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A Publication of


From The Ark No. 188 Summer 2001

A Brief History of British Animal Welfare

How have the Christian Churches been involved historically in
animal welfare in the UK? Here a leading veterinerary ethicist,
and Christian, offers a succinct summary.

by Revd Giles Legood

Anyone who reads the newspapers, listens to the radio or watches the television news will not have failed to notice that the reporting and discussion of human treatment of animals is both newsworthy and of great current interest.  We may confidently say that every day there is in the media an item involving ethical or welfare issues surrounding animals.  Such issues typically include hunting, genetic engineering, laboratory animals, veal crates, whaling, wearing of fur, dog fighting, puppy farms, badger baiting, stray dogs, fishing, intensive poultry farming, transportation, exotic pets, zoos and circuses.  This interest is no new phenomenon, there is an extremely long history of debate and disagreement among humans as to what we may legitimately do to non-human animals and what are our duties and responsibilities towards them.

In eighteenth century Britain many of those who campaigned for social reform were motivated by a Christian conviction that it was an affront to the God who was made known in the person of Jesus that some human beings, made in the image of God and all equally loved, should be treated so shamefully. It occurred too to many that this Christian concern for God’s creation should also include those non-human creatures, who were also created and loved by the same God.  John Wesley (1703-91), a Church of England priest and the founder of the movement which became known as Methodism, was a vegetarian and argued that humans had a duty to be tender towards animals because both humans and animals ‘were the offspring of one common father’.  Wesley’s widespread preaching (he travelled 250,000 miles on horse during his lifetime) and the writing of such people as Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752), had a considerable influence on the change of attitude towards animals at this time.

Secular influences

It would be wrong however to think that only those inspired by religious allegiance were calling for changes of attitude and practice.  One of the most influential campaigners for fairer treatment of animals was the economist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham.  Bentham is best known for advocating, with J. S. Mill, the idea of Utilitarianism.  When faced with deciding which possible action to take, Utilitarianism offers a simple equation for helping decide which action should be made.   Simply expressed, according to Bentham, one should ask which action is going to bring about ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’ and pursue this.   Whilst Bentham took this equation to mean what will bring about the greatest human happiness, a number of philosophers have subsequently widened the scope of the equation to embrace animals too.  When talking of animals specifically, Bentham did however ask a question which was revolutionary for his day: ‘The question is not, Can they reason? Nor Can they talk?  But Can they suffer?’

Cases of animal cruelty

Towards the end of the eighteenth century two cases of animal cruelty came to public attention which became instrumental in influencing public opinion to such an extent that there were widespread calls for law reform.  In 1790 a man was unsuccessfully prosecuted for ripping out a horse’s tongue whilst simultaneously beating it on the head. He was acquitted because there were no laws on the statute books at that time which gave any protection to animals from cruelty.  In 1793 two butchers in Manchester were fined for cutting off the feet of live sheep and then driving the animals through the streets.  The public was outraged, for not only had cruelty clearly taken place, but had the butchers owned the sheep themselves they could not have been prosecuted.  At that time there was no legislation in place which prohibited cruelty towards animals which one owned oneself and thus prosecution in such cases would only be successful on the grounds that a cruel act towards an animal had harmed someone else’s property.

With such cases seizing the public imagination, legislation, or at least attempts at it, followed.  In 1800 Sir William Pultney brought a Bill before Parliament to outlaw bull baiting.  The Bill failed, as did a similar one two years later.  Even at this stage the welfare of the animals was perhaps not paramount, as one of the arguments against the Bills was that ‘it would be wrong to deprive the lower orders of their amusements’.  Attempts at successfully introducing legislation continued however and in 1809, the Lord Chancellor, Thomas Eskine, introduced a Bill ‘Preventing the Wanton and Malicious Cruelty Towards Animals.’ Eskine’s Bill was passed by the House of Lords but it failed in the Commons.  Nevertheless supporters of laws to protect animals took heart that if such influential people as the Lord Chancellor were concerned about the matter, then the tide must be turning in their favour.

