience a strong emotional reaction when it comes to suffering creatures. The question is - why? Some say it's because we tend to anthropomorphise our own pets, ascribing human characteristics to them, treating them as another member of the family.
Guilty as charged: in my own family, we attribute the full range of emotions to our dalmatian Rudi, from crippling remorse when he raids the bathroom bin, to a special kind of earnest affection he gives when someone is feeling sad or ill. Possibly this is all in our heads, but it goes some way towards explaining why we might extend those beliefs to other animals. In the same way, people who aren't dog-lovers might struggle to understand how Jagger's owner, Aleksandra Lauwers, could describe her poisoned dog as "my beautiful child".
They aren't necessarily the words I would choose, but I can deeply empathise with her distress. Our dogs give us such unquestioning, unconditional love and loyalty that the idea of any harm coming to them is grotesque.
Most persuasive of all, I think, is the fact that animals are innocent, beautiful, powerless creatures. They are entirely at our mercy. And while we may think we see human attributes in them at times, the truth is that they are entirely untainted by the worst excesses of humanity: evil, mendacity, corruption, exploitation. After all, even innocent little children sometimes grow up to be vicious and hateful adults. But animals never do.