The Fellowship of Life
by Terence Morris
From The Tablet dated 1 February 1986:
The Westminster Cathedral Conference Centre and was packed to the doors last weekend for a meeting on Christians and animal welfare organised by the Christian Consultative Council for the Welfare of Animals.
The Westminster location has two relevant historical connections. Cardinal Manning was one of the principle figures behind the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876; and on land where the cathedral now stands there was once a pit where bulls were tormented by dogs for human pleasure.
It was a group of clergymen who were responsible for founding the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to animals in 1824. Other Christians, however, had untroubled consciences, and throughout last weekend's conference a tiny but very vocal anti-Christian minority lost no chance to charge the Church with hypocrisy. Bishop Agnellus Andrew was among those who had to put up with their barracking.
The 1876 Act was concerned to curb gross cruelty and suffering inflicted on animals in everyday life and to limit the use of animals for scientific experiments. Before that date animals could be and often were dissected in the lecture theatres of medical schools. The Act provided for a system of licensing and control by the Home Secretary but it was so flexible that many critics regarded the protection which it afforded as no more than illusory. In a wide range of experiments animals have been progressively poisoned to death, used as targets for new military ordinance, blinded to test shampoo liquid and subjected to all manner of surgical experimentation.
Terrible though the suffering of laboratory animals is, any RSPCA inspector can testify to the everyday abuse and neglect which is also persistent. It is not limited to starvation of dogs, cats, horses or ponies, nor to torturing of animals by children and teenagers who in taking such savage pleasure are a constant reminder that there will never be a shortage of brutal prison guards or interrogators. Calculated cruelty in the form of organised dog fighting, cock-fighting and badger-baiting is becoming re-established in Britain. Hare coursing and foxhunting – the so-called country sports – remain within the protection of the law.
A new phenomenon to contend with is factory farming. Intensive techniques have transformed the lives of farm animals, many of whom no longer see the light of day. The pig farrowing crate, the battery unit with its tens of thousands of hens, the slats on which anaemic calves spend their unnatural lives are a horrifying testimony to what has gone wrong. As Ruth Harrison of the Farm Animal Welfare Council and a member of the Church of England's Board for Social Responsibility put it, the questions asked are only “Is it productive? Is it cost-effective? – never “Is it right?”.
A growing number of people are now refusing to eat pig and sheep meat, beef or factory produced poultry or battery laid eggs. They choose vegetable foods produced by organic methods. For them vegetarianism is a categorical imperative following from the principal of animal rights.
The Christian tradition is that man has been given dominion over animals. In his keynote speech Bishop Baker argued that “dominion” has to be seen in terms not of exploitation but of trusteeship. But his attempt to sketch a scriptural argument for animal rights was treated with scepticism by Donald Soper, who reminded the audience that the Bible was replete with contradictory elements. He was unable to “read off” an unambiguous message from Scripture. Instead, he was persuaded that we have to look for guidance “in the spirit of Jesus”. One had to present oneself with the idea of the same Jesus who cleansed the temple reacting to a farm factory or the experiments in a commercial laboratory.
However, the issue of animal rights is not straightforward. Some categories of cruelty can be disposed of easily enough. Fox hunting and other sports which are essentially pleasurable for the participants can be banned. But what of factory farming from which millions benefit? What of experiments to control disease and relieve human suffering?
Legislation is currently on the parliamentary timetable to replace the 1876 act. Richard Ryder, a former chairman of the RSPCA, dismissed the new proposals as no better than the old. Ryder sees the scientists and experimenters continuing to dominate the situation.
His paper was not to the liking of Clive Hollands – as valiant a campaigner against animal abuse as any of those present. In his view, half a loaf was better than none; and he insisted on the need to work within the law. A minority of those present barracked him to the point of nearly disrupting the proceedings.
This was a taste of the violent strand in the animal rights movement which is so much feared by the mainstream. To sabotage foxhunting is one thing; to wreck animal laboratories and harass experimenters and breeders of laboratory animals is quite another. The believers in direct action, curiously, even borrow from the vocabulary of terrorism when they describe themselves, for example, as the Animal Liberation Army. Many who are deeply committed to animal rights fear that such an approach will alienate public opinion and throw doubt on the legitimacy of the cause.
Whether the mainstream likes it or not, however, direct action is now an established part of the animal rights scene. How far it may prove to be a serious impediment to the forward movement is arguable. Even the most outrageous acts of the suffragettes did not prevent women from getting the vote.
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