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As chronicles of human progress, histories can illuminate and inspire— or they may show how little our species has changed across centuries. Literary scholar Kathryn Shevelow has it both ways in her lively recounting of the events and trends that culminated in the first English anti-cruelty law in 1822. Eighteenth-century England really was “hell for horses” and other beasts who had the misfortune to cross paths with its people.Abuses spanned the social spectrum, from bear-baiting enjoyed by the working classes to the fox hunts of the elites—the latter were only more genteel if you happened not to be their object. Children routinely practiced appalling creature cruelties, with apparent impunity.
At work, too, animals fared poorly, from older equines consigned to labor before the crushing weight of overloaded carts—and thence to starvation while penned for slaughter—to canine vivisections routinely performed in the name of science.
Harsh treatment was justified by such disparate arguments as hallowed tradition, the need to develop callow youth into the Empire’s hardened warriors, Cartesian philosophy equating animals with machines and even Scriptures that granted dominion over the animals. Indeed, early Christian leaders, from the apostle Paul to Thomas Aquinas, provided no comfort for the meekest. Even St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals, counseled “respect” for them, but stopped short of compassion.
Further, although animals, as chattel, enjoyed no legal rights regarding their treatment, they could be convicted of crimes and punished in the various fatal fashions of the day. Professor Shevelow describes the particularly grim fate of one Mary Hicks, whose physical affection for her pooch was successfully prosecuted. She was forced to watch him hanged before joining him on the gallows. Such punishments were common enough to define expressions like the rueful “hangdog look.”
But other social forces were at work, portending better days for dumb brutes. Urbanization begat pet-keeping—lap dogs thus gained new status as lovable companions.Advances in taxonomy suggested less separation between humans and other species, and even animal curiosity shows demonstrated to their broad audiences that there was substantially more going on in the animate brain than Descartes believed. Ethicists grafted a “stewardship” obligation onto the biblical “dominion” argument, and reform movements like Abolitionism were philosophical kin to animal advocacy. Finally, there was a dawning recognition that, far from cultivating valor, early animal cruelty more often devolves into serial violence against fellow humans in adulthood.
It remained for brave individuals to seize on these trends to improve the lot of animals in an organized way. Margaret Cavendish, Alexander Pope, Rev.Humphrey Primatt and MP Richard “Humanity Dick” Martin may not be as familiar to readers as Bentham or Gandhi, but they each stood staunchly against the flow of popular opinion, and thereby altered its course. Indeed,Martin championed the first limited anti-cruelty legislation, which passed on its third introduction over a 30-year period. He also co-founded the first SPCA.
So, Homo sapiens clearly made progress in the law and ethics pertaining to other species. But arguments against this groundbreaking legislation may have a familiar ring for contemporary animal advocates. It was variously claimed that Parliament should limit its debates to more important human matters, that bloodsports were traditional and harmless, and that this was a gateway bill to other intrusions on British culture and even diet. There were also serious concerns about enforceability, especially as regards out-of-sight food animals. And it should come as no surprise that the all-too-human SPCA soon bickered itself into factions.
Throughout this saga, Dr. Shrevelow weaves material organized roughly by subject,with specific incidents and other tales of British life of that time, across the bounds of social class. And we get a sense of the heroics and foibles of the tale’s several protagonists, especially Humanity Dick. Anglophiles and fans of history will especially enjoy the book, and those who have accepted some part of the relay pass from these pioneers will be alternately impressed with their pluck, heartened by their success and a bit discouraged that we seem to be fighting similar battles today.