Reforming Petschek

BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN

Around this time of year some time ago I was sitting outside a café in snowy but sunny Prague overlooking the rather nondescript building of the Ministry of Industry, also known as Petschek’s Palace, near the top of the city’s Wenceslas Square.

I remember happily puffing on a cigar being talked to by a superfluously chatty yet elegant Spanish acquaintance who thought I was listening, but I wasn’t. Unbeknownst to her, that morning before leaving our apartment I had stuffed my ears with discreet balls made from loo roll rendering me blissfully oblivious to all that she was saying. At a ‘romantic’ dinner the night before I vaguely recall an ear-bashing, for whatever reason or other, which precipitated the need for the loo roll ball intervention the next day. Loo roll balls (one can always acquire some ear plugs, I suppose) and mirror sunglasses are a useful bulwark when it comes to spending one’s time with grumpy lasses.  

I had happened to read about Prague before my visit and so knew that this towering grey hulk of a building was used by the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of the Czech capital. It housed their torture chambers. There are manifold grim tales of what occurred within the palace’s walls where Czech resistance members perished.

While my Spanish acquaintance rattled on about I know not, I read a translation of a plaque on the building wall:

“In the time of the Nazi occupation this building housed the torture chambers of the Gestapo. Fighters for the freedom of our country fought, suffered and died here. We will never forget their memory and will be loyal to their legacy. PEOPLE, BE ON GUARD”.

I shall never forget that ‘PEOPLE BE ON GUARD’ in cautioning capitals. Prague is a good place to learn about the downside of Utopian oppressors.

I remember thinking at the time how far we had evolved. Here was I – a Brit – apparently listening to a Spanish girlfriend, deaf to the chirping of the Italians on the next-door table and blissfully ignoring the contorted faces of the fat Germans a couple of tables away who oddly seemed not to appreciate the smoke emanating from my Cohiba short. But we were all getting along well together. Even the sulky French lass picking her nose two tables away seemed to be enjoying her hard-fought freedoms.

Well, we were no longer at war.

Sinister Petschek’s Palace seemed a standing testament to progress – now replete with relatively harmless apparatchiks instead of torturers, its heightened interrogations swapped for jobseeker interviews, its psychological persecutions replaced by fitness for work tests and its filing cabinets switched for shiny new servers. The fox seemed well and truly dispatched from the hen house, in Europe at least.

As humans we are so capable of rapid and remarkable change for better and worse. We can learn from the past. We are receptive to individual and collective responsibility if we know we can save ourselves or improve our lot. After all we are capable of being genuinely sentient beings…

This last summer I sat on a moonlit, grassy bank in rural Herefordshire, puffing on a Cumanesa and sipping on a single malt. It had gone midnight and I was alone with my dogs, listening to the feral noises of the true English countryside.

Our oft-trained terrier was sniffing around rather too close to the chicken coop and constantly failing to react to my commands. Meanwhile an owl was swooping and crushing innocent little mice and frogs in its powerful talons. Pigeons fluttered cautiously from branch to branch – those who had escaped the sparrowhawks, goshawks, buzzards and red kites who fed on their brothers and sisters earlier that summer’s day. All set against the background of the high-pitched screeches of a bunny rabbit caught in the jaws of a fox – the poor creature’s torturous death lasting more than a few minutes for all to hear.

I wondered then as now how we are to train the creatures to behave better. Can we ever? The countryside is a bloody battleground where large predators eat out on smaller ones, where, as once in Petschek’s Palace, the weak are persecuted by the strong day and night.

And then – perhaps it was the whisky or the effect of those Venezuelan tobacco leaves (Las Cumanesas trump their Cuban or Dominican counterparts as vectors for random cogitation) – it suddenly dawned on me. The words of the patron saint of animals (now co-opted by greenies, without asking, as the patron saint of ecology) sprung to mind: 

“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”

– St. Francis of Assisi

We were never meant to train the animals to be – or see them as – sentient, civilised creatures. Certainly, St Francis never wanted all creatures on Earth, including humans, to be treated as equals under God. Friar Francis enjoyed his meat pies as much as the next Tuck. We were merely meant to behave appropriately with animals as a lesson for dealing in a civilised manner with our fellow human beings – a symbiosis if you like.

Surely our relationship with animals is a matter of our responsibility towards them, whether as domesticated or as wild animals. They are not our equals in law or on moral grounds, in the sense that the lives of animals are to be regarded as sacrosanct in the same way as we regard the lives of other humans.

‘Higher’ animals are no doubt sentient. But that does not mean that they have any sense of ‘fairness’ or equality in law, which seems to be the argument advanced by the animal rightists. Our responsibility towards them is therefore to treat them as humanely as possible, even when killing them for various reasons – like keeping the fox out of the henhouse.  

Our relationship with domesticated animals is certainly symbiotic. They get the advantages of high standards of care and regular food, assistance when lambing or calving, and facilitated reproduction of their own kind. It is this extended human care which brought wild animals into domestication in the first place around 10,000 years ago (perhaps 60,000 years ago in the case of dogs). These animals would not exist were it not for their close relationship with humans.

In the case of wild animals, it is a matter of our responsibility to maintain and enhance their environments as much as possible, in order to give them the chance of flourishing. Our increased knowledge of our own environmental impacts gives us the chance to exercise this responsibility with much greater effectiveness than in earlier times and to strike a better hierarchical balance.

None of this means that we have to be over-sentimental or regard animals as ‘equals’, or as anthropomorphic Disneyfied characters with the same range of emotions as humans. They are just different from us.

The bloody battleground of the countryside will never be replaced by Disneyfied, doe-eyed utopia. Nor will the human world – and PEOPLE, BE ON GUARD against those selling utopias. But, as we seek to get on better as humans, how we implement our superiority over the animals impinges on how we realize a better world for humans.

So God’s creatures are a living lesson for us after all – recognising creatures’ strengths and weaknesses, their inability to fit a one-size-for-all straitjacket, their need for relentless foraging, the grim realities of nature. Compassion is a natural instinct that all humans share, and freedom is its natural human expression. But we should never mistake the Countryside with Petschek’s Palace and try to ‘set them all free’ – that would just be absurd, and a foolish misreading of St Francis.

Dominic Wightman is Editor of Country Squire Magazine.