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Pets or People?

One Voice for Animals UK Guest Blog by Natalia Doran

Guest Blogger Natalia Doran runs a squirrel rescue, Urban squirrels.


(Spoiler alert: false dilemma.)

It is not often that we read news bulletins and find good news. Especially at the moment. Especially from Afghanistan. So the news that animal rescue worker ex-Marine Paul 'Pen' Farthing managed to get 150 dogs and cats out of Afghanistan and into the UK must be exactly the feel-good, spirit-lifting news you want to hear in these difficult times.

Right?...Not quite.

As the incredible rescue story, dubbed Operation Ark, is retold again and again by mainstream and social media, as interviewees and social media users are expressing joy and relief, some voices are raised in clear disagreement, and even condemnation of Mr Farthing’s actions and priorities.

“People matter more than dogs and cats.”

“Taken up too much time of senior officials dealing with a humanitarian crisis".

"Why are we using troops to help animals when my interpreter’s family is likely to be killed”?

Suddenly all of us who help animals are made to feel guilty (and usually by those who help no one at all). We are drawn into a narrative where a choice has to be made between people and animals, where the choice of people over animals is assumed to be obvious and where our, and Mr Farthing’s, choice of “pets before people” turns out to be no less than immoral.

This narrative, and this forced choice, should be resisted. As in so many cases, a small dose of ethics should clear up matters in no time. The “pets* versus people” narrative is what is known in the trade as a false dilemma. The method of debunking a false dilemma is two-fold.

The first, and most important, part is to show that the two things that are presented to us as complete opposites are not really so. Any of us who works with animals knows that what we do benefits people too. In Mr Farthing’s case the connection between helping people and helping animals is extremely strong. Part of mission of Nowzad, the animal charity he set up in Afghanistan, was to reunite soldiers with the dogs and cats whom they rescued and bonded with on the front lines. The companionship and emotional support were equally important for the human and the animal. Furthermore, in the course of the dramatic rescue itself, Mr Farthing was determined to bring out not only the animals, but the Afghan staff and their dependents, nearly 70 vulnerable people. Animals could not possibly take the place of people on the privately hired airplane: dogs and cats travel in the luggage hold, and around 150 cabin seats were available for use by refugees. What stopped Nowzad staff and other vulnerable people making use of this vital resource was not the animals, but difficulties in processing their papers. One cannot blame the military personnel at Kabul airport for failing to deal with the paperwork in time, given the extreme pressure of the situation. But one should certainly not blame the animals or their carers either. Here, as in so many other cases, we see that the fates and interests of people and animals are so closely intertwined that helping one automatically leads to helping, or at least trying to help, the other.

The “pets versus people” dilemma is indeed false.

The second part of debunking a false dilemma involve an analysis of why it is presented in the first place, of who benefits from it. The context of the story of Operation Ark is, of course, the involvement of America and its allies in Afghanistan, the war that lasted 20 years, the final withdrawal of foreign troops, the unexpected rapid advance of the Taliban, who now appear to be controlling the country. The “pets versus people” dilemma could be very useful as a way to distract the public from asking why such a pressurized evacuation effort was needed at Kabul airport in the first place, why the Taliban ceased control so rapidly and with such ease, why these events came as a complete surprise to countries whose military intelligence forces could and should have been gathering information for the last 20 years. Too many awkward questions, let’s blame the dogs.

But, someone could argue, what about the final part of the rescue, when British military personnel were assisting Mr Farthing and his animals onto the plane? They could have been using that time to help people, that is a clear either/or choice. While it is clearly an either/or choice in the sense that the soldiers could not be in two places doing two things at once, the choice was not actually between helping animals or helping people, but rather between

dealing with one pressing task over another pressing task. It is clear by now that hundreds of eligible people are not going to be taken out of Afghanistan. It follows that military personnel chose to help some groups of equally eligible refugees rather than others. But this does not mean that they considered the groups that they helped to have some kind of higher moral status, to be more deserving of help. They could have been given literally any task, and the choice was dictated by the pressures of the moment, rather than ethical


The final question to consider is how Mr Farthing’s animals became an urgent


*As an aside, let’s note that the very word “pet” is quickly acquiring a rather

disparaging and negative connotation in modern English. The animals who

share our lives with us are increasingly referred to as “companion animals” and

the very choice of the word “pet” (Mr Farthing’s animals were referred to as

“pets” on several occasions in official communication) can come across as

loaded with connotations of triviality.


One Voice for Animals UK has a rescue directory of almost 300 organisations that need support. If you enjoyed this blog, head over and find your local rescue and make a donation

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