Our desire to put dogs before children leaves a Nazi taste

The case of five-year-old Ellie Lawrenson, savaged to death by her uncle’s pit bull terrier in St Helens on New Year’s Day, caused widespread horror and outrage. Her grandmother, who was supposed to be caring for Ellie, and her uncle, who owned the dog, were convicted on charges arising from this tragic incident.

The circumstances of Ellie’s death reminded me of the first case of what was then known as “non-accidental injury” to a child I encountered as a junior hospital doctor more than 20 years ago. When a little girl was admitted with a number of fractures and associated burns and bruises, it emerged that, while the family’s cats and dogs were well-fed and cared for, the three children were neglected and ill-treated.

I remember too the senior paediatrician, a skilled and compassionate doctor with wisdom acquired through long experience, who pointed out that the movement against child abuse in the UK emerged several decades later than the campaign to protect the welfare of animals. I was shocked that this was indeed the case.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in 1824 (it acquired the royal patronage of Queen Victoria in 1840). The London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was formed 60 years later, in 1884, becoming a nationwide organisation, the NSPCC, in 1889. The first child cruelty cases in both England and the US were brought under animal welfare legislation because the law provided no protection for children.

Recent experiences confirm that the long tradition that combines sentimentality towards animals with cruelty towards children continues to thrive in British society. I have found that, despite the Ellie Lawrenson case and a number of other similar grisly incidents, both police and social services are reluctant to take action to protect children who are exposed to dangerous dogs. I have come across a household from which a cat was removed to a place of safety after being savaged by the family’s pit bull terrier a baby was left in danger. It seems to me that the UK remains a proud nation of dog lovers and child haters.

A prestigious conference is to take place soon in Oxford themed “the relationship between animal abuse and human violence”. It aims to explore the supposed link between cruelty to animals and “violence to humans or anti-social behaviour” and to consider the implications for social and legal policy. The conference, hosted by the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, is jointly sponsored by animal welfare and child protection organisations.

Contrary to the conventional assumption of a direct link between the abuse of animals and that of children, the lesson of history is that it is quite possible for a society to combine concern for animal welfare with indifference towards the welfare of children. If this was characteristic of Victorian England, it reached a grotesque extreme in Nazi Germany, where a mystical respect for nature coexisted with the degradation of humanity. Animals were protected while children were slaughtered.

We need to recognise that the claims of vulnerable human beings for protection have a qualitatively different moral status from concerns about animal welfare. Taking seriously the importance of protecting children from dangerous dogs would be a start.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is a GP in the London Borough of Hackney

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