Two centuries since the first law to prevent animal cruelty, how much has changed?

Campaigners say the growth of intensive farming means many animals are worse off than before

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Two centuries ago this year the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act, which was championed by Richard Martin, an Irish politician and member of the British parliament, passed into law in the UK.

Often referred to as Martin’s Act, enacted in 1822, made it illegal to be cruel to animals such as cattle, sheep and horses, although those found guilty of mistreating these creatures faced only a fine.

While the protection Martin’s Act offered was limited, it was ground breaking, because this was the first animal welfare legislation to come into force anywhere in the world.

Technology now allows alternatives that are viable and perhaps even better than animal testing, it’s just a matter of convincing companies and bureaucracies to change their way
David Favre, professor at Michigan State University

Martin’s Act paved the way for similar legislation in, among other places, New York, in 1828, and Massachusetts, in 1835.

Two centuries on, laws to protect animals from cruelty have reached the statute book in scores of countries around the globe, although in others anti-cruelty legislation is limited or non-existent and much work needs to be done.

Cruelty of factory farms and lab testing on animals

Andrew Knight, an Australian veterinary surgeon who is a professor of animal welfare and ethics at the University of Winchester in the UK, said every year about 80 billion land animals are killed for food ― more than 10 for every person on the planet ― along with one to three billion fish, some intensively reared.

“This increase in animal produce consumption globally is bringing with it major animal welfare problems and indeed has become the second-biggest animal welfare concern in history, the biggest of all being, unfortunately, the wholesale destruction of the other species with which we share the planet,” Prof Knight said.

“Well over three quarters of all animals farmed are intensively farmed in modern industrialised environments in which they’re spatially very restricted and confined in relatively barren environments which are chronically stressful for them.”

Likewise, despite lengthy campaigning against animal experiments, with the first anti-vivisection organisations having been formed in the late 19th century, the number of animals used in laboratories is growing.

One published study estimated that 192.1 million animals were used for scientific purposes in 2015, compared with 115.2 million in 2005.

Increases are happening in part because the availability of genetically modified animals means that many more scientific questions may be investigated, according to Prof Knight, who is also the lead editor of the Routledge Handbook of Animal Welfare.

Animals for research and amusement unacceptable

In other fields, efforts to ban practices that activists regard as cruel often meet with limited success.

For example, the hunting of wild animals with dogs is still legal, or bans are poorly enforced and, decades after newspapers ran horrific front-page stories about the practice, seal pups are still clubbed to death in Canada.

In much of Spain, Portugal, France and some Latin American countries, bullfighting, in which animals may be repeatedly stabbed with lances, barbs, a sword and a dagger, is legal and frequently subsidised by the authorities.

Dr Aysha Akhtar of the Centre for Contemporary Sciences says in the future we will have more options for testing that do not use animals. Photo: Dr Aysha Akhtar

According to Dr Aysha Akhtar, a US medical doctor who is the co-founder and chief executive of the Centre for Contemporary Sciences, an organisation that promotes human-relevant instead of animal-based scientific research, there is an obvious reason why achieving change is harder when it comes to animal protection as opposed to other advocacy movements, such as feminism and civil rights.

“With animals, it requires humans to take that protest for them. It requires a sense of empathy on behalf of someone who is not yourself or not of your group,” Dr Akhtar said.

All such advocacy movements, she said, campaign against “the same underlying principles that deny rights to a group”, but societies have, Dr Akhtar said, “created such a stark divide between humans and every other animal” that to campaign on behalf of animals, people have to break away strongly from cultural paradigms.

“Why do we say humans and animals? We don’t use the words dogs and animals. We don’t say cats and animals," she said.

Mainstream media sparsely reports on animal rights

Another issue may be that animal protection issues tend to be sparsely covered by the media. Dr Akhtar, the author of Our Symphony with Animals: On Health, Empathy, and Our Shared Destinies.

Where protections have been put in place, they vary significantly between countries, species and situations.

