Cordelia and the Fur Babies

In the last scene of one of Shakespeare’s grimmest tragedies, King Lear, an old and broken man weeps for his dead daughter, Cordelia:

No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Oh, thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never. 

Surely one of the most powerful scenes in English literature, these few lines have brought generations to tears as they remind us of the awfulness of death and loss, particularly when the victim is a young and loving human being whose fate is absurdly unjust. Generations until now, anyway.

Today the point has probably been blunted for many of us by a gradual change in thinking.  Animals have never had legal rights in any human society, but there is a growing view that the protections our nineteenth century forbears introduced to restrain cruelty to animals should be extended, in our more enlightened times, to give them actual rights in law.  There is now a vegetarian or two in every family, usually young persons who are so disgusted by the thought of eating animals that they will abstain themselves and try to persuade their parents or siblings to do likewise.  Many go a step further and become vegans: they avoid any use of animals, not only directly as food, but indirectly as providers of food: milk products and eggs are off the menu. As for wearing leather, don’t even think about it! 

I respect this view up to a point – my family is no exception to the modern norm – but I suspect it of being very much a First-World phenomenon.  It thrives in strongly town-based societies where food options are plentiful and affordable, and actual choices can be made.  Not all communities have that luxury, though: poor people eat what they can when pickings are meagre, and the custom of eating any kind of meat is difficult to break where alternatives are few.

So why has this taken off in the West?  Our parents and grandparents might have called it faddishness, but that won’t wash with today’s young, who will tell you that sheep and cattle have ‘as much right’ to live and prosper as we do.  Dogs may be mankind’s closest companions, but there was a time when they worked; today they are more likely to be petted, lovingly cared for and cosseted ‘fur-babies’, fed with a care that some folks in poorer countries would envy.  I don’t begrudge people their pets (because to be honest I have my own) but I have to say that there are questions to be answered about fairness and justice in a world where many die of hunger every year.  It is true that dogs, cats and even birds can be much loved and even life-saving helpers for lonely or sick people, loyal and affectionate mates for growing children – but are we going too far?  This is, or ought to be, a very troubling matter for our consciences.

If that is the only problem it’s bad enough.  But it has more serious implications. Fondness for pets readily transmutes into a kind of sentimentality, often detached from practicality, that makes life difficult if not actually absurd.  For example it is a criminal offence to kill a snake in most parts of Australia; having young children or pets in real or potential danger is no defence against the possibility of prosecution. Those who actually live in the country are scornful of the idea that snakes are a threatened species, for they are palpably plentiful and extremely dangerous.  Whenever a shark attack occurs there are vocal protests against any suggestion that the offending beast be caught and killed, despite the fact that shark meat (happily described as flake) is enormously popular in several states’ fish and chip shops. Currently there is a huge campaign to save the koala, though it is well known that their numbers have always fluctuated and that they are almost certainly more numerous today than they were at the time of European settlement.

The view that animals, all animals, have as much right to life as humans not only lacks discernment and common sense but is actually pernicious, for it blunts our perception of the seriousness of some terrible abuses. Infanticide, the starvation through greedy neglect of far too many of the world’s children, the viciousness of racial conflict and the criminal maladministration of some of the world’s poorer nations, all happen because other things have claimed higher priority in the minds of the prosperous middle-class elite that makes most of the world’s big decisions.

As the shelves of Western supermarkets fill with more and more ‘plant-based’ foods and vegan options, the opinion is spreading that a time will come when eating meat will seem as disgracefully immoral and outmoded as keeping slaves.  Carnivores will be as rare a species then as smokers are now. Could such views be well founded?  Who can be sure of anything in a world that changes as fast as ours?  Certainly meat is likely to become more expensive as the proportion of people in the world who can afford it grows and demand increases. Vegetable alternatives are becoming tastier and more interesting.  Moreover even unrepentant carnivores are very concerned about cruelty in food production: keeping hens in batteries and pigs or vealers in stalls goes beyond the ancient norms of husbandry.

If humanity has indeed been empowered (as many of the major religions teach) to manage and use with justice the fruits of the earth, then forced large-scale breeding, excessive use of pesticides, deprivation of free movement allowing normal feeding practices looks awfully like greed.  Personally I can see no ethical dilemma in eating animals that have been well cared for and humanely slain, but the scale and manner of the butchery may eventually compel us to greater restraint and a more balanced diet.

And the fact remains that Cordelia is more precious than any rat or horse or dog.  She is a human being with the power of reason and a spark of divinity and an eternal destiny to inherit.  The Greens and I will probably never agree on that point, though there is common ground in our shared belief that mankind has responsibilities towards the natural world, not mere opportunities for profit and gain at any cost, and that animals like us can suffer, give loyal service and truly love.   

