In 1821, in the UK Parliament, there were howls of laughter about protecting cats

Times have moved on substantially from 1821 in Britain. I think this was a time when the consequences of an era called The Enlightenment were being felt. Animal welfare in Britain was being discussed in Parliament perhaps for the first time.

UK Parliament in 1820.
1820 – Illustration showing interior of Great Britain’s House of Commons while in session. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images).
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The first proposal for a law to prevent abuse of animals was a bill to prohibit the sport of bull baiting according to Peter Singer in his book Animal Liberation. It was introduced into the House of Commons in 1800. The Foreign Secretary at the time thought the bill was absurd and believed that bull baiting was an innocent pastime no different to dancing.

The general mood was that laws should not interfere with people’s pastimes or property unless a person is injured. Animals were completely relegated to property and remarkably they still are regarded as property and inanimate objects under the law.

In 1821, Richard Martin, an Irish gentleman-landowner tried to introduce a law to protect horses from abuse. Peter Singer recounts the report from the House of Commons debate which I think is enlightening about the state of mind of people in the early part of the 19th century in Britain about animal welfare.

“When Alderman C. Smith suggested that protection should be given to asses, there was such howls of laughter that The Times reporter could hear little of what was said. When the Chairman repeated this proposal, the laughter was intensified. Another member said Martin would be legislating for dogs next, which caused a further roar of mirth, and a cry “And cats!” sent the House into convulsions”.

That proposed law to protect asses failed as you might have guessed. The representatives of the citizens of Great Britain were not ready to discuss animal welfare and animal protection. This debate in Parliament does indicate that cat welfare in the early part of the 19th century must have been terrible. It might be useful to remind ourselves of that. There was no cat food per se. They were fed scraps and they were community cats although some would have been genuine domestic cats living in nice homes. There were no veterinarians either. As I said it was pretty dire for the domestic cat in Britain in the early 1800s

It took a little while for Parliamentarians to be sufficiently enlightened to do a discussion about animal welfare justice when in the following year the same man succeeded in introducing a law which made it an offence to wantonly mistreat certain domestic animals described as “the property of any other person or persons”.

For the first time animals were protected and being cruel to them was a punishable offence. And within that new law dogs, cats and asses were included.

However, in order to get the law passed by Parliament, Martin had to frame the bill in a way which categorised animals as the property of people, for the benefit of the owner rather than the law being designed to protect animals. This early animal protection law was designed to protect people’s property.

Clearly, they couldn’t yet get their minds around the idea of genuine animal welfare. And in an interesting development, in order to enforce this law (because at the time there was no way to enforce it) the first animal welfare organisation was created which later became the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).

This was a time when Charles Darwin was publishing his thoughts about the evolution of humans. He did it cautiously because he didn’t believe people would be able to digest the fact that humans evolved from other animals namely apes. Many still can’t. He thought that publishing his material would “only add to the prejudices against my views”. About 50 years later when other scientists had accepted his theory of evolution, he published The Descent of Man.

The work undermined the arrogance of humans in their belief that they had complete dominion over animals and that animals were only on the planet to serve humans. But Darwin’s theory and the gradual introduction of animal welfare laws signalled a revolution in human understanding of the relationship between ourselves and the nonhuman animals or it should have. Peter Singer questions whether it did.

Jumping forward to today, regrettably, we have to agree that although there had been significant advances in animal welfare human society still falls well short of being civilised in respect of their relationship with animals although there is great variation across all the countries.

Some countries are very advanced and have a decent relationship with animals with good animal protection laws which are well enforced while others are very backward with barely any laws or no general animal welfare laws at all (China). And where there are animal protection laws, they are sometimes trampled over by the authorities with impunity such as is happening in Australia in their persecution of the feral cat.

The progress made in animal welfare from 1821 in the UK which is a little more than 200 years ago is good but insufficient. I’d suggest that it’ll take another 200 years – if humans make it that far – to be able to describe our treatment of animals as acceptable across the globe.

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