1. A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANS AND OTHER ANIMALS
Whenever people say, 'We mustn't be sentimental,' you can take it they are about to do something cruel. And if they add, 'We must be realistic,' they mean they are going to make money out of it.
I used to assume that humans started off not caring about animals, then became gradually kinder over millennia. Not true. Our relationship with animals - or, to be precise, with other animals - has flitted about like a bee on a lavender bush.
We evolved alongside other animals. We started off being hunted by them, before we turned into hunters. The earliest known cave paintings, found in Indonesia and dated to 40,000 years ago, are of pigs and buffalos being hunted. Most of the paintings at Lascaux, France, which date from around 18,000 years ago, are also of animals, including a woolly rhinoceros. We did what no other animal species has done: we selectively bred other animals for food and companionship. (Cows, pigs, sheep and goats were all domesticated at least 8,000 years ago - cats and dogs too, although they probably played a more proactive role in joining human society.)
So it's hardly surprising that many early human societies saw a continuity of spirit between humans and other animals. In some ways, their world view aligns better with recent research into animal emotions and consciousness than ours does. They believed that humans and animals (and plants and inanimate objects) had souls and consciousness, and that animals even had separate human bodies. Some humans could temporarily transform into other animals; some other animals had shamanic powers. In creation stories, humans were often seen as having descended from other animals, or as having been helped by them. The mythology of the Kayap—, an indigenous group who still live in the Brazilian Amazon, has held that a rat directed humans towards maize. This would inevitably make one feel differently about rats. Such beliefs didn't stop people killing animals - far from it, these societies have relied on hunting. But in theory at least, they have also recognised a duty of respect and care.
Similar perspectives can be found today among many indigenous peoples from Canada to the Kalahari. It is premised partly on the belief that not respecting the animals will bring direct, negative consequences for humans. Strains of animist thinking filtered into Hindu and Buddhist thought and prepared the ground for the western vegetarian movement.
The ancient Egyptians buried mummified cats, dogs, crocodiles and other animals alongside people - some were loved pets, some were intended for food in the afterlife, some were offerings to the gods. This was no afterthought: archaeologists estimate that up to 70 million animals were bred as offerings, requiring industrial-scale rearing. However affluent humans have become, we have not wanted to be apart from animals. This is strong evidence that we have evolved with a predilection for them, that genes that have predisposed us to want at least some animals' company have proved advantageous.
Some ancient Greek thinkers, notably Pythagoras and Porphyry, embraced ethical vegetarianism. But they were marginal. For centuries, the established European view was that humans were fundamentally different from animals. This division became inextricably theological. In contrast to those cultures that saw animals as having enabled human existence, the Bible blamed a serpent for tempting Eve. It set down humans as separate from beasts, and uniquely capable of salvation; Thomas Aquinas said that God had created animals for humans to use. In the seventeenth century, the French philosopher Rene Descartes assured readers that animals lacked souls - their cries were just mechanical responses, like the striking of a clock. In the age before modern anaesthetics, this was most helpful to biological researchers. In one French laboratory, the researchers 'administered beatings to dogs with perfect indifference', recalled a startled observer called Nicolas Fontaine. 'They nailed poor animals up on boards by their four paws to vivisect them to see the circulation of the blood which was a great subject of conversation.'
Some European philosophers claimed the danger to humans was not disrespecting other animals, but respecting them. Descartes argued that, if people thought they had the same souls as 'brutes', they would believe that 'after this life we have nothing to hope for or fear, more than flies and ants'. The Dutch philosopher Benedictus de Spinoza worried that, if humans were friendly to animals, they would start thinking of themselves as animals - putting all civilisation at risk. (This being the seventeenth century, he blamed humans' growing softness for animals on 'womanly compassion'. It was Adam and Eve part two, except this time Eve had been beguiled by a pet dog rather than a wild snake.) In early modern England, even pretending to be another animal - for example, by dressing up as one in a performance - was taboo. Humans needed to demonstrate their distinctive moral status.
