Love Talk

A radio presenter, referring last week to Brian May’s book about Victorian photography, described him as a “badger-lover”. Naturally enough: it’s how his campaign against the culling of badgers in Britain is habitually summarized. Even a quite serious interview in the Guardian newspaper speaks of May’s “love of animals”. This is a convenient shorthand, no doubt. And besides, the question in both cases, radio and newspaper, was really ‘What’s he like?’ The badgers and other animals just help us to chew over that question, if we wish to. However, it’s noticeable in the interview that May himself does his best to refuse the personalization of the topic: “I just care about the animals”, he says, adding “This concerns us all.”

The word for such a person and such a point of view used to be ‘zoophilist’ or ‘zoophilite’. In fact the journal of the first British anti-vivisection organisation, the Victoria Street Society, was titled The Zoophilist (first published, 1881). Of course that’s just a more classical version of ‘animal-lover’, a phrase already in use at that time, but the classical form is exactly what knocks out the homely personal associations. It helped, too, that the word came into currency during the vivisection controversy of the 1870s (though it had been in occasional use for some years before that), giving it a purposeful and even political character. A zoophilist was someone whose interest in animals could not safely be supposed a matter of merely personal sentiment. Accordingly, one of the pioneers of animal rights, Henry Salt (1851-1939), spoke of “the zoophilist movement”.

Salt tried to save that movement from its association with the concept of the animal-lover, an association which its opponents deliberately used against it. For this purpose he wrote a short play titled ‘A Lover of Animals’. One of its characters says “if we are to fight vivisection, we must rid ourselves of this false ‘love of animals’, this pampering of pets and lap-dogs by people who care nothing for the real welfare of animals . . . and must aim at the redress of all needless suffering, human and animal alike – the stupid cruelties of social tyranny, of the criminal code, of fashion, of science, of flesh-eating.”

Unfortunately the word ‘zoophilist’ fell out of use (though Salt himself was still using it in the 1930s). It’s true that there are now various specific words and phrases for those who might formerly have been called zoophilists (‘animal activist’, ‘animal advocate’), but ‘animal-lover’ survives as the only general term, still carrying with it the associations to which Salt objected. Most damagingly, perhaps, it locates the relationship firmly in the person. It’s what the person is like, not the situation; it’s all subjective, in short.

And therefore, when Peter Singer came to renew the “zoophilist movement” in his book Animal Liberation, his first necessity was to dissociate it from the image of the ‘animal-lover’, just as Salt had tried to do. He starts the preface with a story of being invited to tea by two old-style animal-lovers who knew about the book he was writing and therefore supposed him one of themselves. They discovered, to their bewilderment, that Singer had no pets, “didn’t ‘love’ animals”, was not even “especially ‘interested’ in animals”. There’s some pathos in this situation, though I don’t think that Singer, a resolute young man at the time of the tea and the writing, was much affected by it. Anyway, the story dramatizes the idea which Singer wishes to establish as a premise of the book:

The assumption that in order to be interested in such matters one must be an ‘animal-lover’ is itself an indication of the absence of the slightest inkling that the moral standards that we apply among human beings might extend to other animals . . . The portrayal of those who protest against cruelty to animals as sentimental, emotional ‘animal-lovers’ has had the effect of excluding the entire issue of our treatment of non-humans from serious political and moral discussion. [pp. x-xi]

It was a radical and powerful statement in 1975, even though it was what Henry Salt had been saying eighty years before.

And the habit of siting the interests of animals in the mind and sentiment of the people who speak for or about them lives on, as we’ve seen. It’s what the people are like. And from there we move on to what the whole nation is like. Britain is a nation of animal-lovers”, says a Member of Parliament, leading a debate on the export of live animals for slaughter (26 February 2018). Members of Parliament habitually say it whenever questions of animal welfare arise there: “We’re a nation of animal-lovers . . . ,” their speeches begin. Perhaps the formula does have some value, because it usually implies that we ought to demonstrate our ‘love’ in the particular instance under review. But of course it goes with merely corrective improvements (e.g. slaughtering the animals in the UK instead), rather than radical change. After all, since we ‘love’ animals, we must already be doing the right thing by them in general; any problems are likely to be anomalies rather than symptoms of an essential wrong.

