Today it is internationally recognised that the British are a nation of animal lovers! Well at least the majority are! But this has not always been the case, as recently as 200 years ago Britain probably had the worst reputation for animal welfare in Europe. Cruelty to animals and mistreatment was common. Probably due in part to the extreme disregard to animal wellbeing in Britain, it became the birthplace of the animal welfare movement.
Before the starting point of the animal welfare movement, animals were treated almost completely as commodities in line with the religion and evidence from scientific theorists that was prevalent at this time. For example the French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) who put forward the notion that animals cannot reason and as such cannot suffer. Being merely seen as machines or automatons, meant their ill treatment or welfare should not be a matter for morality or even consideration. Clearly this chap never spent a lot of time with animals! Over time empirical findings regarding religious dogma began to show to some that this view could not be correct and public feeling began to shift. In fact in private letters it appears that in later life Descartes himself in later life began to no longer totally support his theory.
Perhaps the first publication that concerned the moral and legal status of animals, however, appeared in the writing of Reverend Humphrey Primatt (1736-1779) in, A Dissertation on the Duty of Mercy and Sin of Cruelty to Brute Animals, written in 1776, where the Reverend stated that, “Let no views of profit, no compliance with custom, and no fear of ridicule of the world, ever tempt thee to the least act of cruelty or injustice to any creature whatsoever”. If ever person felt like this, no further legislation for animals would have been necessary – unfortunately that wasn’t the case.
Later Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), an English barrister, was one of the first writers who addressed the issue of animal welfare in the legal system. His Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation argued that there was no reason why animals should not be accorded protection under the law. Bentham argued that the capacity for suffering is the vital and only required characteristic that gives a being the right to legal consideration. A sentence of the document is often used today by those seeking to promote the cause of animal rights and welfare, “The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But can they suffer”. In 1809, Lord Erskine (1750-1823) addressed Parliament supporting the bill he had introduced for the protection of animals, known as the Cruelty to Animals Bill. This may represent the first time animal protection was seriously debated by a full legislative body in the world!
The bill passed in the House of Lords, but was defeated in the House of Commons. Some thirteen years later the battle was taken up again, this time by Richard Martin (1754–1834). In 1822, he succeeded in obtaining the passage of a law known as Dick Martin’s Act – an Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle. As compromise was necessary for its passage, it was a limited first step. It was made illegal for any person to cruelly beat or ill-treat any horse, mare, gelding, mule, ass, ox, cow, heifer, steer, sheep or any other cattle. The law imposed a considerable fine, or imprisonment of up to three months for an offence. This embryonic animal welfare revolution saw radical changes in the views of the populace in regard to animals; it was also during this period that what is considered the first animal welfare organisation was formed in London, one that would later become the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA).
Britain’s continued shift in regard to animal welfare, perhaps due in part to the steady increase in pet ownership, is it now considered as in a majority in the West for the first time, meaning that an overhaul of the current animal welfare legislation was required. The number and severity of animal cruelty cases that prevailed also highlighted the need for increased legislation.
The Animal Welfare Act 2006 was the product of this overhaul. It is the first review of pet law in 94 years. It replaced the Protection of Animals Act, first passed in 1911, and is designed to prevent outright cruelty to animals. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 combined more than 20 pieces of legislation into one.
The Animal Welfare Act 2006, received royal assent on the 8th November 2006 and is became law on the 6th April 2007. The Act places a legal requirement on owners and keepers of animals to maintain an adequate degree of care for their animals. These requirements can be defined as:
- A suitable environment.
- A suitable diet.
- To ability to exhibit normal behaviours.
- To be kept in suitable social groups or individually as applicable to species.
- To be protected from pain, injury, suffering and disease
The Act has introduced tougher penalties for neglect and cruelty, including fines of up to £20,000, a maximum jail term of 51 weeks and a lifetime ban on some owners keeping pets. It has also introduced a welfare offence for the first time. This places a duty of care on animal owners to provide for their animals’ basic needs, such as adequate food and water, veterinary treatment and an appropriate environment in which to live. Previously the duty of care had only existed for farm animals.
I am proud to live in a country that has some of the best animal protection legislation, but am dismayed with how many animals are still kept in unsuitable conditions or treated cruelly. I am a firm believer that research about the suitability of a pet for a particular owner, as well as the fair and proper treatment of a pet throughout its life is of the upmost importance. Not to do so is both legally wrong, as has been mentioned above, but also ethically and morally wrong!
This section hopes to provide advice and guides to the correct keeping of pets of different species in the best of health and hopefully happy with it!