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Nursery rhymes for modern times

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It’s amazing what runs through your head when you go about your daily work. Last week the lyrics to the rhyme ‘How much is that doggie in the window?’ were stuck in my head. As I hummed the tune I realised how inaccurate it was for modern times. No longer can pet shops sell puppies in windows. Think of the equivalent 2019 lyrics, ‘How much is that doggy at the breeder’s yard? Please can I see the bitch? How much is that doggy at the breeder’s yard? I hope they are a registered breeding premises’. Unsurprisingly, my nine-month-old son found those lyrics much less catchy.

As a government vet, it got me thinking about other victims of modern veterinary times. Let’s start with the owl and the pussy-cat. Did the cat get its pet passport checked before departing from the UK? If they left in the event of a no-deal Brexit, did the cat get its rabies titre checked at an EU-approved laboratory? As for the owl, I couldn’t tell you which animal health certificate he would need.

Then there’s Old MacDonald. The range of species on his farm sounds like a state vet’s worse nightmare. All together now... ‘Old MacDonald had a cow with mouth ulcers, a pig with sore feet and a pyrexic sheep.’ The chief veterinary officer is quaking in her boots!

Little Bo-Peep may seem innocent, but she brings up an interesting welfare debate – the docking of lamb’s tails. I’m certainly not against docking, but to hang them up on a tree? That comes across as rather gratuitous. Then to pin the tails back on certainly contravenes the Animal Welfare Act. As for losing her sheep in the first place, does the local authority know they’re on the loose?

Sticking with sheep, Mary has a lot to answer for. After the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001, livestock movements were tightened, and rightly so. It would be possible for Mary to take her sheep to school (provided the school doesn’t have a county parish holding number), but only after gaining a licence from the Animal and Plant Health Agency to do so. Perhaps someone should put her in touch with the Defra Rural Services Helpline.

The pigs are in trouble too. One went to market, which is not necessarily a problem, assuming that the market is licensed under the Animal Gatherings Order and adhering to the Welfare of Animals at Markets Order. Even if the market wasn’t licensed I could forgive him, as his litter mate has broken the biggest rule of all – eating roast beef! Admittedly, it could be worse, it could be a ham sandwich made with African swine fever-infected pork.

Catching tigers by the toe, the farmer’s wife cutting the tails off blind mice, the old lady who swallowed a cat, I could go on.

Attitudes to animal health and welfare have changed dramatically over recent decades and that is to be lauded. So, should we now be writing more welfare-friendly lyrics? I think not. These rhymes are part of our history. Much like ‘Ring a ring o’ roses’ describes the great plague, these animal rhymes chronicle our past – albeit a little less literally. Instead of writing new ones, we should use the traditional ones as discussion starters on the role animals play in today’s society. And, if that gets too heavy, just remember how Nellie got free from the shackles of the circus.

Do you ponder?

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