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During times of conflict, the suffering of animals is often overlooked because people are more attuned to human casualties. Precious few of us regard the right to life of animals and humans as morally the same.
Paul “Pen” Farthing – who founded an animal shelter in Kabul – has been campaigning to have all of his staff and their families, as well as his 140 dogs and 60 cats, evacuated from the country in a campaign he has called “Operation Ark”.
With so much concern about human suffering, some have questioned the need for this campaign. Critics like this got short shrift from Ricky Gervais when he described them as “stupid c**ts”. Writing on Twitter, the actor pointed out that animals would be put in the hold of the plane “where people can’t go,” so this is an extra, privately funded plane that “will allow MORE people to be saved”.
Dogs and cats are sentient beings. They will already be feeling the trauma of what’s going on in Afghanistan and if they are not allowed to leave with Farthing and his team, they will almost certainly die. But as Gervais points out, if the animals are rescued that could allow more humans to also be rescued. So why would we, supposedly nation of dog lovers and cat lovers, want them left behind?
This is not the first time that animals have been caught up in a conflict in the Middle East. During Israel’s attacks on the Gaza Strip in 2008 and 2009, many animals were wiped out as “collateral damage”, including a pregnant camel that was hit by an Israeli missile. Eyewitnesses say that when Israeli soldiers entered Gaza’s zoo, they immediately shot the lions. Monkeys tried to flee or hide but were hunted down and killed by the troops.
When Israel attacked Gaza again in 2014, its air force bombarded the zoo and killed more than 80 animals. After the conflict, the zoo owner wanted to preserve the murdered animals so that local children could still see and learn about nature. But the Israeli blockade of Gaza meant he was unable to obtain good quality formaldehyde so those animals died a second death.
The exchange of fire between Israel and Gaza has also caused animal suffering on the other side of the border. Rockets have torn apart natural habitats, displaced birds and caused havoc. Earlier this year, a herd of elephants formed a protective circle around a young calf during a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip but a monkey at an Israeli zoo was hurt when it was hit by shrapnel.
Watch: Afghanistan: Fresh hope for ex-Marine Pen Farthing's bid to rescue 200 dogs and cats from Kabul
The hardest part from a vegan or animal liberationist perspective is when animals are sent into the heart of military conflict — deliberately put into harm’s way. Sixteen million animals were forced to take part in the First World War. One was Airedale Jack, a stray dog who was used by the British army. When British troops were surrounded by Germans, they sent Jack to the camp with a message in his collar, calling for back up. The sweet creature was hit several times by German fire, taking blows that smashed his jaw, ripped his body open and injured his paw. Finally, Jack dropped dead as he arrived at British HQ with the message.
In the Second World War, dogs were used as sentries, messengers, mine-detectors and also “para-pups” who would jump from planes behind enemy lines to save stranded troops. One dog, a mongrel named Rob who wore a patch over one eye, made 20 such jumps.
Dogs like Jack and Rob are considered “heroes” by modern standards and history books tells us they “served” in wars. But were they heroes who served – or were they victims who were abused? Jack wasn’t asked if he wanted to run a gauntlet of German fire and Rob didn’t agree to repeatedly jump from a plane into the middle of a warzone. This wasn’t service by the dogs; it was abuse by humans.
The same is true for all the animals used in hideous military experiments. Even in the 21st century, animals are routinely abused by the state. As Britain and America prepared for the Iraq war, military scientists were told to research what happens to a wounded creature who receives further wounds. To do this, they attacked and slowly killed a series of pigs.
One of the medics explained: “My pig? They shot him in the face with a 9-millimeter pistol, and then six times with an AK-47 and then twice with a 12-gauge shotgun. And then he was set on fire.” Finally, after a 15-hour ordeal, the pig died.
In 2012, a whistle-blower released a video of a military trauma training course in which participants and instructors laughed as live goats had their legs broken and amputated with tree trimmers, were stabbed, and had their internal organs pulled out. The US army has also poisoned monkeys in chemical attack training exercises, deliberately infected animals with viruses, conducted sonar tests which kill whales and shot various animals at point blank range.
Supporters of these experiments praise the animals for the “contribution” they have made to the war effort, which shows people can abuse language as happily as they abuse animals. Forcing animals into suffering and then suggesting they secretly wanted to take part is rapacious.
But from talk of “free-range” hens to “ethical slaughter”, abuse of language has always propped up animal abuse. We praise dogs as “heroes” when we push them into wars but then say “they’re just dogs” when someone wants to save them from war-torn Afghanistan. Gervais is right: we really can be stupid c**ts.
Watch: Desperate Afghans continue endless wait outside Kabul airport, some standing in knee-deep water and trash