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     Volume 5 Issue 79 | January 20, 2006 |

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Food For Thought

It's a Dog's life
But it could be worse

Farah Ghuznavi

Having co-habited over the years with a variety of domestic pets, I consider my credentials as a card-carrying animal-lover to be well-established. Our household menagerie has included - at different times, fortunately - a total of around fifteen dogs, five or six cats, a rabbit, a few birds (before I could no longer ignore my feeling that keeping birds in cages is cruel) and even, on one occasion, two small tortoises (which insisted on enlivening our lives by regularly engineering great escapes from the enormous earthenware bowl that served as their home, only to curl protectively into their shells when the dogs started sniffing too closely at them).

Nevertheless, I confess to having limited patience with people in Europe, Japan and the US who send their dogs to "canine beauty parlours" for manicures and pedicures (otherwise known as clipping their nails, which can be done rather more cheaply at home) or even worse, "animal gyms", where pets can be exercised by "professional trainers" when they have the misfortune of belonging to people who are too lazy to take them for walks! The worst though, has to be a craze that originated in California, where pampered dogs and cats were dressed up as "brides and grooms" for faux wedding ceremonies (no, unfortunately I'm not making this up). Please note that inter-species wedding ceremonies were frowned upon…

But while the majority of us are most familiar with animals as pets (who are in some cases, treated more like children), the lives of other animals can be very different from those of beloved household pets. While cockfighting, badger baiting and now, thankfully, foxhunting with dogs has been banned in countries like the UK, using animals for sport continues to be widespread in many parts of the world, often in very cruel forms.

Sometimes, of course, what people come up with is just plain weird! In Shanghai, thousands of residents have been flocking to a park in the city to watch pigs compete in the "Pig Olympics", where the animals run over hurdles, jump through hoops, dive and then do lengths in swimming pools. The pigs are a special species from Thailand, and begin training soon after birth, beginning to perform professionally from around the age of one year.

There are also "official" pets which are not only pampered, but also lead high-profile lives! Like the Queen's corgis, or the Scotties which belong to the current incumbent of the White House, and featured in their own Christmas home movie this year (perhaps in the hope of distracting attention from the fiasco in Iraq) - distributed, among others, to the BBC…

Lower-level official animals include the Civil Service "mouser" a cat which was officially applied for in the 1929 budget of the British civil service, for the stated purpose of killing mice. This begs the question, of course, as to why there were any mice in the corridors of power, and whether "employing" a single cat would be sufficient to deal with the problem! It is also curious that civil servants would not prefer to just live with the mice - in the hope of having a good excuse for explaining away the mysterious disappearance of the occasional file! - rather than hiring a cat…

Whatever the case, the pedigreed Manx cat obtained under the budgetary allocation in 1964 Peta was not good at her job. Indeed, by 1967, a directive had to be issued to staff not to feed her, as she was already inordinately fat (and therefore, unsurprisingly, not very interested in mice!). This was followed, perhaps inevitably, by Peta's retirement "to the country" in 1976…

And such an enforced retirement in fact seems to be the thing to do when "official animals" are not up to scratch (no pun intended). Humphrey, the Downing Street cat was rumoured not to be a great favourite with Cherie Blair, when she and her husband took up residence there. There are a number of unsubstantiated allegations floating around as to Humphrey's fate. Although a one and a half inch thick civil service file still exists on the cat, Humphrey himself disappeared in 1997 to an unspecified location!

Sometimes, of course, working animals do generate more respect among their human counterparts. This is particularly true of animals with "professional" jobs. The excellent series shown on Animal Planet and National Geographic channels entitled "Dogs with Jobs" provides some interesting examples of what trained animals are capable of doing - from sniffing out drug smugglers at airports, to working as lifeguards, capable of rescuing distressed swimmers!

And then, there are working animals that are treated with a higher level of respect altogether. The ravens at the Tower of England hold an important place in mythology, because legend says that as long as the ravens are seen at the Tower, the monarchy will survive.

These ravens, which are looked after by the raven master at the Tower, are treated as military personnel, with references to them being "enlisted" into service and even "dismissed" for unbecoming conduct. Raven George ("enlisted in 1975") found this out to his detriment in 1986, when he was dismissed for "conduct unsatisfactory" i.e. his wanton destruction of TV aerials, after which he was retired to the Welsh Mountain Zoo - presumably the equivalent of "bonobash" (being banished into exile) for a city bird…

Clearly not all of the ravens have enjoyed their period of service in this demanding job. Another raven named Grog packed it in after 21 years of service, finally choosing to desert rather than continue his duties (perhaps he felt unappreciated?). According to the UK Independent, he was last seen outside a pub in the East End of London...



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