Tycho (left), Coton de Tulear named after the 16th Century Danish astronomer; and Cuba (right) named after the island of her breed (Havanese Terrier).
Explanation for non-British readers: In 1605 a Catholic plot to blow up Parliament was foiled at the last minute. The leader of this “Gunpowder Plot”, Guy Fawkes is burned in effigy on November 5th each year atop bonfires all over Britain, and fireworks whizz and bang to commemorate the gunpowder that didn’t. Children love “Bonfire Night” or “Guy Fawkes Night” and recite a rhyme:
The Fifth of November –
Gunpowder, treason and PLOT!
After I tweeted my misgivings about the effects of loud fireworks on non-human animals, the Daily Mail invited me to write an article of 1200 words on the subject, to be published on “Guy Fawkes Day”. The Mail version of the article can be seen here under the headline
Bonfire night now goes on for WEEKS – and it’s hell for pets.
Reproduced below is the original version as I wrote it, before the Mail sub-editors changed it from my style to theirs. American readers may mentally substitute “July 4th” for “November 5th”, and Indian readers may substitute “Diwali”. I don’t recommend reading the Mail version, but the comments underneath it are overwhelmingly encouraging.
I love fireworks, BUT . . .
by Richard Dawkins
On 12th October 1984, a Provisional IRA member planted a bomb in the Grand Hotel, Brighton, in an attempt to assassinate the Prime Minister. That objective failed, although five people were killed and many injured. Would we want a national festival every 12th October when we all let off fireworks to commemorate this event? And if, in addition, we burned the perpetrator, Patrick Magee, in effigy all over the country, wouldn’t our revulsion be increased?
Bonfire Night enacts the burning in effigy of an earlier Catholic terrorist – or freedom fighter if you prefer. Our “Remember remember” fireworks commemorate a failed murderous explosion in 1605. A terrorist bomb plot, even a failed one, sounds a pretty nasty thing to celebrate, which was of course why I brought up the comparison with the Brighton hotel plot. But Guy Fawkes is separated from us by more than 400 years: long enough for the commemoration to suggest not bad taste but the quaintness of distant history. So I’m not trying to be a killjoy, a November Scrooge.
And I do love fireworks. Always have. For me the appeal is to the eye more than the ear – the spectacular colours that psychedelically paint the sky, flares lighting the smiling faces of children waving sparklers, the whirring of Catherine Wheels (again historical distance helps us forget that that name has a pretty nasty provenance too). I don’t so much get the appeal of loud bangs, but presumably some people love them or the manufacturers wouldn’t put them in. So I don’t want to deny that fireworks, even the bangs, are fun, and I have much enjoyed bonfire night over the years, from childhood on.
But although I love fireworks I also love animals. Including human animals but just now I’m talking about nonhuman animals. Like our little dogs, Tycho and Cuba, who are only two among millions all over the country that are terrorised every year by the prodigiously antisocial decibels of modern fireworks. It would be tolerable if it happened only on November 5th. But over the years “November 5th” has expanded relentlessly in both directions. It seems that many people, having bought their fireworks, are too impatient to wait until the night itself. Or they enjoyed the night itself so much that they can’t resist reprising it week after week thereafter. And in Oxford the firework season is not a limited season at all but extends to most weekends throughout the university terms.
If it were only Tycho and Cuba whose lives are made a misery, I’d shut up about it. But when I tweeted my misgivings about the noise, the response from other owners of dogs, cats and horses was overwhelming. This subjective impression is confirmed by scientific studies. The veterinary literature lists more than twenty physiologically measurable symptoms of distress in dogs resulting from fireworks. In extreme cases the fear caused by fireworks has even led to dogs biting their owners, in total contrast to their normal gentle behaviour. It’s estimated that some 50% of dogs and 60% of cats suffer from fireworks-phobia.
Then think about all the wild animals all over the country. And cattle, pigs and other farm livestock. There is no reason to believe wild animals, whom we don’t see, are any less terrified than domestic pets whom we do. Rather the reverse, when you consider that loved pets like Tycho and Cuba have human comforters to soothe and console them. Wild animals suddenly, without warning, have their natural environment and peaceful nights polluted by the acoustic equivalent of a First World War battle. Talking of which, among the positive responders to my firework tweets were human war veterans suffering from the modern equivalent of First World War shell-shock.
What should be done? I wouldn’t call for a total ban on fireworks (as enforced in some jurisdictions including Northern Ireland during the Troubles). Two compromises are commonly suggested. First, fireworks might be restricted to certain special days in a year, such as Guy Fawkes night and New Year’s Eve. Other special occasions – big parties or balls and the like – could be accommodated by individual applications, along the same lines as permissions to play loud music on special occasions. The other suggested compromise is to allow firework displays to be put on by public bodies but not any old private citizens in their own back gardens. I would suggest a third compromise, which might render the other two superfluous: allow visually appealing fireworks but put a severe restriction on noise. Quiet fireworks do exist.
Although the replies to my tweets were overwhelmingly in agreement, there were two dissenting strands, which need to be taken seriously. First, wouldn’t a legal restriction on fireworks infringe personal liberties? And second, shouldn’t the pleasure of humans have priority over “mere animals”?
The personal liberties point is superficially persuasive. Several tweeters said that what people do in their own gardens – on their own private property – is their own business and nobody else’s, especially not the business of the “nanny state.” But the sound and shock waves from a loud explosion radiate outwards far beyond the boundaries of anybody’s garden. Neighbours who don’t like the flashes and colours of fireworks can block them by drawing the curtains. No such blocks are effective against loud bangs. Noise pollution is antisocial in a peculiarly inescapable way, which is why the Noise Abatement Society is so necessary.
What about the “mere animals” plea? Isn’t human pleasure more important than terrified dogs, cats, horses, cows, rabbits, mice, weasels, badgers and birds? The presumption that humans matter more than other animals lies deep within us. It’s a difficult philosophical problem, and this is not the place to go into it in depth. Just a couple of thoughts.
First, although the reasoning power and intelligence of nonhuman animals is far inferior to ours, this famous statement by the great moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham is as valid as it was in 1823:
“. . . a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
The ability to suffer – feel pain or fear – doesn’t depend on reasoning or intelligence. An Einstein is no more capable of feeling pain or fear than a Sarah Palin. And there’s no obvious reason to suppose that a dog or a badger is less capable of suffering pain or fear than any human.
In the case of fear of fireworks, there might even be reason to think the opposite. Humans understand what fireworks are. Human children can be consoled with a verbal explanation: “It’s OK darling, they’re only fireworks, they’re fun, nothing to worry about.” You can’t do that with non-human animals. All you can do is cuddle them and make soothing noises.
Let’s not be killjoys. But fireworks are nearly as appealing if silent. And our present disregard of millions of sentient beings incapable of understanding what fireworks are but fully capable of dreading them, is utterly – albeit usually unwittingly – selfish.