Like all leading moralists of the age, I have spent the past few days brooding incessantly on the lady who threw the cat into the wheelie‑bin.
Unlike my rivals, I have come up with the perfect punishment. In the grand tradition of the British criminal justice system, I propose we pay to send this miscreant to some holiday destination – say, Tanzania, the very place, in fact, from which I have just returned.
What was the most striking thing about her behaviour? Was it the duplicity with which she petted the poor critter before she binned it? Was it the artful way she checked to see if she was being watched? Was it the sweet innocence with which she turned her back on the green plastic cat-prison and trotted off to continue making tea at the vicarage or working with the deaf, or whatever blameless life she leads when she isn’t persecuting cats?
No, I’ll tell you what struck me most. It was her sense of power. In her swift and easy assertion of the dominance of the human species, she perfectly expressed the wickedness of the way we treat nature; and if you fly to Dar-es-Salaam, you will see what I mean.
It was about 6am and a beautiful dawn was breaking as the captain drew our attention to an incredible sight on the starboard side. “We’re flying over Mount Kilimanjaro,” he said. I craned my neck and then gasped with horror. The last time I had seen the great mountain was 34 years ago. Today, the difference was obvious. When I last came to Tanzania in 1976, the place had a population of 17 million. That has now more than doubled to almost 43 million. It is the relentless expansion in the number of human beings that is polluting the air and burning off the forests and driving species after species to the verge of extinction. That is why the remaining wilderness of Africa is so glorious and so important.
It is not just that you can go there and see a carnival of animals and birds like nothing on earth – as though you were walking among the living relics of the Pleistocene. You also understand that there are still some places on the planet where you are not the top of the food chain. We were lucky to have our trip organised by a family called Fox, whose senior representative had been sent out in the 1950s to grow tea for Brooke Bond. On some nights, he would tell us stories of encounters with animals (“Fantastic, Mr Fox!” we would breathe). There was the hippo whose ivory sabres almost chopped one of his workers in half, spilling his guts.
There was the croc who pulled all the meat off the arm of another, like a chicken leg. “We packed them both off to hospital patched them both up – and you know what, they didn’t complain once. They were just happy to be alive.” He described a wonderful prelapsarian world in which he and his children would camp under the stars, with nothing but mosquito nets, or dive to retrieve fishing lures from croc-infested pools.
It was a Wilbur Smith Africa, innocent of elf and safety or ambulance-chasing lawyers. To a marvellous degree, in these safari camps, it still is.
There is the head waiter whose temples are scarred with the bite of a lion, and who still does his job perfectly in spite of losing two teaspoonfuls of brain. Only the other day there was the Italian woman who disobeyed the guide and got trampled to death by an elephant; and do you know what her husband did? He didn’t sue. He didn’t take action against this excellent company. “It is destiny,” he said, and there is much that we in Britain could learn from his example.
It is the place, my friends, to which we should now despatch the beleaguered cat-baiting Mrs Dale. I propose that she be taken out in a Foxes Land Rover, late in the afternoon, somewhere on the banks of the Great Ruaha River.
There she will find, as we did, a pride of lions. Like all lions, they will spend most of their time doing two thirds of damn all. But just as dusk is falling, and just as they are rousing themselves for their nocturnal hunt, Mrs Dale may discover – as we did – that the Land Rover mysteriously won’t start, and the radio won’t work, and nobody knows she is there.
Then she will look with new respect at the big bushy-maned male sitting only feet away; and as she twitches like a grub in the roofless, sideless machine, the king of all cats will suddenly turn and notice her; and his eyes will glow in the gloaming like golden marbles of fire.
He will suddenly yawn, and show his teeth, and she will smell a carrion gust like a rubbish van, and she will stare down a mouth as wide as a – as wide as what, my friends? – as wide as a wheelie-bin!
And in that instant of terror, it is probably too much to hope that she will be cured of her odd propensity to small acts of unkindness. But at least she will understand that not every cat can be pushed around; and at least she will see that there are still parts of the world where a human being can feel like a poor defenceless animal. It is vital we keep it that way.
You can read the full column in The Daily Telegraph today.