The date which is singularly most important in the history of animal welfare legislation in Britain is July 22, 1822. This is the date of the enactment of the first piece of legislation which gave protection to at least some categories of animals. Sponsored by Richard Martin MP (nicknamed ‘Humanity Martin’), the ‘Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle’ gave the courts power to impose fines of between ten shillings and five pounds, or up to three months imprisonment for acts of cruelty towards cattle, horses or sheep. Subsequent amendments to what became known as ‘Martin’s Act’ gave increasing protection to large animals and in 1835 a Bill giving protection to domestic animals passed through Parliament with an ease which indicated the extent to which the arguments of Martin and others had been won.

Cruelties, nevertheless, continued.  It was still not uncommon for cat skinners to practise their trade. Here, the skins of cats were removed while the animals were still alive and then the animals were often thrown into the street.  A number of people also made their living by stealing cats in order to provide the skinners with potential pelts.  Pigs were routinely whipped to tenderise their flesh, shopkeepers kept squirrels in cages, running on treadmills, in order to attract customers and animals were taught to perform tricks for people’s amusement through acts of torture and deprivation.

The origins of the RSPCA

At the time of Martin’s Act an organisation was founded by an Anglican priest, the Reverend Arthur Broome, to educate the public in the matter of humane treatment of animals.  The first meeting of this ‘Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ (the SPCA, later to become the RSPCA) was held in the appropriately named Old Slaughter’s Coffee-House in St. Martin’s Lane, London in 1824.  Its first Secretary was John Colam, also Secretary of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and one of its founding members was anti-slavery leader, William Wilberforce.

Perhaps the greatest influence on the treatment of animals came about through the scientific work of Charles Darwin (1809-82).  Darwin was the first person to see the theory of evolution by natural selection gain wide acceptance both within the scientific community and wider society.  Darwin blew apart the almost universally accepted theory that human beings were set apart biologically from the rest of the natural order.   Whilst his views were widely disputed and opposed when he first published them, Darwin’s influence now means that human beings cannot easily believe themselves to be entirely separate from all other living organisms on the earth. Darwin put his view thus, ‘Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work worthy of the interposition of a deity.  More humble and I think truer to consider him created from animals.’

It is not surprising, given his lifelong work of understanding the links between human beings and animals, that Darwin was also one of those who worked hard to promote the introduction of the 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act.  This act was the first to regulate animal experimentation in Britain and was to remain on the statute books until the introduction of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act in 1986. The 1960s and 1970s were times of increased public concern for animal experimentation.  In the scientific community too, the mid-Victorian legislation was recognised as being inadequate to control the pain, distress and other suffering which modern experiments were liable to inflict on animals.

The 1986 Act extends the scope of the 1876 Act to include within its remit all vertebrate animals and their embryonic forms from the halfway point of gestation or, in the case of fish and amphibians, from when they are capable of feeding.  Subsequently the Act had been amended to also include regulation over the use of the common octopus – octopus vulgaris. Not only does the Act regulate animals experimentation but it also covers the production of vaccines and sera, the growth of tumours and other activities which may cause ‘pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm.’

Recent developments in understanding

Throughout the twentieth century human understanding of the biological world continued in a way that would have been unrecognisable to Darwin.  In 1909 W.L. Johannsen wrote of genes (an abbreviation of ‘pangene’) as the units of inheritance that control the passing of an hereditary characteristic from parent to offspring. This handing on of characteristics is done by controlling the structures of proteins or other genetic material. In the latter half of the same century the discovery that genes are identified with lengths of DNA or RNA was made.  As a result, we now know that humans share approximately 98.4 per cent of their genes with chimpanzees.  Such information has potentially enormous consequences for humankind.

In pre-Darwinian times a crucial distance could be maintained between humans and other animals.  However, with the knowledge that genetically we are so close to other species, our attitudes towards and treatment of these species cannot easily remain unquestioned.  Indeed, Richard Dawkins, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford has speculated that if in some remote jungle we discovered a species which was a living link between humans and chimpanzees, ‘our precious norms and ethics could come crashing about our ears’.

* The Revd Giles Legood is Chaplain and Honorary Lecturer in Veterinary Ethics at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London. He is editor of Veterinary Ethics – an Introduction (Continuum, 2000, 16.99).

For questions, comments and submissions, please contact:
Deborah Jones at The Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare

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