This national version of the formula has been as durable as the personal one. The valiant zoophilist Hugh Dowding (see this blog on 26 June 2016) did all he could to expose its falsehood during debates in the House of Lords. This is what Dowding said there in 1956:

We English people pride ourselves upon being a nation of animal lovers, and we tend to be righteously critical of the lower standards of other nations. In point of fact, as a nation we are not animal lovers: we are sentimentalists about our animals. It is true that we cherish our domestic pets and that we have qualms about the condition of old and worn-out horses; but where the interests of animals run counter to our sports, our amusements or our pockets, the animals receive scant consideration at our hands.

And he listed “examples of the general callousness of the nation towards animals’ suffering”, including “the vivisection laboratory”.

Unfortunately Dowding was no more successful in this case than Henry Salt or Peter Singer in theirs. The nonsensical saying seems to rise above all evidences against it, and of course it has a currency far beyond the Houses of Parliament. For instance, and puzzlingly, it’s a saying much liked by Cruelty Free International (CFI), an organisation which campaigns very effectively against the use of animals in research. Here too the formula seems to have some practical use as moral leverage: for instance, “As a nation of animal lovers, the UK should lead the way in ending dog experiments.” Perhaps it also has a consolatory purpose. The CFI style favours puns and sobriquets of a cute or warm-hearted kind: “our feline friends”, “sharing our homes with a pooch”, “five facts that will make you barking mad for animals”. Like “nation of animal-lovers”, these tropes are presumably intended to sweeten an unpleasant subject. They do so, if at all, at some expense of seriousness, but at least they’re harmless flourishes rather than untruths. The claim that Britain is a nation of animal-lovers, however, is both harmful and untrue.

And the badger cull itself has shown that it’s not becoming any less untrue. In fact even before that started, the naturalist Richard Mabey wrote about what he called “the New Vermin Panic”: “With a sense of disgust and outrage that seems borrowed from the Dark Ages, wildlife is increasingly being demonised for the slightest intrusion into human affairs.” Among the examples he gave was the “farcical commotion” recently caused by a fox that had strayed into a boutique in the Portobello Road. The manager reported that “people started shrieking and ran out into the street in their socks . . . We shut the shop because we couldn’t tell if it would make our customers sick.” This was in the capital city of a nation of animal-lovers.

The phrase is a foolish one, and should be disused everywhere. Probably ‘animal-lover’ itself should be discarded too, at any rate in all public discourse. The case for the animals has nothing to do with the love which some of us have for some of them – a love very often real and honourable, of course, but also fickle and partial, and in any case beside the point. What the animals need from their human fellow-creatures is not love-talk from their special friends, agreeable though that must be, but the sympathy and active respect of society as a whole. In short, ‘animal-lovers’ or not, “This concerns us all”.


Notes and references:

The interview with Brian May was in the Guardian of 4 May 2011.

Henry Salt used the term ‘zoophilist’ throughout his writing on animal rights, but the particular quotation comes from The Creed of Kinship (1935). His play ‘A Lover of Animals’ was not separately published, but appeared in The Vegetarian Review, February 1895. Both texts are quoted here from extracts published in The Savour of Salt: a Henry Salt Anthology, ed. George and Willene Hendrick, Centaur Press, 1989, pp. 199 and 56.

The preface to Peter Singer’s 1975 edition of Animal Liberation is quoted from the 1995 Pimlico edition, pp. x-xi.

The debate in the House of Lords on the use of wild animals in circus performances took place on 31 January 1956.

The quotations from Cruelty Free International appear on its web-site at

Richard Mabey is quoted from A Brush with Nature, BBC Books, 2010, p. 217.