Animal rights in historical perspective

Speech by Lisa Gålmark

at Jordbruksdepartementets International Conference

Cirkus, Djurgården 29/5 2001

Since the 1950’s, the global number of animals raised and killed for human food production has quadrupled. The worldwide number of animals killed for food in 1998 was 43.2 billion, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. This included 290 million cattle, buffalo and calves, 1.1 billion pigs, 802 million sheep and goats, and 41.1 billion chickens, turkey, ducks, and geese. The figures exclude some small countries and 'non-slaughter' deaths which are not generally reported.

In Sweden, to place us at the actual scene, animals as food are more than ever on people’s plates – for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. One may of course ask if we may be the bloodiest eaters of all Swedish times. Did not the Swedish Vikings consume nothing but animal flesh, raw meat and bloody grilled steaks? It is difficult to know, but a recent archaeological study actually showed that the Vikings, contrary to the myth, ate a lot more vegetables, herbs, berries than what is usually presumed.

At the same time as people are most probably eating more meat stuffs than ever, there is an increased interest in food without animal flesh, the so called ’vegetarian kitchen’. According to a SIFO-investigation on behalf of Hill & Knowlton, published in the Stockholm morning paper Metro 16/9-99, 30 percent of the Stockholm population is what Metro called ”cheating-vegetarians”, which means that they answered: 'Yes, I would like to increase my intake of vegetarian meals.'

Vegetarian Stockholmers or not, Vanja Lundby-Wedin, Sweden’s head of LO, the labour union’s organization with 2.1 million members, is a practising vegetarian – a fact virtually overlooked in the press compared to the statements sympathetic to animals and vegetarianism made by Sweden’s Prime Minister Göran Persson the day before Christmas last year. It is hard to imagine that anybody should have missed what Persson said, though everyone, including the whole of the Swedish press, missed the statement of Vanja Lundby-Wedin.

We seem to have a situation of increased polarization regarding how to feed ourselves. More and more animals are eaten, more and more people tend to be interested in not eating animals.

Now, is this bewildered, somewhat paradoxical, situation something altogether new? And is the idea of not consuming animals a new thought? In Sweden there is certainly a strong movement for ’animal rights’ (in Swedish ’djurrätt’ or ’djurs rättigheter’ or ’djurs frigörelse’), as in the UK, as in the US, as in Australia, as, less well known, in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. It is a movement that has grown since the 1970’s. What seldom is recognized is that there are differences within this movement, actually quite big differences, when it comes to ideology and practice.

I think one may distinguish between two main strands of thought.

The first one we might call ’animal welfare’. The animal welfare-perspective focuses on pain. Animals, that is mammals and vertebrates, do have the capacity to feel pain, so they do have an interest of not being exposed to pain. Animal welfarists put strong emphasis on this interest.

The animal welfare-ideology recognizes the power of man, the human species, versus the lesser power of other species. It also perceives man as inherently more important than other species; and as having more value than other species. Along with being powerful, more important, and more valuable, follows responsibility. Man should not misuse his power in relation to animals; man has duties towards animals not to inflict unnecessary pain.

Usually this perspective focuses on physical pain. Animal welfarists’ view is similar to that of the general political welfarists of today. In political terms it means reforming the system of animal husbandry. Transportation to slaughterhouses is to be improved; with water and more space and not such long travel hours. There are to be larger cages, so that the animals cannot hurt themselves and others. It means: as painless slaughter methods as possible, less painful castration methods etcetera.

Animal rights, or animal liberation, is something quite different. Well, not altogether. Like animal welfare, the animal rights-perspective sees animals’ capacity to feel pain as important. But for holders of this view, pain is not necessarily something to be avoided. Pain is seen as a fact of life, a life preserving signal of warning, and something that makes us, both humans and animals, able to feel the opposite of pain: pleasure. Lust, pleasure or joy, and pain are mutually dependent, in this view. Therefore animal rightists do not focus solely on pain. Rather they seek to broaden the picture.

Many animals, for example all mammals in agriculture, have the capacity to feel not only physical pain; but also mental pain, mental distress, like anxiety, grief, loneliness, boredom, fear etcetera. Likewise, mammals have the capacity to feel joy, or what has been called ’funktionslust’, the deep satisfaction of doing something the body and mind are well constructed to do. The problem here, and the key message of animal rights and animal liberation, is that this joy, or possibility of joy, of being alive and using one’s body and mind to stay alive, presupposes a great deal of freedom. Without freedom, there are small chances of ever enjoying life fully.

