Notes From the Margins…

Of Cats and Dogs

  • August 31, 2021
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Given the scale of the disaster unfolding in Kabul right now, it might seem a little frivolous to write about Paul ‘Penn’ Farthing, the ex-Marine Sergeant and founder of the Nowzad animal rescue charity, who has just arrived back in the UK on a plane filled with cats and dogs – and no people.

So let me explain.  I have great affection for cats and dogs, but I don’t feel any particular joy in the fact that Farthing managed to get his rescue animals safely out of Afghanistan.

Of course I’m glad the animals weren’t shot or abandoned, but given that so many Afghan men, women and children have been left to an equally terrible fate, this is not something that I want to celebrate or draw much satisfaction from.

Nor do I want to hail Farthing as a hero.  I have no idea if he is or not.  He certainly does seem to be a decent, courageous and committed man, but I don’t believe we should be looking to extract heroes or happy endings from the calamity that is unfolding in front of us.  Nor do I want to criticise a man whose mission clearly went beyond a supposedly misplaced British obsession with ‘pets.’  It’s clear that these animals were more than that, and not only to Farthing but to the servicemen and women who these animals have helped deal with combat trauma.

For me the real significance of the Farthing saga lies in what it tells us about the most corrupt, inept and venal government in British history – a government that set out to destroy the reputation of an ex-serviceman who had the temerity to criticise and humiliate it in public.

We’ve already seen the almost pathological inability of the government and the Tory Party in general to tolerate criticism.  We saw it when Tory MPs attacked Marcus Rashford for his foodbank campaign, and later accused him of ‘putting politics over football’ because he missed a penalty.  We saw it when Tory MPs called Gareth Southgate ‘a tool of Deep Woke’ because he asked his players to take the knee during the Euros; when Matt Hancock lectured Dr Rosena Allin-Khan on her ‘tone’ when she questioned the government’s ‘non-existent’ Covid testing strategy; when Ashfield MP Lee Anderson called anti-Brexit campaigner Steve Bray a ‘scrounger’ and a ‘parasite’.

Sometimes these attacks are orchestrated.  Sometimes they are made by individuals.  And in the case of Penn Farthing, we appear to be dealing with the former.

The facts of the story are complicated, but the gist of the matter is that Farthing raised money from donations to charter a private plane and fly Nowzad’s 60-odd staff and  170 dogs and cats out of Kabul.   These efforts provoked a row between Farthing and the UK government, in which Farthing accused the MoD of blocking his attempts to get his plane out.

In response Defence Secretary Ben Wallace claimed that Farthing was taking up valuable military resources,effectively ‘queue jumping’  and undermining the government’s efforts to evacuate refugees who were already in Kabul airport.

The row worsened when Farthing claimed that the MoD had left him to ‘fend for himself’ and prevented him from evacuating his staff and animals.  Farthing pointed out that his animals travelled in the hold, not seats, and argued that he had spare capacity on his plane to take refugees who were already in the airport.  On Friday Farthing revealed that he and his staff and animals had been turned back inside the airport by the US military, because their paperwork did not meet with bureaucratic requirements that had been introduced by the Biden administration only hours before.

And on Saturday Farthing flew out of Kabul with his animals but no staff, apparently because his staff did not have paperwork from the British government that the Taliban would accept.

Even before his plane landed Farthing was being transformed into a villain, as Tory politicians and commentators in the mainstream press and social media accused him of putting ‘animals over people.’ Tom Tugenhat, who has become the conscience of the Tory Party in the last few weeks, told LBC’s Matt Frei.

We’ve just used a lot of troops to get in 200 dogs; meanwhile my interpreter’s family is likely to be killed. When one interpreter asked me a few days ago, ‘Why is my five-year-old worth less than a dog?’ I didn’t have an answer.

