Q. The other day our family drove past a very lively protest at an animal-testing facility at our local university. My dad made some snide comment about how "ever since the '60s, each new crop of kids finds some bleeding heart cause to protest about." I argued that animal rights activism has a long proud history, but actually, I don't even know if that's true. But I'd like to find out, so I can tell my dad he's wrong. - Cherie, GA
A. It is true and you are right, lucky for you - and even luckier for the countless animals that have been rescued, adopted, fed and loved by kindhearted animal rights activists, whose concentrated efforts (at least in the Western world) date back to the early 19th century.
But even way back then, animal rights activism was an uphill battle. "Not so long ago, the very concept of animal protection would have seemed preposterous — simply unimaginable — to most people," says historian Kathryn Shevelow, whose book, For the Love of Animals, charts the birth and progress of the animal rights movement. By the close of the 18th century, Shevelow writes, cockfighting, dogfighting and bear-baiting were wildly popular spectator sports in Europe, and labor animals such as cart horses were regularly beaten and worked literally to death.
It wasn't until 1822 that animal protectionists won their first public victory: Britain's Ill-Treatment of Cattle Act, which actually extended to horses and donkeys as well. It was the first national law anywhere that dealt specifically with cruelty to animals, Shevelow writes. Two years later, twenty Britons attended a meeting that had been called by a cleric to discuss animal-rights, and the ground breaking forum gave rise to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The group was hardly an instant success; only with "incessant efforts, years of heartbreaking failure, contempt, ridicule, and obstruction on many fronts," Shevelow laments, did it finally achieve further parliamentary victories.
Things changed in 1840, when Queen Victoria took an interest in the group. Under her sponsorship, it was renamed the "Royal Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals." Since then, the movement has spread far and wide, proving once again that a little royal endorsement can really never hurt.
So you see, it's thanks to more than a century of hard work that most of us today take animal protection standards for granted. Heck, even NFL stars get persecuted for animal abuse these days. Which (cough, OJ Simpson) is saying quite a lot.
Story by Anneli Rufus & Kristan Lawson. This article originally appeared in Plenty in June 2008.