Paula Sparks, chairperson of the UK Centre for Animal Law and a visiting professor of animal welfare law at the University of Winchester, noted that in the UK, for example, a pet mouse will be subject to the Animal Welfare Act 2006. But the act does not regulate experiments on animals, nor does it apply to wild animals.

So a laboratory mouse may legally be subjected to what is described as “severe suffering”, while a wild mouse may be trapped or poisoned.

Prof David Favre of Michigan State University says there has been a sea change in attitudes to pet adoption, with many more people keen to take rescued animals rather than pets bred to be sold for profit. Photo: David Favre

“It’s very context-specific and that reflects the fact that society sees there being a balancing exercise between the use of the animal and what’s in the animal’s interests,” Prof Sparks said.

In his 1975 book Animal Liberation, often seen as a founding text of the modern animal protection movement, the Australian academic Prof Peter Singer put forward a similar view.

Steven Wise, an American lawyer, animal advocate and researcher, has suggested that autonomy is important, while David Favre, a professor of law at Michigan State University in the US has formulated the idea of “living property”.

Prof Favre, who has decades of research experience in animal law and related fields, and has authored numerous books on the subject, suggests that this recognition of the status of living property would enhance the rights of at least some animals.

For all that the lot of many animals has not improved, there are myriad ways in which, in the eyes of animal advocates, progress has been made.

In the US, for example, Prof Favre says that there has been a sea change in attitudes to pet adoption, with many more people keen to take rescued animals rather than pets bred to be sold for profit.

While it still happens, the Canadian seal hunt has shrunk significantly, not least because of European Union bans on the importation of certain seal products.

Animal protection is also being strengthened with legislative changes.

Spain’s Council of Ministers recently passed a ruling that will mandate the use of CCTV in slaughterhouses, something that follows similar legislation in Israel and the UK.

Meanwhile, a court in Mexico recently upheld what was a temporary ban on bullfighting in the largest bullring in the world. In Spain, often regarded as the home of bullfighting, audiences have dwindled significantly over the past decade, fewer fights are being staged and some bullrings have closed.

Can technology bring an end to animal cruelty?

The growth of plant-based diets, Prof Knight said, is the “biggest achievement” since people began advocating for animals.

“I think that’s got more potential to help animals than any other social change that has occurred throughout the history of the animal rights movement," he said.

“The increase in plant-based lifestyles is driven by major consumer trends and they’re only going to increase in strength over time.”

Culturing animal cells industrially is becoming cheaper and the ability of food companies to produce plant-based products that look, taste and feel like meat has dramatically improved.

Lab-grown meat - in pictures

“People that are on the fence can say, ‘I can still enjoy that sensation and receive that benefit and it doesn’t have to kill animals,’” Prof Favre said.

“I think there’s a big group of people in the middle that would like to be veganish, or at least vegetarian, but it’s not easy to do. As these [alternatives] come forward it will be easier and easier to do.”

Campaigners also suggest that technological advances could lead to reductions in the use of animals in laboratories.

Prof Favre makes a distinction between the use of animals in research and in testing, with the latter often involving mandated assessments of commercial products. With testing, he said alternatives are available and will most likely be cheaper than using animals.

“I think that our technology now allows alternatives that are viable and perhaps even better than animal testing,” he said. “It’s just a matter of convincing companies and bureaucracies to change their way.”

Animal protection advocates hope that technology will not just reduce the use of animals in food production and in experiments, but may also drive change in attitudes. As Dr Akhtar put it, it is about “setting a new normal”.

“We’re going to have more options for testing that don’t use animals, more options for food that are more appealing to humans, that are more appealing culturally," Dr Akhtar said.

“They will ultimately become the predominant option and we’ll see a reduction of animals in these spheres, and the ethics in how we treat animals will tag along with that.”

So, two centuries after Martin’s Act became law, it may be that technology, not just legislation, will change the relationship between humankind and other animals.

Updated: November 15, 2022, 2:44 PM