Tugenhat’s advocacy does not sit well with his consistently hardline voting record on asylum and refugees.  but  the same could be said of many of Tories who are now accusing Farthing of prioritising animals over people.  The ‘people before animals’ accusation also ignored the fact that the animals travelled in the hold, and Farthing’s offer to fill his plane’s spare capacity with other refugees.  Nevertheless the mud stuck, as it was intended to, and the former ‘hero soldier’  found himself transformed into the symbol of the heartlessness and misplaced priorities of the United Kingdom or the West in general.

In the wider scheme of things these criticisms are entirely correct.  An empty plane filled with rescue animals but no people did fly out of Kabul on Saturday, providing a heartwarming story for animal lovers while thousands of Afghans were left stranded.   But where these criticisms slip into dishonesty and hypocrisy is in their singling out of Farthing as the symbol of British/Western moral terpitude.  There is little doubt that this has been deliberately orchestrated from within the government.

Bear in mind that this is a government that still refuses to publish emails and Whatsapp messages from government ministers pertaining to possible cronyism and the mismanagement of the pandemic,  yet it was able, in the midst of the evacuation,  to find time to leak Farthing’s sweary rant to an MoD official in the Times.

This followed Ben Wallace’s accusations that Farthing had ‘bullied’ his officials and civil servants – this from the government that has ignored accusations of consistent bullying from its Home Secretary.  Farthing has since apologised for his outburst, and claimed that it was made under stress, which given the events of the last few weeks may well be true.

Once again however, this is not about Farthing’s character – it is about a government that cannot stand to be criticised, and will do whatever it takes to undermine anyone who attempts to reveal its failings, especially when doing so enables it to distract from them, even if only temporarily.    This is why Farthing has become the centre of the ‘people not animals’ outrage of the last few days, and why he has been subject to tweets like this from the Tory tv presenter Kirstie Allsopp:



The Guardian has also joined in, with a comment piece from Gaby Hinscliff  which observes:

What a story to tell the world about ourselves, amid the chaos of our leaving. What a gift to extremist movements across the Middle East and beyond, who draw their power from the idea that the west holds foreign lives contemptuously cheap; that cats of no conceivable interest to the Taliban can be airlifted out but not human beings at risk of being hunted down and executed.

Once again, Hinscliff’s headshaking is correct on the general picture, even though she leaves out the specifics. For example she claims – on the basis of the Sunday Times piece this weekend – that ‘real anger and frustration have been reported in military circles’ regarding Farthing’s supposed misuse of resources.   Yet even the Spectator, which has published two pieces on the ‘shameful’ evacuation of Farthing’s animals and the ‘moral abomination’ in which the UK government ‘caved in under pressure from an animal-loving mob’ has issued the following postscript:




So we – as well as ‘extremists’ – may well question how and why a plane filled with animals but not people was able to leave Kabul airport last week, but it is as unfair to blame Farthing for this as it is to accuse him of being a ‘white saviour’ – a narrative that Farthing did not choose.

If we want to talk about misplaced ‘priorities’ we need to look further back, at the passivity of a government that  – unlike France – did not take action to protect Afghans until it was too late; a government whose prime minister and foreign minister lounged around on holiday while a humanitarian crisis unfolded in front of their eyes; a government that did not even bother to read thousands of emails from MPs and charities pleading for Afghans who may have been eligible for rescue.

If we want to look further back, we might ask why more than 32,000 Afghans were denied asylum in the years since the invasion.  But these are not subjects that this government wants to think about or have people talk about.  Far better to tarnish the reputation of a well-meaning ex-soldier while presenting the government as the real humanitarians.  Meanwhile in the US, a different narrative is unfolding, as critics of Joe Biden accuse the US president of abandoning military dogs at Kabul airport.



In this case, animals are being used to criticise the president.  In the UK they are being used to distract from criticism of the Prime Minister.   In both cases, we are dealing with political gaslighting.  We should learn to recognise it when we see it, instead of vilifying Penn Farthing for moral failings that are not his.







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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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