Descartes' attempt to dismiss other animals as soulless 'automata' could not survive contact with science. He knew that humans and 'brutes' had the same organs (although one of his English contemporaries, the writer Gervase Markham, reported not being able to find a horse brain, despite cutting into various skulls). Within 250 years, Darwin would show that humans and other animals not only had similar brains, but also common origins.
Humans could see animals had feelings, even when Descartes' philosophy told them otherwise. In 1667, the English scientist Robert Hooke cut open a live dog in front of an audience at the Royal Society. By his own account, Hooke 'cut off all the ribs' and 'opened the belly'. He then inserted bellows into the dog's lungs, in order to keep the dog alive and breathing. 'My design,' he recounted, 'was to make some enquiries into the nature of respiration.' The experiment was a success. But Hooke could not disregard the dog's suffering. He was so alarmed by the 'torture of the creature' that he declined to repeat the experiment.
Many other humans had stopped worrying that they were going to be attacked by animals, and that civilisation might collapse if they showed them basic compassion. We don't have records of all the countless moments of kinship between animals and humans, but we are told that Anne Boleyn loved her dog so much that, when the animal died, only King Henry VIII dared to break the news. In his brilliant 1983 book Man and the Natural World, the historian Keith Thomas showed how, in Britain, this wall between humans and other animals cracked over centuries. As people moved to towns, they began to see animals as companions rather than productive assets. (I asked Thomas what made him so sure that this was why attitudes shifted. He drew an analogy with his own childhood on a farm in Wales, in the 1930s and 40s, where dogs were never allowed in the house and where horses were beaten as they pulled wagons over soft ground during the corn harvest. 'There was absolutely no sentimentality,' he recalled.) From the seventeenth century, some travellers to India came back avowed vegetarians - spurring an early wave of interest. In other words, even when mainstream religion said that humans didn't need to consider animals' feelings, many Europeans wanted to.
The dawn of western animal rights is often dated back to the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Born in 1748, he was happy to eat meat, to wear sealskin boots, and to encourage his acquaintances to electrocute pigeons in the name of medical research. He wrote happily of 'turtle dinners', a fashionable meal in late-eighteenth-century England, which featured several courses made from turtles that had been shipped alive from the Caribbean. Yet in 1789 Bentham published perhaps the sentence most quoted by animal activists. The question was not 'Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?'
This sentence loses some of its power when you realise that it was only a footnote. Modern animal activists might also want to overlook the fact that Bentham concluded that humans were justified in killing and eating animals, on the basis that the animals' death was 'speedier [and] less painful' than 'the inevitable course of nature'. (He added, somewhat debatably: 'they are never the worse for being dead'.) As a utilitarian, he was sceptical of even humans having natural rights.
Bentham's question nonetheless represented a shift in how people viewed animals. Yes, other animals might look, think and act differently to us. Yes, the Bible might suggest that humans had dominion over virtually every animal species. But Bentham compared the situation to slavery: just as black skin was no reason for a human to be tortured, so it 'may come one day to be recognised' that animals should not be tortured on account of their physical differences from humans. Their well-being had to be considered.
At the time, there were no effective laws anywhere in the world preventing animal cruelty. English people still gathered to watch a bull or a bear be tied to a post and attacked by dogs. The dogs used were specially bred to have jaws strong enough to lock on to a bull's nose; they are now known as bulldogs. (Accounts differ as to whether the bull ever stood a chance.) Torturing bulls was justified on culinary grounds: it was thought to thin their blood and so soften their meat. Bull-baiting even took place at at least one wedding. After the aristocracy turned their back on the pursuit, critics of baiting were derided as opponents of working-class fun.
Britain was the pacemaker of western animal activism, perhaps unsurprisingly given its status as the first industrial power and a pioneer of urbanisation. In the early nineteenth century, a distinguished but pompous lawyer called Thomas Erskine used his retirement to launch a crusade for animal welfare. Erskine was an unlikely reformer, given that, in his thirty years in Parliament, he hadn't proposed a single change to the law. He was also a famous egotist: those reporting his speeches joked that their printers ran out of the letter 'I'. But he seems to have loved animals almost as much as he loved himself: according to his biographer, he had pet dogs, a pet goose, a pet macaw and even two leeches that he thought had saved his life.
