“They are created indeed for our use, but not for our abuse.”
A young Thomas
After 1815, the British were much more likely to condemn animal cruelty, especially towards horses and dogs, who were very much their favourites. Dogs were pets and horses were visible in the streets being clearly overburdened. Donkeys received some sympathy, especially when they were yoked to carts to avoid paying fees when going through toll gates.
Opposition to animal cruelty had a few roots; a new emphasis on human feeling ; religion; and social prejudice. The barbaric sports of the vicious lower orders needed to be eliminated. As this article from the Bath Chronicle ( 1810) shows, motives were mixed
“Throwing at Cocks” did what it said. A cock was tethered to a post and people threw stones at it. The winner was the one who finally killed it. Mayor of Bath John Palmer- the man who also invented Britain’s first efficient Post Office- opposed for humanitarian reasons, but one that has its basis in religion. There was no licence to treat even the meanest of God’s creatures in this way. It made you insensible to the sufferings of humanity. Both arguments resonate today and most people’s opposition to animal cruelty derive from one or both of these propositions.
Palmer fails to mention that many of the ruling class were worried by orchestrated examples of the lower orders enjoying themselves in this manner; but there is some indication here of a slight reformation in manners that was evident in the late Georgian period. It is also interesting that there was no assault on hare coursing or fox-hunting in the early nineteenth century; both as barbaric as cock throwing, but enjoyed exclusively by the upper classes.
Thomas, Lord Erskine was the “morning star” of the new movement to be kind to animals. He deserves much of the credit for changing deep-seated traditional views. It was he who tried to push “A bill to prevent cruelty to brute animals” through the House of Lords in 1809. His speech on the 15 May 1809 was perhaps the first speech in a British Parliament to put the intellectual case against animal cruelty.
Like John Palmer and the leading citizens of Bath, part of Erskine’s argument was that prevention of cruelty was needed to redeem the lower orders- they, in their unthinking state, were responsible for much of the cruelty and were the hardest to reform- the law was needed as they would not be capable of doing it themselves. Erskine was referring to the mistreatment of dogs and horses; he deliberately omitted bull-baiting and cock throwing from his bill because he knew that too many Lords believed that these activities encouraged manly vigour.
“These unmanly and disgusting outrages are most frequently perpetrated by the basest and most worthless; incapable, for the most part, of any reproof which can reach the mind, and who know no more of the law, than that it suffers them to indulge their savage dispositions with impunity.”
When animal abusers were challenged, according to Lord Erskine- “ what is it to you?”- was their answer. In order to refute this argument, Erskine had to reject two key Georgian beliefs; the immunity of the servant when ordered to do something by a master; and that owning a creature was a justification for any kind of treatment. His denial of the absolute right of a property was radical for the time. His 1809 speech called it a “stupid defence”
Erskine used theological arguments too. Mankind, despite his “ God- like qualities” would be helpless without the contribution of animals. They were creatures created by God, and the dominion over the animals that is declared in Genesis is not a carte blanche to do anything. The very usefulness of the lower creatures was perfect evidence that they were a gift from God’s creation; looking after them was a trust and abusing them was a sin- there was already a Georgian society called the Society against the Sin of Cruelty to Dumb Animals
Animals had rights because they were created with similar features to humans. This did not imply equality, but inequality was no justification for abuse”
“Almost every sense bestowed upon man is equally bestowed upon them; seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking; the sense of pain and pleasure; the passions of love and anger; sensibility to kindness, and pangs from unkindness and neglect, are inseparable characteristics of their natures as much as of our own”
Erskine was not a vegetarian. He did not imbue animals with the same characteristics of man, but did not see this a justification for their suffering;
“They have, besides, no knowledge of the future, and their end, when appropriated fitly for our food, is without prolonged suffering.”
Although Erskine had intellectual agreements in favour of kindness to animals, he also liked them to an extent that modern readers would recognise. In 1811, he rescued a dog from the street that was about to be killed by some boys. He had his own adored Newfoundland dog, Toss, who he taught to do tricks. He had a macaw, a goose that followed him around and two leeches who he believed had saved his life in a medical procedure. He gave the leeches names, could distinguish between them and believed that they knew and liked him. So he was “guilty” of anthropomorphism way before it became popular.
Erskine’s Bill failed in the Commons on two occasions in 1809 and 1810. It was lost very narrowly in the Commons, because too many members were worried that horse racing and fox hunting would be next on the list.
Despite the defeat, Erskine predicted that future generations would treat the lower orders of animals with more respect. He did not have to wait long. The first animal protection law ( for cattle) was passed in 1821; an organisation for the protection of animals, the forerunner of the RSPCA, was formed in 1824. The crude Georgian attitudes to living creatures were passing.
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