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.