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After the fire

19 September 2014

THE fire in the Manchester and Cheshire Dogs' Home last weekend prompted an outpouring of generosity that surprised many, raising £1.5 million within two or three days. The Revd Mike McGurk judged the mood correctly, giving people in the neighbourhood a chance to mourn for the dogs who died in the fire. Comments on the JustGiving site give an indication of the emotions behind the donations: "R.I.P. sweet souls. You did nothing wrong in your lives and you were loved and are loved. I'm so sorry." "R.I.P. all those beautiful dogs that didnt make it, God Bless u all xxx get well quick all the injured doggies xx." "Need all the help they can get for Manchester & Cheshire Dogs Homes because no animal deserves to suffer!" There are several references to the "rainbow bridge", a poetical idea developed in the 1980s or early '90s of a pleasant limbo for pets until their owners die and come to collect them.

The British are well known for their preference for animals over humans. Innocence is an important element: the feeling that, having domesticated certain animals, and damaged the habitat of others, we have a responsibility for their well-being. This is laudable, though the fierce sentimentality that is sometimes evinced is incomprehensible to many. Sentiment, however, is at the core of many acts of generosity. Charitable giving in response to urgent appeals is nothing new. The world-view is that everything is basically OK, and that people are normally able to look after themselves, or, if not, covered by taxes. This, though, allows for occasional disasters, as long as they are not too frequent or too intractable. What worries the established aid agencies is that the public's attention span seems to be getting ever shorter. And new phenomena have come into play, such as the YouTube gimmick (viz ice-buckets), or the attractiveness of the asker, for example Stuart Sutton, who raised £5 million for teenage cancer through his honest social-media diary. Like the world's climate, the charity sector appears to be experiencing more extreme giving patterns.

Attitudes to climate change point up the missing factor in British generosity: connected thought. Many of those who responded spontaneously to the dogs' home fire will own pets. They will, therefore, have greatly increased their carbon footprint, even if they don't drive their dogs off for a walk in a large diesel car. This week, the UK Government was criticised for allowing pollution to increase, despite earlier pledges. Next week brings another attempt to get the world's leaders to take climate change seriously. Since the people who donated to the dogs' home love wildlife, they ought to be at the forefront of the campaign to curtail the human activities that place so many species in such jeopardy. To raise £1.5 million so quickly is a tribute to an impulsive generosity. With a little more thought, this energy could save the lives of countless more animals.

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