David Daintree is the director of the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies

23 thoughts on “Cordelia and the Fur Babies

  • Mohsen says:

    Mr. Daintree, I admit it is my fault that I don’t understand what point it is you are making here; nevertheless, I’ll go ahead and post my opinion here.
    Actually, no, it is not a fact that Cordelia is more precious than any rat or horse or dog: sure, she is more precious for and to her dad, and a few or more souls; but I can assure you she is not more precious than that dog for the dog’s mother, and I can assure you between Cordelia dying and my cat dying, I choose and vote for Cordelia dying every time!
    There was never a time that dogs worked; there was a time that dogs were forced to work.
    I don’t understand what is the problem with vocally protesting against catching and killing the shark that had attacked people who were swimming; by catching and executing the shark you try to achieve what?

    Good and bad as opinions are defined by us humans; in the argument in what the definitions of good and bad are those who belong to the majority of the same belief will be the winner of the argument; hence, the meat-eaters don’t do anything disgraceful or immoral as their fellow meat-eaters constitute the majorities, so the majority has decided that meat eating is not immoral and disgraceful. When animals have plenty of food, when the threat to their number is reduced, their population would increase accordingly; how human and principled it would be if our population didn’t explode as today after we did achieve access to large amount of energy that brought us more food and advancement in medicine that brought us tools to fight diseases. Of course eating meat should have been defined as immoral and disgraceful: bringing death to a living being for the sake of filling stomach, a living being that hasn’t done anything wrong to us should have been defined as immoral and disgraceful!
    A puppy and a child are drowning in a river; only one can be saved. Saving which one is good? Saving which one is recommended? Well, sure, saving the child is recommended as if his parents find out that one chose saving the dog over their son, they certainly kick one’s butt; but saving which one is better? Actually, it’s the same: both are crying for their precious lives about to be lost; both are lives; both want to stay alive and to live to the same degree.
    I haven’t thought about who I think are the ugliest and most tasteless people, but certainly, those who “love” and “enjoy” fishing are among them: they have fun fishing and the fact that a living being right in front of their eyes is losing its precious life (them actually being responsible for the life being taken), screaming and crying, does not affect the fun they are having!!

  • Daffy says:

    I want to know why any random assemblage of molecules has any ‘rights’. We appraise from evolution that all living things are assemblages of molecules resulting from random chemical activity. What I want to know is why any have value. Why do animals, whose sentience is arguable, have any value whatsoever? One might argue that personality gives humans more value, but again, why, in a materialist conception has even that value judgement any value? That’s the first consideration, the metaethical basis for any value judgement.
    As it stands, the adulation of animals is mere sentimentality.

  • DougD says:

    I read a comment on an article about the carnage in the Russian invasion of Ukraine that asked us to spare a thought for the animals in the Kiev zoo. A sensitive soul from Carlton perhaps. But Mohsen – you are not alone!

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    There is a place for sentimentality about animals and hence kind and humane treatment.
    I broke my heart over ‘Black Beauty’ just as most other young girls did. I cried for Ginger’s death.
    But one’s own species comes first and we are a meat-eating species, evolved for it.
    Omnivores, yes, but definitely also meat eaters and we grow big when we eat meat.
    We are the inheritors of the earth and there is no gainsaying that in my book.
    We should guard it well. And enjoy its fruits as fully sentient beings. And still eat meat.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Plenty of pictures out of Ukraine show people carrying cat cages and leading dogs.
    But one wonders about the animals left behind. If ‘companion’ animals were completely sentient they would be terrified of being caged and dependent on humans. Thankfully, they are not aware of this, they stand in relationship to us as children do, only lower down in priorities when it comes to the cruch of war. The misery of a neglected dog or cat or zoo animal hits us like the misery of a neglected child; we admit them to our care responsibilities. I have no doubt that there are groups of people in Kiev organising to assist animals left in distress. Same as in Wuhan when people were throwing their ‘infected’ cats out of windows and animals were left crying in the streets. Kindly people collected and fed and cared for them. This is humane, and humans can be very humane. Especially about our own. Shakespeare let Lear cry for his daughter, and his own poem to the empty clothes of his dead eleven year old son Hamnet is a lament of the ages.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    I handed out How-to-Vote forms for the Australian Conservatives at the NSW State election. Two young women were sifting their handouts and one said to the other – “oh, the Animal Justice Party. That so good, that’s for animals, I’m going to vote for them.” So she no doubt did. In Melbourne, similar dippy young women then put into goverenment, on the cross benches, a deep-green Party that voted for Emergency measures that led to lockdowns causing both much human misery and even deaths.
    Well done, you two dippy females all fired up with enthusiasms the results of which you don’t understand.

