Critics of today’s animal protection movement often argue that animal welfare is ultimately a trivial matter—the product of effete modern sensibilities. But the truth is that our relationship with animals has always been profoundly important. How we treat the world’s animals is a measure of who we are. It defines our character, our moral progress, and our ability to look beyond self-interest. There’s a reason why the decent treatment of animals commands ownership of the word humane.
The care of animals and the fight against cruelty can bring out the best in the human heart—all the more so because it inspires pure altruism, with no angle or payoff. For the earliest reformers in the humane movement, religious conviction was no hindrance to an active concern for the treatment of animals. It was their greatest inspiration, and it gave them the courage to call cruelty by its name. Theirs was the spirit of Britain’s William Wilberforce, the great 19th-century Christian champion against both human slavery and cruelty to animals. Then as now, such reformist zeal was often dismissed as extreme and subversive, but Wilberforce had his answer: “If to be feeling alive to the suffering of my fellow-creatures is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large.”
The campaigners of Wilberforce’s time brought new passion to the cause, and added the first major animal welfare reforms to Western law, but they were carrying on a debate and a mission that had begun much earlier. For millennia, the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions have called followers to be compassionate toward animals, and Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism are even more solidly grounded on the principles of kindness toward all creatures. During the Middle Ages, stories of saints and their solicitude to animals provided a rich lore of tradition. Even St. Thomas Aquinas, sometimes cited to support the view that we have no direct duty to animals, recognized animal cruelty as a moral issue, because he feared it fostered wickedness.
In the early modern era, questions about cruelty and kindness were given even more serious attention. Even in 1641, while the French philosopher René Descartes was arguing that animals were automata with no souls, mind, or conscious experience of pain, New England Puritans were approving the first legal code to protect animals—the Body of Liberties, which prohibited “tyranny or cruelty towards any brute creatures which are usually kept for the use of man.”
In 1693, in Some Thoughts Concerning Education, John Locke advised parents to chastise thoughtless cruelty by their children, and within a few decades the kindness-to-animals ethic became a common theme in children’s literature. By the late 18th century, a few influential thinkers, including Jeremy Bentham and John Lawrence, were arguing that the law should extend its protection to animals. The authors and poets of the Romantic movement weighed in with admonitions against cruelty and a call to respect nature.
By the early 19th century, these moral convictions were widely shared. Although the German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed like Aquinas and Locke that humans had no direct duty to animals, he agreed that cruelty was wrong because it debased humans and hardened their hearts. Before the end of the century, in 1892, the reformer Henry Salt laid the groundwork for the modern approach to animal rights with a powerful work that makes remarkable reading even today, Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress. Salt encouraged people to “recognize the common bond of humanity that unites all living beings in one universal brotherhood.”
America’s first anticruelty laws actually predate any animal protection organization. Maine passed the first such law in 1821, and more than a dozen states followed suit by 1860. The states also began to prohibit staged animal fighting, with more than half of them doing so before 1900.
Organized concern for animals first emerged in the 19th century. Just two years after Britain enacted the world’s first national anticruelty law in 1822, several dozen men met in a London coffeehouse to form the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—the first of its kind in the world. Queen Victoria lent her authority to the group some years later, and in 1840 it took on the noble name the Royal SPCA.
In 1866 New York socialite Henry Bergh founded the United States’ first animal welfare charity, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), just nine days before the New York legislature passed an ambitious anticruelty law. Inspired by this example, humanitarians throughout the United States formed SPCAs and humane societies.
In Pets in America, historian Katherine Grier notes, “As families abandoned keeping livestock, another change that took place gradually well into the 1900s, pet keeping became the only way many could directly express kindness to animals.” For the emerging urban class, pets may have fulfilled a basic impulse to be close to other creatures—what some have since described as “nature-deficit disorder.”
The new middle-class interest in pet keeping inevitably produced a new expression of the human-animal bond, but also produced stray cats and dogs, especially in cities. The newly formed humane organizations responded by taking on the tasks of animal control, sheltering, and often the grim business of euthanasia. Congress’ first animal protection law, enacted in 1873, actually protected farm animals: The Twenty-Eight-Hour Law required the off-loading, feeding, and watering of livestock from railcars on the long journey from the West to the East. In the United Kingdom, Parliament regulated vivisection in 1876, but despite parallel efforts by American advocates, the U.S. Congress did not follow, and animal experimentation went largely unregulated until Congress enacted the federal Animal Welfare Act nearly a century later. The result of these long-ago failures by Congress was to leave a free-for-all in animal experimentation and agriculture—a long period of unrestrained abuse that we are just now beginning to correct in law.
In the United States, the very first humane organization—the ASPCA—was founded in 1866, the year after the Civil War ended. And the same woman who had helped awaken the conscience of America about slavery was also a stirring voice in defense of animals. “The care of the defenseless animal creation,” wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe, “is to be an evidence of the complete triumph of Christianity.”
A half century earlier, a similar sequence had played out in England, with the conviction and fervor of abolitionists quickly turning to the abolition of cruelty to animals. The United Kingdom banned the slave trade in 1807, and little more than a decade later enacted national laws against cruelty that were the first of their kind anywhere. William Wilberforce saw both efforts as part of the same humane enterprise—defending different victims from the same kind of arrogant and merciless abuse of power. The spirit was expressed by a young compatriot of his in both causes, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. “I was convinced,” Shaftesbury wrote, “that God had called me to devote whatever advantages He might have bestowed upon me to the cause of the weak, the helpless, both man and beast, and those who had none to help them.”
Look around today and you’ll find thousands of groups carrying on this work, often against abuses of a kind and scale that people like Shaftesbury could not have imagined. Though critics try to cast the animal protection movement as foreign, eccentric, and subversive, this cause has long been a worthy and natural expression of the great Western moral tradition.
And the cause runs even deeper than that. It calls us back to a bond of kinship and respect for animals that humans have felt since before we had words to describe it. It calls us to be faithful shepherds of Creation, alert to our duties and alive to the suffering of our fellow creatures. It is a cause that speaks to moral aspiration, asking us to live up to our own highest ideals of justice and mercy. It writes common moral standards into law, so that liberty does not give way to license, and cruel people are not left as judges of their own conduct. Like all the best moral causes, animal protection in the end reminds us of what we know already—that to mistreat an animal is low, dishonorable, and an abuse of power that diminishes human and animal alike.
Wayne Pacelle is president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. Excerpted from the book The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them by Wayne Pacelle. Copyright © 2011 by Wayne Pacelle and the Humane Society of the United States. Reprinted with permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Have something to say? Send a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in the July-August 2011 issue of Utne Reader.