Gandhi once said that ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.’
This quote has shone down the decades and even in times of bigger political questions, the needs of the smallest, voiceless creatures provide a reflection of our values and how we carry ourselves.
Since devolution there have been key moments where that reflection has taken place. The ban on fox hunting with dogs and the foot and mouth disease crisis caused us to think hard about our relationship and responsibilities to the animal world.
This week’s vote at Holyrood to bring back tail amputations in healthy puppies destined to become working dogs, shone another light on our values and how we treat scientific evidence.
‘Tail docking’ or ‘shortening’ as it’s sometimes called, has been banned in Scotland for a decade. The vote was to reintroduce it for breeds of working dogs who work on game shoots in undergrowth where they can be vulnerable to injury.
Tail docking in a puppy is a painful amputation that has to be carried out without pain relief given the age of the dog. It makes no difference in terms of pain, as to whether the tail is totally removed or shortened.
Clearly if you remove a tail then it can’t be damaged in later life, but the same could be said of ears which were routinely ‘cropped’ until the practice was banned in 1899.
The Government’s conservative estimate is that 80 puppies tails would have to be amputated to prevent a single amputation in an adult working dog, so how is that a net benefit to animal welfare?
Does a puppy feel 80 times less pain than an amputated adult dog? There was no evidence for this.
The basis for the law change was two flawed studies commissioned after intense lobbying of the Scottish Government to retain the docking tradition in working dogs.
The first study was a biased self-selecting survey of shooters who were asked to report tail injuries in their working dogs.
A second study looked at injuries across working breeds. But there was a failure to investigate other causes of tail injury such as poor kennelling and no analysis of alternatives to protect working dogs such as ‘tail sheathing’ which is used in the US.
There was also no research into the negative impact of tail docking on behaviour, communication and confrontations between dogs.
One veterinary Professor said that “removing a significant part of a dog’s tail is like preventing a significant part of human speech”. Yet there was no consideration of potential negative consequences.
A promised third study into the actual tail injuries of actual working dogs based on veterinary cases was never commissioned.
The evidence was so weak that every single veterinary professional body across the UK was in opposition.
But unfortunately as the American historian Henry Brook Adams once said, ‘practical politics consists in ignoring facts.’
SNP and Tory MSPs voted the law change through, with the notable exception of a handful of SNP backbenchers led by Christine Graham MSP.
Holyrood has now replicated weak legislation on tail docking from England. It comes with loopholes which allow non-working dogs to have their tails docked for cosmetic reasons, simply because they are born into a litter where some dogs will go on to work.
An illogical backward step in the law and a dangerous anti-science precedent for Parliament to take.
But there are other tests coming. Scottish Government proposals to allow the regulation of electric shock collars to train dogs through fear rather than reward will need MSPs to think carefully.
The wall of silence over the illegal persecution of birds of prey continues. Although we stare at online videos of wildlife being shot and beaten, many cases are being dropped by the Crown Office because the burden of proof is so high in criminal law.
A licensing regime for grouse shooting estates is finally being investigated by the Scottish Government. It would be a welcome step in forcing some responsibility and end the attitude amongst some land managers that wildlife ‘only stays if it pays’.
Meanwhile the much celebrated Act to ban hunting with dogs in Scotland is clearly failing.
The practice of ‘flushing’ foxes with packs of dogs to waiting guns, in many cases is just hunting with dogs under another name. The Scottish Government’s review on the effectiveness of the fox hunting ban failed to look at the option of a full ban on mounted hunts.
This full ban needs to be brought onto the table. SNP MPs rightly opposed fox hunting in England, the SNP Government should now deliver a ban in Scotland.
Only then can we judge the moral progress we have made as a nation through the way we treat our animals.
This article first appeared in The National.