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But, Can They Suffer?

For more than two millennia, human relationship with animals was governed by Aristotle’s view, that animals are mindless creatures in the service of men. That view was affirmed and perpetuated by the Catholic Church. The enlightenment came in the seminal 1789 publication An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832).

Bentham focused on sentience as the source of entitlement to moral consideration and on the results of an action, like infliction of suffering, rather than its motivation. He is generally recognized as the founder of utilitarianism, which strives for the greatest amount of pleasure and the least amount of pain by the largest number of sentient beings. His inclusion of non-human animals in this calculus is affirmed by his celebrated quote “The question is not ‘can they reason?’ nor ‘can they talk?’ but ‘can they suffer?’”

In reaction to Bentham’s clarion call, the dawn of the 19th century witnessed several attempts to enact anti-cruelty legislation in Great Britain. Finally, in 1822, British nobleman and parliamentarian Richard Martin was able to enact the world’s first law to protect cattle. It was eventually expanded to other animals, through several amendments.

The law had an electrifying impact on British society. Two years later, the Reverend Arthur Broome gathered Martin and several other British aristocrats to form the world’s first animal protection organization, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). In 1840, the society came under patronage of Queen Victoria, becoming the Royal Society for the Prevention of  Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), the world’s first and still largest animal protection organization.

Initially, the RSPCA was run by a group of Christian aristocrats who hunted, ate animals, and rode in horse-drawn carriages. Its manager, Lewis Gompertz, was a Jew, who did none of those things, and therefore, didn’t last long. His resignation coincided with a resolution that “the proceedings of the Society were entirely based on the Christian faith and Christian principles.” Presumably, the same faith and principles that kept the animals persecuted for two millennia and allowed the founders to continue hunting and eating them.

The notion that animals could be endowed by their own rights, which precluded all forms of human exploitation, was introduced by another Briton, Henry Salt (1851-1939), in his 1892 book Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress. Salt was a campaigner for social reforms in prisons, schools, and economic institutions, as well as a noted ethical vegetarian, anti-vivisectionist, socialist, and pacifist. He wrote two dozen other books and essays, including “A Plea for Vegetarianism” and a biography of Henry David Thoreau.

In 1891, Salt formed The Humanitarian League, world’s first organization to oppose hunting, a favorite pastime of the British aristocrats who founded and supported the RSPCA. In 1924, two leading RSPCA figures – Henry Amos and Ernest Bell – launched the League Against Cruel Sports, which would primarily attempt to sabotage hunts. In 1963, John Prestige formed the Hunt Saboteurs Association to pursue more aggressive anti-hunting tactics.

The American Experience

American consideration for animals came from the British experience.
In 1866, New York socialite Henry Bergh launched the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), as well as the law that gave it enforcement power. The ASPCA never achieved the intended national status of the British RSPCA and remained primarily a New York City animal shelter.

By the middle of the 20th century, nearly every American jurisdiction had an animal shelter with some form of animal control function. Initially, these institutions focused their attention on reducing the cruelties inflicted on the hundreds of thousands of horses, then the chief engine of transportation. With advent of the internal combustion engine and cars at the beginning of the 20th century, their attention shifted to sheltering and adopting, but mostly, killing abandoned dogs and cats.

In 1873, Henry Bergh was instrumental in getting Congress to enact the first piece of farmed animal protection legislation – “The Twenty-Eight Hour Law.” The law required that animals transported by rail or barge be given food, water, and rest every 28 hours. It does not apply to today’s trucking operations.

In 1877, dozens of local humane organizations formed the American Humane Association (AHA) to pursue enforcement of the 28-hour and other animal protection laws. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter, the AHA became co-opted by the meat and vivisection industries and expelled members opposing vivisection.

In 1954, four officers of the American Humane Association quit in protest to form the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS). HSUS has had a major impact on all aspects of animal protection in the U.S. and has been responsible for a number of federal animal protection statutes. When Wayne Pacelle took over as president in 2005, HSUS began promoting plant-based eating. Helen Jones left the HSUS in 1959 to launch the International Society for Animal Rights, the first American organization to advocate Henry Salt’s concept of animal rights.

[I have abstracted most of this material from the scholarly masterpiece The Longest Struggle (2007) by historian Norm Phelps.]

Next two weeks will bring you fascinating historical accounts of the oppression of animals for food and laboratory experiments.

