An awakening: the first laws protecting animals

Before the first laws protecting animals against human abuse were enacted there was an enlightenment about the potential of animals to suffer. The English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, said, in response to Kant: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? The grammar is verbatim. It was written in around 1780. He asked a pertinent question that people in general had failed to ask before namely whether animals experienced pain and suffering.

Jeremy Bentham in America
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Jeremy Bentham in America. He perhaps kicked of the first animal protection laws by asking if animals suffer. Photo in public domain via Mental Floss.

It is extraordinary that today in 2021 there are still people who don’t believe that animals suffer or they don’t give it a thought. Around the 1950s in America many vets were unsure if animals felt pain which is perhaps partly why they devised the unnecessary and hugely painful declawing operation. Also how can trophy and sport hunters so wantonly cause suffering for their own pleasure unless they gave no thought to the suffering they cause?

Bentham raised the concept of animal rights and he denounced “man’s dominion [over animals as per the bible]’ as tyranny”.

There was a gradual awakening from a human-centric and ignorant attitude towards animal rights to the idea that it was not madness or stupidity to create a law which addressed animal rights.

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The first battles for animal rights and protection was conducted in the UK. In 1800, bull-baiting was considered ‘innocent’ by the then foreign secretary in Parliament.

In 1821 Richard Martin, an Irishman and landowner introduced a law to prevent the ill-treatment of horses. In Parliament they laughed it down. One parliamentarian said that Martin would be legislating for dogs next which made them laugh and the debating chamber went into hysterics when someone cried out “And cats!”. It was unthinkable for many to create animal welfare laws at that time in the UK. That attitude is not dissimilar to attitudes today in the legislatures of some countries.

But Martin stuck at it and the following year a bill passed which made it an offense to wantonly mistreat certain domestic animals. The law was designed to protect the owner of animals as possessions not the animals themselves but it was a start. It was the first and it lead to the first animal welfare organisation which became the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).

A few years after the first Act to protect domestic animals in the UK, Charles Darwin (who had yet to publish his famous On the Origin of Species) wrote in his diary:”Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interpretation of a deity. More humble and, I believe, true, to consider him created from animals”.

Yes, the human is in fact the human-animal. Even that simple thought is beyond many almost 200 years later.

My thanks to Peter Singer and his book Animal Liberation.

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Note: sources for news articles are carefully selected but the news is often not independently verified.

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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