Rebecca McQuillan: We won’t stop animal abuse unless we confront toxic masculinity

ARE you fond of cats? I am. I have one sitting in front of me now. She specialises in settling herself in awkward locations, like the 10cm strip of table between me and my computer. She’s wedged in there, purring beatifically and head-butting my face, while I type, my arms bent round her like I’m doing a chicken dance.

I work like this a lot. What can I say? I love the old thing. She was abandoned 12 years ago, got rescued by a local charity and came to live with us. These days I think she believes she’s human (when we sit down to eat, she even sits down with us, in her own chair, only lacking a plate).

But you don’t have to have cared for an animal to be nauseated by the video of footballer Kurt Zouma mistreating his cat. It is horrible. If you have been following this story, you will know that the West Ham player is seen running around his house, laughing, slapping the cat out of the arms of a child, throwing shoes at it as it scrambles desperately to escape and then kicking the animal across his kitchen.

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It’s a relief that Mr Zouma’s two cats have now been removed from him by the RSPCA. The RSPCA is investigating and Essex Police are making inquiries.

But this incident has raised issues that go well beyond the bare facts of the case. With West Ham having fielded him against Watford just after the video emerged, we are yet again left asking why it is that a football club has underplayed the seriousness of abusive behaviour by a team member. We are left wondering how many young fans of Kurt Zouma could be influenced by seeing their hero abuse an animal for fun and imbibe the idea that it’s OK to hurt cats. We once again see cats, a species that have experienced persecution over centuries, being treated like objects you can hurl about.

Above all, we have to ask a key question: why are some humans amused by terrorising defenceless creatures, and is it relevant that those people tend to be male?

We can’t know what motivated Kurt Zouma in particular, but what we can say is that many other men have casually abused animals. The abuse of animals doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it’s influenced by a whole range of factors, like national culture, family culture and in particular, gender.

Research shows that males are more likely to abuse animals than females, from childhood onwards. A literature review published in the British Medical Journal in 2018 of animal abuse among older children, found that girls were “far less likely” to do it than boys.

Other studies have shown that scoring highly for affective empathy (where you feel emotionally distressed to witness another’s distress) makes you less likely to abuse animals and that because girls tend to score more highly for affective empathy, this might help to explain the gender difference.

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It’s important to say that the men who terrorise animals are in the tiny minority. Most men would not dream of it.

But the influence of toxic masculinity – associated with callousness and characterised by the idea that “real” men show their strength and power by dominating others – is all too evident in many instances of animal abuse.

One of the most vile examples of this is badger baiting, but a person doesn’t have to be setting dogs on badgers to be under the influence of toxic masculinity. It is insidious. Hitting or frightening an animal as a “joke” has echoes of these deep-rooted socially regressive ideas.

We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, historically, Christian cultures believed in man’s dominion over all species. Men saw themselves as being at the pinnacle of creation, with everything and everyone, below them. We are in a fizz of change, in the 2020s, and such dangerous ideas are being challenged on all sides, but these notions that held sway for centuries will not be eradicated quickly.

They keep rearing their head in the world of elite men’s football, an intensely male environment where there have been repeated failures over decades to respond adequately to abusive behaviour (from the abuse of women to racism and bigotry). It might help explain how West Ham thought it appropriate not only to play Kurt Zouma as usual on Tuesday night but to declare that they were dealing with the matter of his behaviour “internally” when patently it was a police matter. They had spent £30m on the French international and presumably a desire to get their money’s worth played its part, but even so, the decision reeked of complacency, calling to mind Raith Rovers’ tone-deaf judgment in signing David Goodwillie, who had been judged a rapist in court.

Nothing says who-cares-it’s-just-an-animal quite like the club continuing as if nothing significant has happened.

For centuries, abusive behaviour was something that men accepted in each other, and women, children and animals endured. Some parts of society are still infused with those attitudes.

But things are changing. The club could hardly fail to notice that Zouma was booed repeatedly on Tuesday, including by his own side. Sports personalities spoke out loudly in criticism of both the player and his club. In their rather more progressive version of masculinity, the physically strong defend the weak.

The player, for his part, is said to be remorseful and has insisted that the incident was a one-off.

Is he genuinely sorry? He may be so, but the problem for Mr Zouma is that it’s too late. The law must now take its course.

Some fear that part of the backlash against him is racially motivated. In France, where there has been outrage about it, the most prominent politician to get involved has been Marine Le Pen of the Front National, France’s go-to party for racists and reactionaries.

The prospect of right-wing meatheads here seizing upon it to further their own vicious, abusive agenda is a prospect as nauseating as the incident itself.

It goes without saying that this has nothing to do with race. It is to do with casually abusive attitudes, which are found far beyond the boundaries of London Stadium or the walls of one man’s home. If this incident was filmed and uploaded, how many other, similar incidents take place each day away from the public gaze, in homes all across Britain? How much serious abuse goes unreported? How do we protect victims that do not have a voice?

A good start would be to tackle a reactionary culture in which it’s deemed acceptable to inflict suffering. Until we’ve made more progress on that, the abuse will continue.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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