Animal Rights: History and Scope of a Radical Social Movement

By Harold D. Guither | Go to book overview

The Evolution of Animal Welfare and Animal Rights

Organized efforts to improve humane treatment of animals began in the nineteenth century in England and the United States. The early goals were to prevent cruelty and oppose experiments on animals. The first US animal rights organizations originated in the 1970s. Their actions and activities were much broader and included both political and social objectives.

The close ties between humans and animals go back many centuries. Keith Thomas describes the close associations in England where animals and families shared living quarters, where pets providing companionship were often fed better than servants, and where horses were so valuable for work and transportation that no custom of eating their meat developed.1

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, writers began to discuss animal feelings of pain and suffering, vivisection (the surgical operations performed upon live animals during experiments), cruel treatment of animals raised and slaughtered for food, and the religious teachings that influenced humane treatment of both humans and animals. This new emphasis upon animals' feelings of sensation in the eighteenth century brought growing criticism of some forms of cruelty. Doubts about the ethics of castrating domestic animals were raised as early as 1714.2


Humane Societies: The Beginning of Animal Welfare

It is not surprising that the pressure to change methods of treating animals did not come from the owners, the grooms, servants, and cab drivers. Educated country clergymen and well-to-do townsmen remote from agricultural operations first expressed this new sentiment toward animals.3

However, the age-old association of hunting linked to class privilege made some of the upper class resistant to the new sentiments about animal treatment.4 And the pressure to eliminate the cruel sports such as cock fighting stemmed from a desire to discipline the new working class into more industrious work habits.5

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