Erskine proposed a ban on cruel treatment of animals in 1809. His arguments came not from Bentham but from 'what we [parliamentarians] all of us are obliged to see every day in our lives': horses flogged to death, so that travellers could take unnecessary journeys and 'fill up the dreary blank in unoccupied life'. His approach bridged the old Christian world view and today's animal rights discourse. He didn't dispute the idea that God had given humans dominion over animals, and that some animals' characteristics were 'obviously constructed' for our use. But he also argued that God had given each animal 'organs and feelings for its own enjoyment and happiness', and that animals had almost every sense and emotion that humans did.
It seems remarkable that animal rights were taken seriously at a time when there were other concerns, the most outrageous being slavery. Britain had only abolished the slave trade in 1807; it had not yet freed those enslaved men and women who remained in its Caribbean colonies. In fact, the analogy with slavery - made by Bentham among others - may have helped to mobilise campaigners against animal cruelty. William Wilberforce, the leading British abolitionist, backed Erskine, whom he had also hired as a lawyer in a family dispute a few years earlier. Wilberforce argued that improving people's views of animal creation 'would create a sum of sensitive happiness almost impossible to calculate'.
Erskine's efforts were defeated, but in 1822 the British Parliament did ban cruelty to cattle, horses and other livestock. Individuals including Wilberforce set up the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (later the RSPCA) to help enforce the Act. The society then lobbied, successfully, for a ban on cruelty to other animals. In 1835 bull-baiting, already unfashionable, became illegal. Rat-baiting, where a dog and up to 200 rats were placed in a pit, and people bet on how many rats would be killed, was still permitted. Fox-hunting also survived; animals didn't matter as much as the aristocracy. Indeed, many of the RSPCA's leading figures engaged in blood sports. The society didn't oppose fox-hunting until 1971.
In 1842, the term vegetarian was used for the first time in England, probably referring to a diet that we now call vegan. Advocates of the 'vegetable diet' spent more time talking about the benefits for humans - including a 'sweetness of temper' - rather than animals. Opponents mocked them as sexually impotent.
Animal activism gathered pace beyond Britain. Throughout the nineteenth century, one of the most persuasive arguments for penalising animal cruelty was that there was a link between cruelty to animals and cruelty to other humans. Previously animals were just property, so you could be punished for damaging someone else's animals, but not your own. The state of Maine passed the US's first animal welfare law in 1821 for anyone who 'cruelly beat any horse or cattle'; the punishment would be a fine of between $2 and $5 (in today's terms, roughly $45 to $110), or up to thirty days in jail. New York was close behind, and then in 1866-7 expanded its laws to apply to all living creatures, due largely to lobbying by the newly formed American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In 1868, the society, which like its British counterpart drew its support largely from the upper and middle classes, pushed the prosecution of a man for overloading a horse car.
The nineteenth century was the peak of human reliance on the horse - for travel, cargo, agriculture, warfare and sport. Horses were required to perform largely mechanical tasks, and were treated often as unfeeling machines. In a rare moment of like-mindedness, the English thought England was 'hell for horses', while the French thought similarly about France. Cruelty came through fashion, as well as from economic imperative: the tight bearing rein, which kept horses from lowering their heads and risked damaging their windpipes, was favoured by owners because it gave their animals an animated air. (Elevating looks over welfare is echoed in how we breed some pedigree dogs today.) Such reins were the target of Black Beauty, an 'Autobiography of a Horse translated from the original equine', which became a bestseller after it was published in 1877. Readers were prepared not just to take pity on animals, but to see the world from their perspective. So our closeness to horses had bred both cruelty and the anti-cruelty movement.
Horses were displaced by electricity, the combustion engine, machine guns, tanks, and even eventually by football. By the turn of the twentieth century, they were seen as dangerous and unsanitary: in Paris, they produced more than 2,000 tonnes of manure a day. No modern society could tolerate such an unrelenting flow of crap, at least until YouTube came along. Horses no longer fitted with the cities that they had helped to create. In western countries, they are now fewer in number, but better treated than ever in modern history - evidence that humans find it easier to love animals when they don't rely on them economically.