  • lbloveday says:

    No matter how thoroughly trained dogs are, the wild beast lurks beneath and too often unleashes, as evidenced by about 13,000 Australians attending hospital and 2,500 being admitted each year as a result of dog attacks, and some killed – 27 in the last 10 year period I’ve seen figures for, mostly little children, none of whom knowingly antagonised the dog or were capable of defending themselves from these instinctively wild animals.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Growing up on a western NSW farm gave me a very different perspective on life than most city people seemed to have. My view was reinforced by several years living and teaching in the then TPNG. Relative to their numbers, ridiculously sentimental fools have long had far too much influence on public policy, but this imbalance seems to have become much worse in recent decades. The whole “green” movement seems to exist within a semi-closed system that permits the “exhaust” of their noxious nonsense, while preventing the “inlet” of contrary information.
    Mohsen seems to have little if any experience with dogs, let alone working dogs. Try to stop a sheep or cattle dog “working”, Mohsen. Leave one or two behind when you take others out to muster sheep or cattle, and you’ll realise that if force is ever required, it’s in stopping them working.
    People who don’t have the luxury of a well-stocked local supermarket or shopping mall within a few minutes easy travel are often forced to live on what they can grow, catch or kill. As the Covid and current flood disasters clearly prove, preciousness about the rights of animals rates a long way down the hierarchy of important survival issues.

  • maxpart27 says:

    Folks brought up in rural areas in contact with all the local life will have a different conception of life compared to an individual only city bred as are most Australians today. I would assume plant only eaters come from the latter backgrounds. The former will have had closer contact with cows, pigs, horses, sheep, kangaroos, rabbits, with the last being trapped, skinned, gutted and cooked for dinner in a humane manner. I have only shot one kangaroo. That was from a distance as it was hopping away. It dropped and when I got to it I was gazing into two large eyes with it being unable to rise. I do not think I would have felt any worse on shooting it again if the eyes had been in a human head. For a human to cheerfully inflict pain on another living creature has to be criminal. Waylon Johncock was able to legally stone a wombat to death while it screamed because he was Aboriginal. Other Australians cannot and hopefully they would not want to. The Family of All Life Alliance formed as a result of this behaviour and promotes respect for all life.

  • Adam J says:

    I remember when people in Western Australia were going out cane toad hunting with golf clubs and shovels. They were told in no uncertain terms that those toads had a right to die humanely – and as with all things ‘neo-Strine’, that means only the government can do it.

    Dogs love to work. In fact without a purpose they become depressed (yes) and destructive. There are no dogs with the possible exception of lapdogs that were not bred for a specific working purpose. Large numbers of issues are caused by the lack of appreciation of this. It is because dogs are now overwhelmingly pets and fashion items that we see more and more legislating to control dogs (see the new WA Dog Act). You literally have to pay to get a license to not have unnecessary surgery (sterilisation) on your dog.

    The other thing is that dogs and probably most animals are now incredibly expensive, even the cost of a small car or a 1 kg gold bar. Who wouldn’t place value on that! And there are many people worth less than a dog, it is simply ignorance that allows you to pretend otherwise.

    The statistics of dog bites are interesting but actually very few dogs are aggressive – they are almost always fear bites, or motivated by something else (food guarding, brain disease).

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Adam J, as the old saying goes, there’s no such thing as a bad dog, just bad dog owners. Sheep graziers with property bordering urban centres regularly lose significant numbers of sheep to packs of urban dogs that their fond owners refuse to believe them to be capable of travelling considerable distances to attack, maim and kill sheep. “Oh, no”, they say. “My dog would never do any such thing.” It often takes the delivery of the dog’s dead carcass to its owner before the penny drops. Dogs, even little lapdogs, not securely tied or locked up get up to all sorts of mischief after light out.

  • lbloveday says:

    My mother had a Greyhound that she bred and reared, not up to racing but she kept him as an indoor pet, “Wouldn’t hurt a fly”.
    One day the now 80yo+ best man at her wedding visited the now widow and gave her a hug and “Wouldn’t hurt a fly” went at him. If I’d not been there there may have been another hospital visit.

  • lbloveday says:

    As a 10-11 yo, before school I used to ride my bike to the outskirts of the country town and gather any rabbit(s) that may have been caught in the traps I set, likewise after school. Killed and gutted them on the spot, skinned at home prior to cooking.
    One evening a very large eagle (well it was to a young boy) was trapped, presumably swooping on a rabbit seeking the safety of the warren, and went berserk when I tried to release it, so I stoned it to death with the biggest rocks I could find. Like maxpart27 I felt sad, still remember it 60+ years on, but what else to do at the time? Illocutionary question only, hindsight is wonderful but not available at the time.

  • Adam J says:

    To clarify, dogs are quite likely to be aggressive to other animals.
    lbloveday: The dog seems to have been startled and responded out of fear.

  • lbloveday says:

    Adam J, my interpretation was the bitch thought the hug was an attack and she was defending her mistress.