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26 thoughts on “The Vegan Blog”

  1. We have learned nothing, but I see a glimmer of hope in this next generation. There’s more love and willingness to care… Maybe I’m dreaming; naive; or surrounded by ‘nice’ young people, but it’s heartening. Thank you for everything you have done to keep those souls safe and loved 💚💚💚💚✌️💕
    Co, Antrim
    N. Ireland

  2. Amazing post. Some people are shocked at the comparison between the Holocaust and what humans do to animals, but this is just speciesism. They feel that comparing human and animal suffering somehow discredits or diminishes human suffering, because they believe animals are lower than humans. Thank you Alex Herscaft for making this important point and hopefully the no vegan majority will see the truth soon. Peace and Love

  3. Thank you. I often reference the holocaust in my animal activism and now here are your world changing words to back me up. Thank you thank you. Blessings.

  4. Dear Alex,

    I am moved and humbled by your experience as a young child and the journey it has taken you on. I am finding it hard to put in to words my gratitude that you have been able to find a positive trajectory for the suffering, pain and loss of life among your loved ones, not to mention countless others.

    I am only months in to living a more compassionate life. Vegan eating has been an easy conversion for me and my only regret is having not done it sooner. I have often been saddened by peoples’ lack of empathy towards fellow humans and found it hard as a child to understand racism. Little did I know I was implicitly being taught that oppression (in its’ many forms) was ok. I guess it has never sat well with me, but until only recently the connection between eating animals, animal cruelty and our oppression of people, has eluded me.

    Thank you for giving voice to such a big topic and sharing your experience. I look forward to reading more from you.

    Sincerely, Cyntra

  5. I was never in a camp. But I recognized oppression, and resolved to stop eating meat many years ago. Interestingly enough my own mother tried to guilt me about my decision. And she was raised on a farm.
    So thank you. I firmly believe that you cannot say you love animals and continue to eat meat…it’s more appropriate to say you love certain animals and hate the rest.
    And if you eat meat, you are harming the climate. That’s a proven fact. So thank you sir for your convictions. They are entirely correct.

  6. I wholeheartedly agree with you. I have been a vegetarian since I was a child and a vegan for ten years.
    It is so refreshing to read that others see how this evil, everyday like slaughter, slavery and torture is acceptable if someone else does it for you

  7. Thank you very much for this website, for this clear message.
    I am from Slovakia, and I woul like to make translations of your blog posts, so people, who do not speak English, can read your important thoughts, if it is ok with you.
    I never heard thoughts about our beloved animal toys in our childhood opposing the teaching, that animals are food. I is very strong image of our internal incoherency.
    Thank you. I is honor to read your kind words!

  8. It’s awesome to become acquainted with a four-decade Vegan. I will keenly anticipate your periodic sharing of wisdom and advice

  9. Thank you. Sir for your incredible insight…
    World must start to understand that
    Savagery is. Savagery… no matter the species 🙏

  10. This Text was verry emotional and show the same Violence to animals in high level how the Violence to jewish people before many years ago. Changes was only the Spezies,the cruelty ist the same and so unnessesary!!! Love all beeings is our learning Prozess! I fight for every Animal!💪💪💪✌️I’m a vegan.❣️

  11. Thank you very, very much for calling on your family’s tragic experience, and that suffered by so many others, to advocate for fairness and compassion for all sentient beings. When will the world learn? “Peace on Earth, goodwill towards ALL.”

  12. This was the first time I heard of you. I’m already vegan , 3 years only unfortunately.
    I wish you can reach more and more people , your words are so powerful. I wish you health and happiness and that many people will hear you out

  13. Alex, I’m so grateful that you are still so active in fighting for the animals! Keep it up as there is still too much work to do. We are fighting against our own government which subsidizes the animal industry!

  14. What an excellent piece of writing to defend animal farming industry 👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽 I’ve just shared it in Facebook

  15. First off I would like to say great blog! I had a quick question in which I’d like
    to ask if you do not mind. I was curious to know how
    you center yourself and clear your head prior to writing.
    I have had a tough time clearing my mind in getting my ideas
    out there. I truly do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first 10
    to 15 minutes tend to be wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or hints?

  16. Dear Alex, dear, dear man! I have for many years referred to the killing of these precious beings we share our Earth with as another holocaust! It has always saddened & sickened me. I am forever grateful for the work you do to try and bring awareness, awakening to the human species about what is REALLY going on!!! There are many times I cannot even leave my home for fear of what I might see! I pray and oh I do so hope one day this horrifically heinous treatment of these beloved beings, the innocents indeed will end! …. Thank you!

  17. Thank you for your kind comments.
    Additional information and lessons from the Holocaust about our oppression of animals are available on our website at
    The video of a speech I delivered before 2,000 vegan activists in England on August 31st may be viewed on the FARM Facebook page or YouTube channel.

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Alex Hershaft

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