A colleague recently acquired a new pet dog. It has become quite the centre of attention and a cause for much conversation. When walking in the park or along the canal I notice that, while solitary walkers rarely speak to strangers, those walking with dogs regularly exchange greetings and their dogs are a reason for a doggy conversational exchange. We care about our pets and enjoy the connection they provide with other pet owners.
Animal welfare charities are among the most well supported. Stories of serious animal cruelty shock and offend us and are perceived as similar to child abuse; an act of unconscionable cruelty towards the innocent by those who should be protecting and caring for them. Yet, our animal sensibilities are a comparatively modern attitude.
The oldest animal welfare charity is the RSPCA, founded in 1824. The emergence of the RSPCA has its roots in the intellectual climate of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in Britain where opposing views were exchanged in print concerning the use of animals. The harsh use and maltreatment of animals in hauling carriages, scientific experiments (including vivisection), and cultural amusements of foxhunting, bull-baiting and cockfighting were among some of the matters that were debated by social reformers, clergy, and MPs. Earlier attempts to get legislation passed in parliament (1800 and 1809) were unsuccessful. Speakers in favour of reform gave speeches which combined the vocabulary of animal rights and trusteeship with a theological appeal to Biblical passages opposing cruelty.
In 1822, Richard Martin M.P. headed up an anti-cruelty to cattle bill (sometimes called Martin's Act) which was successful and became law. Martin's Act was supported by various social reformers who were not parliamentarians and an informal network had gathered around the efforts of the Reverend Arthur Broome (1779-1837) to create a voluntary organisation that would promote kindness toward animals. Broome was appointed as the society's first honorary secretary, thus was born the (R)SPCA. The “Royal” was added much later. Among those who supported these reforms were many antislavery campaigners and others promoting social reforms in various aspects of British society. There is an interesting announcement placed in various newspapers about this time attributed to the Reverend Broome which, despite its rather archaic wording, captures the spirit of the animal reformers’ passion:
“An Individual who feels for the sufferings of the Brute Species, and laments, in common with every benevolent mind, the wanton cruelties which are so frequently committed with impunity on this unoffending part of God's Creation, earnestly appeals to the Public in their behalf. He suggests the formation of a Society by whose united exertions some check may, if possible, be applied to an evil, the toleration of which is equally repugnant to the dictates of humanity and to the spirit and precepts of the Christian religion. Persons whose sentiments accord with those of the Writer, on this subject, and who are willing to promote the object he recommends, are requested to address a few lines…”
We have become accustomed to the idea that the language of human rights and animal rights share a similar moral and legal status. Animal rights are a rallying point for the protection and proper (humane) treatment of animals. Yet, animal rights activists have often taken extreme, even violent, action against those involved in legal animal experimentation or factory farming methods. Moderate animal rights campaigners were behind the fox hunting ban in England, reforms to farming and better abattoir practices. The moderates continue to educate, cajole and coax us to greater awareness of the exploitation and abuse of animals for dubious past times and the voracious demands of modern food processing.
It seems that the affection we have for our pets is linked to their charming nature and their ability to enrich our emotional life by their presence, whereas our relationship with the animals whom we regard as being at our disposal for leisure and eating is far more ambiguous. Current trends towards healthier eating (meat-free Mondays, meat alternatives, vegetarianism and veganism) are often couched in terms of animal care as well as of our own health. Likewise, sporting events using animals are more strictly regulated than ever, though the struggle to end bull fighting in parts of Europe and South America is indicative of the fact that there are intransigent cultural and historical factors preventing reform.
The major world religions are generally against cruelty in all its forms and compassion is a guiding virtue for the committed believer. Just as it has been said that the measure of a nation’s degree of civilisation can be measured by the treatment of its poor and destitute, maybe we should add the way in which we treat the sentient creatures around us as a further indication of our national moral and spiritual well-being.