When Animal Rights Can Simply Be Very Wrong; We Must Still Ensure We Can Undertake Medical Research, Says Finola Lynch

By Lynch, Finola | The Birmingham Post (England), November 17, 1998 | Go to article overview

When Animal Rights Can Simply Be Very Wrong; We Must Still Ensure We Can Undertake Medical Research, Says Finola Lynch


Lynch, Finola, The Birmingham Post (England)


The British have been known as a nation of animal lovers since the House of Parliament became the first legislature in the world to debate a Bill to protect animals.

That was back in 1800 and the animals in question were bulls. Twenty years later Martin's Act made it unlawful and punishable by fines and imprisonment to "beat, abuse or ilreat any horse, mare gelding, mule, ass, ox, heifer, steer, sheep or other cattle ".

The kind of animals on the political agenda then were those whose existence was defined by the work they carried out for their human masters.

And while the notion of an animal having rights would have been a totally alien concept to the early Victorians, it did not stop them caring about animal welfare and doing their best to outlaw senseless cruelty.

In 1998 the Government is still legislating for animal welfare and the ban on cosmetic product animal testing announced yesterday seems almost a throwback to the Victorian attitudes summed up in Jeremy Bentham's dictum on animals: "The question is not ca n they reason? Nor can they talk? But can they suffer?"

However, our love affair with animals epitomised in the domestic pet is clouding our judgment in the late 20th century. The attribution of human characteristics to animals (and you only have to think of dog and cat graveyards or sun block for paws and ea rs to know what I am talking about) is allowing extremists to make implausible claims about animals' role in society.

This bizarre trait in our national psyche has its origins in the last century. The first time Parliament interfered with what lawyers termed, a "domestic relationship" was in the 1822 Act which outlawed acts of cruelty to pets, not members of your own fa mily. In fact the law stopped a man from ilreating his horse several decades before it stopped him brutalising his wife or children.

Two years later the first of the animal pressure groups, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals came into existence (Queen Victoria later added the Royal) while it was nearly another 60 years before a similar society to protect children was set up.

According to Hilda Kean's Animal Rights: Political and Social change in Britain Since 1800 (Reaktion) our giving animals human characteristics originated in the rise of the Victorian middle-classes, who thought a hallmark of respectability was to spoil t heir pets rather than kick them round the house.

But our empathy with animals has not been consistent if you look at the history of animal legislation. Despite the proliferation of animariendly pressure groups in the last century, such as the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association and the Dumb Friends League, Parliament was slow to catch up.

Acts regulating vivisection only began to be passed in 1876 while the Protection of Animals Act was implemented in 1911. It was only in 1996 that the Wild Mammals Protection Act made it unlawful to practise cruelty against wild animals in the UK - and th at still exempted foxes and deer. …

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When Animal Rights Can Simply Be Very Wrong; We Must Still Ensure We Can Undertake Medical Research, Says Finola Lynch
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