Celebrating two centuries of animal welfare law


5 minute read

Whenever I meet MPs in Westminster, it is hard not to be struck by the history and splendor of Parliament.

For hundreds of years, decisions affecting every aspect of our lives have been made here – and it’s easy to get lost not only in the many winding corridors of Westminster, but also in realizing the sheer importance of the ‘place.

But it was around 200 years ago today, July 22, that those decisions really began to influence animals, rather than humans, for the better – when the world’s first animal welfare law was born.

These days it is not uncommon to speak of the UK as four nations united by the love of animals. But that wasn’t always the case. Our way of thinking about the place of animals in our society has been revolutionized in two centuries. Indeed, as noted by journalist Henry Mance, as part of our new collection of essays – What have animals already done for us? – political debate at the time centered on visible cruelty to animals, as scenes like beating sick animals or baiting bulls were unfortunately all too common. Indeed, there was even a dogfighting pit outside the Houses of Parliament.

Previous attempts to legislate to protect animals had failed. It took the bravery of Richard Martin, aka “Humanity Dick”, to pioneer the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act 1822, now commonly known as Martin’s Act. He was outraged at the cruelty inflicted daily on cattle traveling to Smithfields Market as they passed on their way to Parliament and felt more needed to be done to protect them.

There is an important opportunity for the new Prime Minister to lead us into a new era for pet welfare policy

The passage of the bill through Parliament was not easy. It hobbled by 29 to 18 at second reading, and Martin fiercely attacked the attorney general’s opposition, citing that he had “put himself in opposition to the good sense of the whole nation”. The MP for Galway then resisted further calls to withdraw the bill at third reading. But, after much debate, the first piece of animal welfare legislation in recorded history made its way into the law book.

The law protected particular species – making it a crime to beat cattle, oxen, horses and sheep. Yet ultimately paved the way to helping every animal in the UK. The importance of this moment for animals cannot be underestimated. While the law has come a long way for animals since then, the path to the Animal Protection Act of 2006, which our frontline officers rely on so much, would not have been possible without Martin’s bravery.

It also paved the way for the very existence of the very first animal welfare charity – the SPCA was formed two years later in part to enforce this 1822 law, and 16 years later we received royal patronage to become the RSPCA by Queen Victoria.

Two centuries later, we find ourselves at a new crossroads for animal welfare. Much has changed since that day, and the new Animal friendliness index reminds us that we are now true nations of animal lovers, regularly performing acts of goodwill towards our fellow human beings.

But with a new Prime Minister just weeks away, the next 200 days will tell us a lot about whether the newly appointed Cabinet puts animal welfare first and shares Humanity Dick’s vision. With the Government’s Kept Animals Bill in limbo for months, an Animals Abroad Bill has apparently been scrapped and consultations are expected on things like banning cages for hens layers and snares; the new government must show some of Martin’s courage to get things done.

With animal sentience now enshrined in law, the new Prime Minister has an important opportunity to lead us into a new era for domestic animal welfare policy – where initiatives go beyond the avoidance of suffering , but towards an understanding that animals should have positive experiences and recognize the interdependence of animal and human welfare.

Animal welfare is now almost entirely decentralised, meaning animal advocates in the UK have to lobby four administrations, not just one. Yet it is when countries work together that they are often most successful. This is going to be so important that the future challenges to animal welfare are increasingly globalized and will require an international response – whether it is the role that prioritizing animal welfare can play in tackling climate change, the prevention of habitat destruction, the promotion of an ethical trade policy or even the fight against social loneliness. Fortunately, I sincerely believe that the Martin’s Act has inspired a global animal protection movement that is beginning to increase its impact at the multilateral level.

Indeed, in March, we were delighted to see the adoption, at the United Nations Environment Assembly, of the first-ever resolution to include animal welfare in its title. This historic resolution calls on the United Nations Environment Program to produce a Nexus report, identifying the crucial links between animal welfare, the environment and sustainable development. The RSPCA is a key partner in a broad coalition of NGOs supporting Member States in what we see as a stepping stone to integrating animal welfare into policy globally.

In the long term, we hope for a universal declaration for animal welfare and eventually a United Nations convention to protect animals around the world. If this goal is ever achieved, it will owe much to Humanity Dick and his Martin’s Act of 1822 enacted by Parliament at Westminster.

Chris Sherwood is chief executive of the RSPCA.

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