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Saturday, 11 March, 2000, 09:34 GMT
Are Britons still animal crackers?
Salsero Bonnie, a Chihuahua contestant at Crufts
Are the British the world's greatest animal lovers?
With all the attention paid to this year's Crufts dog show, the UK does not look like losing its unique reputation as a nation of animal lovers.

The British do not only take a pride in pampering their pooches. The government is considering plans to compensate farmers for the cost of improving conditions for livestock.

Even the most lowly creatures benefit from the nation's obsession with fauna. In 1998, a teenager received a jail sentence for killing a hedgehog.

The case was brought under the Wild Mammals Protection Act (1996), which places a whole range of woodland creatures within the care of the courts.

Rolf Harris
Rolf's Animal Hospital is a tonic for the RSPCA
With 55,000 adult members, the RSCPA remains one of the UK's most popular charities. It collects some 28.5m each year in legacies alone.

The animal charity says it expects its revenue to increase further thanks to the immense popularity of TV shows such as the BBC's Animal Hospital.

Despite the current upsurge in its fashion, fur remains a far more common sight on the streets of smart European cities than it is in London.

Meaty evidence

As UK vegetarians can testify, their dietary regime is looked upon with puzzlement by many nations around the world.

Britons have long been keen to attack what they see as brutality in foreign cultures.

In 1987, the nation was horrified by newspaper reports of a "donkey crushing" fiesta held in Spain.

Unharmed goat
Spaniards are also criticised for tossing goats from towers
The resultant outcry saw "Blackie" the donkey saved from a certain death and brought to this country.

While most British animal rights campaigners, like Blackie's saviour the late Vicki Moore, are a credit to the national obsession, some have earned a rather less pleasant reputation world wide.

Psychologists at top American university Harvard, whose work involves observing monkey behaviour, regularly receive hate mail bearing British postcodes.

Arsenic and razor blades

"We don't do any invasive experiments at all," says one of the researchers. "And yet we still receive razor blades dipped in arsenic from the 'Department of Justice'."

Even the vets who care for Harvard's animals are targeted by this splinter group of Britain's Animal Liberation Front (ALF).

While the Harvard scientists claim to have a very constructive relationship with domestic animal rights campaigners, they say Britain is their only source of threatening correspondence.

Monkey in captivity
Many feel strongly about captive primates
Since the IRA ceasefire, terrorism expert Professor Paul Wilkinson says animal rights tops the list of causes which prompt violence.

"Of all the various domestic groups who are violent, animal rights extremists are the most worrying."

Although these activists tend to use low-tech methods of harassment such as vandalism and hate mail, campaigns such as the one which targeted the recently closed Shamrock Monkey Farm in West Sussex have used incendiary devices.

Professor Wilkinson says that although poorly-resourced, these extremists have used manuals and the internet to amass bomb-making expertise.

Bomb threat

"I would not dismiss their being able to make more sophisticated bombs," he says.

Outlaw groups such as the ALF have been carrying out terrorist attacks in the UK for more than 20 years, but their influence is now felt worldwide.

As well as their own hate mail campaigns, the ALF have been instrumental in the spread of animal rights terrorism in countries such as Germany, Japan, Canada and the United States.

Captured mink
An ALF attack released 6,000 fur farm mink in 1998
Professor Wilkinson says these fledgling groups look to British activists for help and advice.

Law-abiding campaigners, who abhor the damage done to their cause by the ALF, have had their own successes in spreading Britain's concern for animal welfare.

Toni Vernelli, from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), says her organisation now has as many members in Germany and the Netherlands as it has in the UK.

Snapping at our heels

Ms Vernelli says Britain's relative prosperity and political stability have fostered the development of an animal rights movement.

"People have had the luxury to turn their attentions to other forms of cruelty and oppression. The British media has also been instrumental in raising awareness about animal rights issues."

Incendiary bomb
Animal rights extremists "have knowledge to make bombs"
From being 10 or 15 years ahead of our neighbours in our attitudes to animal welfare, the UK is now in danger of being left behind.

Ms Vernelli points to the ending of mink farming in Austria and the tough animal cruelty laws in place in the Netherlands.

The Dutch parliament even went into emergency session when airline KLM "shredded" 440 squirrels which lacked proper import papers.

As the national debate on fur farming and blood sports rumbles on, it may be that Britons have to work harder to remain the self-styled global champions of dumb animals.
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See also:

16 Nov 98 | UK Politics
Campaign switches to European front
18 Nov 99 | UK
Inside the fur farms
24 Jan 00 | Europe
Spanish don't get their goat
10 Mar 00 | Entertainment
Hynde's leather protest arrest
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