  • lbloveday says:

    When we lived where dogs roamed freely, my wife would not walk up the street without me “riding shotgun” as the dogs, to my mind sensing her fear, were mostly aggressive towards her, barking and baring teeth from the side or front, sneaking up from behind, at times in a small pack. She had seen 4 dogs attack an old man with a gammy leg strolling on the nearby beach, leaving him bloodied and shaken. I wasn’t there, but it left her terrified. I doubt the dogs would have been afraid of a limping small old man, so what could have been the motivation for their attack?
    She all-but had a panic attack at the airport, and was drenched in sweat when a little woman with a big Alsatian on a lead told her to stand still while the dog sniffed her, mouth inches from her. The drug dogs should be muzzled – it could have broken away from the handler with ease.
    There was a dog with a lame leg and 3 dogs were hopping into him when I came along – I don’t know if they intended to eat him or they were just enjoying inflicting pain. I scattered them and told the victim to follow me, accompanied with sign language, which he did for a few hundred metres, then hobbled off, presumably thinking danger had passed.
    I don’t trust any dog.

  • Surftilidie says:

    I’m an ovo-lacto vegetarian, but I don’t have a problem with people wanting to eat meat. I am also a teetotaller, but I don’t have a problem with people having a drink, provided they don’t try to drive their cars too soon afterwards. I haven’t been vaccinated with the mRNA vaccines, tho I am not against vaccines generally (I recently had the whooping cough vaccine to keep my daughter happy prior to the birth of my first grandchild), but I don’t mind if others think the mRNA vaccines are going to save us from covid. When it comes to dogs, I have a few problems. It is well beyond my understanding the obsession people have with dog ownership these days (at least that’s what it appears to be here in Perth). As lbloveday mentioned above, there are a significant number of serious dog attacks in Australia each year, and apart from those requiring hospital treatment, there are up to 100 000 of a more minor nature. I personally have been bitten by dogs on three occasions. However, when I take my grandchildren out to provide some R&R for their parents, I take them to areas that are specifically designated as dog-free areas, as I have no desire to have to return my grandchildren to their parents bearing the results of a dog attack. Invariably, the clearly signed dog free areas are regularly invaded by selfish dog owners who have little regard for their civic responsibilities. I always, albeit reluctantly, ask such people to take their dogs away from the area. What these people don’t seem to realise is that if the dog free areas are invaded by dog owners, then the people, such as me, who have no desire to be around dogs, have nowhere to go to recreate or spend time outside with my grandchildren. I write to my local council about the need for rangers to improve their policing but it all seems to be to no avail. While lots of dog owners are responsible, just as there are lots of cyclists who follow the rules, there are many who think the rules are for someone else but not them. Just like cyclists! I would have less of a problem with dogs and their owners invading dog free areas if in the metro area at least, it became compulsory for a dog away from its. owner’s residence be muzzled, even if it was leashed.

  • lbloveday says:

    I have long agitated, unsuccessfully, pointlessly, for the muzzling. Greyhounds registered for racing as my mother’s was had to be muzzled in public, in SA anyway, and it was no problem to her to take it for a walk morning and afternoon, muzzled and leashed, but if it were a 65kg Rottweiler she’d not have needed the muzzle. That makes no sense to me.
    My Brisbane sister has the same problem with her nearby designated but unenforced dog-free area.

  • lbloveday says:

    The more I see of dogs the more I like cats:

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Further to sentimental fools behaving stupidly, years ago when I did my daily commute to and from work in the Defence complex in Canberra, there was a very busy rabbit warren in the shrubbery on the eastern end of Kings Avenue. Calls for their swift eradication were met with howls of outrage from the usual suspects who demanded that they be left undisturbed. It’s many years since I retired, so I no longer go that way, but my son assures me that the rabbits are still there.
    It is beyond rational comprehension that a government authority could ignore the existence of a significant wild rabbit infestation given our rabbit plague history. But the idiot fringe resist every attempt to eradicate them. Mixomatosis and the Calicivirus are cruel but there are no other economically effective means of controlling this introduced species.

  • lbloveday says:

    Confirmed with the Missus my recollection of her account of the dog attack she witnessed. Able bodied youngish men (20-40) continued drinking beer and munching peanuts and watched on. Old I am, but I could not do that as she well knows, and I can’t understand how anyone can.
    A couple of older men grabbed sticks and ran to the rescue.

  • phicul19 says:

    As my farmer cousin did say,”Lamb is vegetarian. Sheep eat grass”.

  • Mohsen says:

    Rest assured, phicul19, that your memory is not failing you: the person that said that was indeed YOUR cousin.!
    Pigs and chimpanzees are omnivorous; crocodiles, and vultures are carnivorous, all bringing to mind… YOUR cousin!

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