Animal Instinct

Headmaster’s Routh Assembly Address
Week of 12th - 16th October 2020

Reading: (Walters)

Excerpt from Animal Farm by George Orwell

Major, the pig, spoke:
"I have little more to say. I merely repeat, remember always your duty of enmity towards Man and all his ways.
Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
And remember also, that in fighting against Man, we must not come to resemble him. Even when you have conquered him, do not adopt his vices.
No animal must ever live in a house, or sleep in a bed, or wear clothes, or drink alcohol, or smoke tobacco, or touch money, or engage in trade.
All the habits of Man are evil. And, above all, no animal must ever tyrannise over his own kind. Weak or strong, clever or simple, we are all brothers.
No animal must ever kill any other animal. All animals are equal.

Good morning.

Those words may be familiar, I know that many of you have studied George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm. In which a group of animals rebel against their human farmer, hoping to create a society where the animals can be equal, free, and happy. Unfortunately, despite the principles you just heard them all agreeing to, the rebellion fails, and the farm ends up in as bad a state as it was when humans were in charge.

Animal Farm was intended as an allegory about dictatorship and the way that humans can treat each other with cruelty. George Orwell was very clever when he used animals as a substitute for people. The famous Indian leader and man of peace, Mahatma Gandhi once said “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

That was a thought worth considering last week, for a number of reasons. Firstly, because it was World Animal Day last Sunday. The day that focusses on the welfare and rights of animals. Chosen because October 4th is the feast day of St Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals.

You could argue that the world has its own modern-day St Francis though, because another thing that happened last week was the nomination of Sir David Attenborough for the Nobel Peace Prize. He didn’t win it (I thought he should have) but it was at least acknowledgement of the extraordinary work he has done in his lifetime to raise awareness about the plight of all animals on the planet.

94 years old and still going strong, Attenborough is a broadcaster and natural historian who has brought the world some of the greatest wildlife documentaries ever seen. Blue Planet, Life on Earth, I’m sure you know them.

Throughout his life he has relentlessly tried to show us the majesty of the animal kingdom and to warn that we are its greatest threat. Two weeks ago, he released his latest film, simply called “Extinction: The Facts.” If you haven’t seen it, you should. And if you find it hard to watch, then it will have served its purpose. Nearly 15% of all the animal species on the planet face extinction.

Saving animal species from extinction seems like an obvious and rather heroic thing to support. But there are other aspects of our interactions with animals about which you will have differing opinions. I hope. Starting with whether you should eat them. Some of you may already be vegetarian or vegan, choosing not to eat meat out of concern for animals. You would certainly not be alone in that belief. George Bernard Shaw famously said “Animals are my friends...and I don't eat my friends.” 600 years ago, Leonardo da Vinci believed there would come a time when killing an animal would be treated the same as murdering a person.

Then again, there will be many amongst you who consider it acceptable to raise animals for food, but unacceptable to harm them unnecessarily. Which is fine, but what constitutes “unnecessary harm” in your mind? Testing cosmetics on lab rats? What about testing those same rats with drugs that may cure cancer in humans? What about testing those same drugs on chimpanzees? What do you believe is ethical?

Back to last week’s news again, and a story in which the American military unveiled new augmented reality goggles for their so called “combat dogs”. These are dogs that the army sends into enemy territory to scout for hazards. In the past, dog handlers sent their commands by whistle, now they send them over much greater distances, through LED signals that the dogs can see in the goggles that they have strapped to their heads. Is that cruelty? Or man’s best friend saving soldiers’ lives?

Dogs are not the only animals used in warfare either, and the Americans are not the only ones to do it. Both the American and Russian navies have trained large ocean-going mammals to spy for them. They strap detection equipment onto seals, dolphins, even Beluga whales, and then send them into enemy waters to search for ships and submarines. It doesn’t hurt them, but is it ethical?

And if you don’t think it cruel, consider what the CIA did in a top-secret, $10M, project during the height of the Cold War in the 1960’s, when America and Russia first started spying on each other. A project called “Acoustic Kitty.” The CIA wanted to get inside the Russian embassy in Washington, so they surgically implanted a radio transmitter inside a pet cat. The idea was that they would release it outside the embassy and the guards would let it stroll inside without taking any notice. Unfortunately, when the CIA spies let it out of their unmarked van near the Russian embassy, it promptly shot out into the road and got run over by a passing car.

A happier fate befell Magawa the rat. Magawa is an African Giant Pouched rat, meaning that he is about the size of a cat. He was also in the news last week, being awarded a PDSA Gold Medal for the hundreds of human lives he saves each week in Cambodia.

Like many other war-torn countries over the past 50 years, there are still up to six million unexploded mines buried under the soil in Cambodia, just waiting for unsuspecting farmers to step on them.

A charity set up to clear them from the land has trained giant rats like Magawa to find them. His powerful nose can sniff them out the explosives in landmines and he is rewarded with food for each one he finds. His size is in his favour, because Magawa is small enough not to detonate the mines, but big enough to cover a lot of ground and detect 20 or more every day.

One final news article from last week, perhaps most relevant of all. You have probably seen sniffer dogs at an airport, trained to smell explosives or drugs in people’s luggage. Well, Helsinki Airport in Finland now has a group of sniffer dogs that can detect whether a person has COVID-19. Remarkably, they can do it in under ten seconds and are almost 100% accurate. It doesn’t hurt the dogs, of course, they can’t catch the human virus. But it can save long delays and possibly even save lives.

Why am I regaling you with all these animal stories this morning? Because I want you to think. I want you to have an opinion. Not just an opinion, an informed opinion. And not just about animals. About everything. I am not here to tell you what to think. I’m here to encourage you to think. For yourselves. To be aware of the world around you and draw your own conclusions.

Maybe you will be moved by Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries and join the crusade against extinction in the future. Maybe you will think more about where your food comes from and change your eating habits. Or question how the products you use are tested and change your spending habits. Perhaps you might reflect on when it is acceptable for humans to use animals and how we might reward them when we do.

In truth though, I am less worried about what your views are, I just want you to have some. What I don’t want is for you to be intellectually passive. To sleepwalk through the world in which you live. Our relationship with animals is just one good example.

It is too easy to become blind to the natural world around us. The building of cities and highways has pushed back the natural spaces that animals inhabit. They have either been driven out or have had to adapt to live amongst us. Do you even notice them anymore?

Maybe you see the squirrels around the School each day, especially now as they gather the fallen acorns and chestnuts to their winter stores. Or hear the pigeons on the roof of Kyteless, or the crows calling from the bell tower above us. Perhaps you dodge the big Banana slugs that cross the School footpaths after the rain. Perhaps you squash them? You might help collect honey from the School beehives in the Prep School, or feed the fish in the pond behind the Library.

But have you seen the fox that skulks around Webber at night? Or the birds of prey, the buzzards by the Pavilion and the sparrowhawks, nesting by ADT? Did you know that badgers live on the edge of Lower Charford? What do you notice? What do you know? I have spoken about animals this morning, but it could just as easily have been about anything. Climate change. Medical ethics; vaccination or euthanasia. Social issues; the transgender or Black Lives Matter movements.

The rebellion in Animal Farm ultimately failed because of ignorance and because the animals where too timid to stand up for what they believed in. I want you to believe in things, to have courage in your convictions. But, in order to do that, you must first be informed and alert to the world in which you live.


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