The Welfare of Animals

The Welfare of Animals

The Animals’ Welfare Week is becoming an institution; and there are few institutions which so thoroughly deserve to be supported. Many years ago a suggestion was made by the Humanitarian League that in each year a week of Parliament's time should be set apart for the discussion of subjects concerned with the treatment of animals; but that is a proposal which still remains to be adopted. Meanwhile, the present Welfare Week once again calls attention to the much discussed question of the rights—and of the wrongs—of the non-human races; and now is a fit time to consider the probable effect of a recognition of the principle of rights upon the use of animals for such purposes as draught, sport, food, dress, and scientific experimentation.

“Man is indispensably bound,” wrote John Lawrence, over a hundred years ago, “to bestow upon animals, in return for the benefit he derives from their service, good and sufficient nourishment, comfortable shelter, and merciful treatment; to commit no wanton outrage upon their feelings whilst alive, and to put them to the speediest and least painful death when it shall be necessary to deprive them of life."* This is now very generally admitted in theory, but often forgotten in practice. Even now it is the fashion to behave to animals as if they were somehow deficient in intelligence; and just as the bumptious hero of Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall” counted the grey barbarian “lower than the Christian child,” so many folk seem to regard animals, even the oldest and most sagacious, as in the position of infants or idiots, and frame their manners to them accordingly. Thus children, whose intelligence necessarily is imperfect, are disposed to look with a sort of amused superiority on the lives and occupations of non-humans, whose wisdom (at that stage) is much in advance of their own; nor is this surprising, when they see them treated by adults sometimes as pets or playthings; sometimes as “beasts of burden”; sometimes as “performing animals,” trained to play the buffoon in circus or theatre; sometimes as victims of the huntsman in a red coat or of the butcher in a blue one. Circumstances vary, but the inference is usually the same.

Turning from the general principle of rights to its practical application, we are brought front to front with a series of vexed questions that will sooner or later have to be solved; I cannot doubt how the society of the future will solve them. If horses, for instance, in view of all the countless services they have performed, and are still performing for mankind, are not to be regarded (in their due degree) as our fellow-beings and fellow-workers, it is difficult to know what fellowship means, or what sense of justice we can claim to possess.

Again, take “sport,” by which is meant not the healthy exercise of the gymnasium or playing-field, but the killing of animals for amusement. It is often defended on the ground that it is a fine “training.” But for what is it a training? If we intend, as a nation, to lord it over our fellow-men without regard to considerations of justice and humaneness, it must certainly be most helpful to practise and perfect ourselves in a similar treatment of the non-human races. In that sense, the claim of the sportsman may be granted; for as a school for callousness there is nothing superior to blood-sports. But if we desire that this people should be just, generous, and humane, as jealous for the rights of others as for its own, and dreading no loss of “prestige” so much as a wrong done to a smaller and less powerful community-if we wish our country to be a peaceful and considerate member of the family of nations-then, assuredly, it is not wise to encourage the continuance of such pastimes. To break up foxes or hares, to course rabbits; to worry stags, to mow down pheasants in the battue—such sports as these cannot possibly conduce to generosity or manliness.¹

On the other hand, what better education for good citizenship can there be than to teach the young to show kindness and justice towards the humbler beings that are in man's power.

Of vivisection it need only be said that if a civilised State were to tolerate such a practice, based as it is on the plea that the strong are justified in torturing the weak for the supposed advancement of knowledge, it would be difficult to allege any moral argument for civilisation itself; all social issues would merely resolve themselves into a brute struggle for power. I cannot think that a future age will credit the claim that gratitude is due to scientists of the vivisectionist school, many of whom have outraged common humanity and decency by their experiments. One can only smile at the reference of one of Metchnikoff’s eulogists, Mr. Joseph McCabe, to “that splendid chapter of modern physiology and medicine, which is more worth inaugurating a new chronological era than the coming of Christ was.” It seems to me improbable that Metchnikoff’s statue will ever adorn our cathedrals.

In fairness, however, both to vivisectionists and to blood-sportsmen, it must be said that the habit which underlies the many and various forms of ill-treatment of animals—the fundamental negation of their rights—is flesh-eating, with its attendant business of butchery. Given a race of “brute beasts,” assumed to exist for the sole object of ministering to human convenience, and it was inevitable that they should be used and ill-used in various ways according to the whims and fancies, or the more serious inclinations, of their masters. Thus regarded from the several standpoints of the human temperament—the impulse of hunger, of recreation, of curiosity—an animal is something to eat, something to hunt, something to experiment on. The cattle-ship and the cattle-market are but a continuation of the slave-trade, with the addition of a spice of cannibalism, relics of a savage past, in conflict with every consideration of humaneness.

I notice that the subject of Humane Clothing is to be discussed at the forthcoming Conference. It is a most important subject; for though something has been done to mitigate the horrors of the plumage trade, the fur trade has hitherto attracted far less public attention than its abominations warrant. On this point a democratic country should be in no doubt as to its formula:

“One man, one vote.” Fit challenge to the cur
Who share too large of civic rights would win.
What for the robber who goes clad in fur
Of trapped and tortured beast? “One man, one skin.”

This may seem an extravagant idea to many persons—certainly to the furriers. I do not think it is so. We are on the eve of great social changes; already, we see our way to a realisation of the rights of men, and those of us who look beyond can see the rights of animals on the horizon. For men’s sympathies, as was pointed out in a well-known passage of Lecky’s “History of European Morals,” are ever gradually widening, and the recognition of rights keeps pace with this process, as mankind slowly develops from a narrow and selfish barbarism to a sense of brotherhood with all sentient beings. It is not credible that a true commonwealth could co-exist with the old anthropocentric doctrine which sees in Man the sole purpose and meaning of the universe.

The moral of the whole matter is summed up in the words of Thomas Hardy, in a remarkable letter addressed to the Humanitarian League:—

“Few people seem to perceive fully as yet that the most far-reaching consequence of the establishment of the common origin of all species is ethical; that it logically involved a readjustment of altruistic morals, by enlarging, as a necessity of rightness, the application of what has been called ‘the golden rule’ from the area of mere mankind to that of the whole animal kingdom.”

Mr. Hardy called this “a trying conclusion”; and trying it certainly is; a test of our own courage and sincerity, involving as it does a discontinuance of many ancient habits and prejudices.

These, I think, are some of the thoughts that Animals’ Welfare Week may suggest to us ; and I trust the time will come when the Week will be as unnecessary as it is necessary now-when we shall live not only in an Animals’ Welfare Week, but in an Animals’ Welfare Year, having learned that the welfare of the fellow-beings whom we so quaintly call “the animals” (as if we were not animals ourselves!) is in fact closely and indissolubly bound up with our own.


* “A Philosophical Treatise on Horses, and on the Moral Duties of Man towards the Brute Creation,” 1796-1798.

¹ Incidentally I would express my admiration of the work that is being done by the newly formed League for the Prohibition of Cruel Sports, and by it Secretary, Mr. H. B. Amos.

Henry S. Salt

The Vegetarian News, Vol. 6 No. 65, May 1926, p. 127