So, from this perspective it is principally wrong to hold animals in captivity. Like man – man as an extraordinary animal species – other animals want and strive for freedom. Freedom can be given up momentarily to gain something like food and shelter, but in normal cases it is not given up totally. A fox, for example, who knows freedom, would hardly stay voluntarily in a cage of today’s or yesterday’s fox farms; an intensively bred cow would not want to let go of her calf, and she would hardly choose to stay inside in the same tiny place all winter long eating and relieving herself in the same place; a pig would hardly like to be crammed with other pigs, day after day, in spaces that give the pig and his/her fellows one square meter each (the Swedish minimum size). And most importantly, none of these animals, had they once enjoyed freedom, would voluntarily walk down the line towards death.

The endeavour for freedom and the will to live are deeply embedded in all animals. Animal rightists or animal liberationists say we should recognize this – as we recognize this striving within ourselves.

In practice, the animal rights or animal liberation ideology means the end of animal husbandry as we know it. It means not just animals being treated without direct infliction of pain, it means giving up human power over these animals’ lives. No raising of animals for human gains, no systematic slaughter for human food purposes.

Now, the consequences of the animal rights view seem radical enough, actually it seems so radical that we think these ideas are new, emerging from urbanization and the industrialization of animal husbandry during the twentieth century.

However, I suggest that these ideas are not an entirely new phenomenon, by telling about the movement during the prior fin-de-siècle (also by mentioning some scattered examples from Western history of ideas.) Animal rights-arguments have grown in force and in defenders no doubt, but the thoughts seem to be old.

And I will end this lecture trying to explain why we don’t seem to know these ideas existed all along.

First a poem:

The Sending of the Animals

The Animals, you say, were ”sent”

For man’s free use and nutriment.

Pray, then, inform me, and be candid,

Why came they aeons before Man did,

To spend long centuries on earth,

Awaiting their Devourer’s birth?

Those ill-timed chattels, sent from Heaven,

Were sure, the maddest gift ever given –

”Sent” for Man’s usage (can Man believe it?)

When there was no Man to receive it.

(From Cum grano, Verse and Epigrams, by Henry S. Salt. Berkely Heights, New Jersey: Oriole Press, 1931.)

Henry S. Salt, the author of this poem about man’s relatively late arrival on the scene of the earth, lived between 1851 and 1939. Salt was an author and an academic, a former teacher at Eton, and Cambridge, in England, founder of The Humanitarian League in 1891. He and his wife Catherine Leigh Joynes, renowned feminist of her day, left the city for country life, sustaining themselves on writing books and growing vegetables. They were pacifists, ethical socialists, anti-vivisectionists and vegetarians, working with the Social Democratic Federation, and the Fabians.

Joynes & Salt formed the Humanitarian league to promote reforms of every kind: land reform, prison reform, suffrage; they worked against the ill treatment of the poor in hospitals, against vivisection etc. Humanitarianism was the name they adopted for this philosophy. They argued, in Salt’s words: '[Animals, as well as men, should be] exempt from any unnecessary suffering or serfdom.' For them it was not only the infliction of pain, but also the captivity and slavery that were to be avoided. Among Salt’s forty book titles, Animals’ Rights, considered in relation to social progress (1892), translated into Swedish in 1903 by Julie Blomquist, is one of the most famous and most influential in the animal rights movement

Mahatma Gandhi, George B Shaw, Edward Carpenter, Lizzy Lind af Hageby and Leisa Schartau were among the many intellectuals who were friends with Joynes and Salt and who became inspired by them and set out to pioneer the animal rights/liberation-philosophy and practice. Shaw wrote: 'We were Shelleyans and Humanitarians … My pastime has been writing sermons in plays, sermons preaching what Salt practised.' (Shaws preface to Salt and his Circle. Winsten, Steven, London: Hutchinson & Co., 1951)

The Swedish ladies Lind af Hageby and Schartau, famous in Britain in their time, largely forgotten by mainstream Swedish history, organized the first mass campaign ever for animal rights. They were feminists, vegetarians and ’humanitarians’– taking over the political cause from Salt and Joynes. Both of these ladies were what we nowadays would call ’vegans’ (the word did not come into use until 1944, abstaining from the use of all animal products, and for example drinking orange juice instead of cow’s milk. 'Cow’s milk is intended for the calf,' as Lind af Hageby put it in a hearing 1903.

However, Salt, Joynes, Hageby and Schartau did not invent the animal rights philosophy. If the turn of the century was the beginning of modern intensive industrialization, and we might think these ideas grew out of a critical view on the whole of society and ways that were to come, there were forerunners much earlier in the Western history of ideas.

(Of course, we must remember that the people and arguments mentioned here, are the ones that ’survived’: firstly, they were written down, secondly, they had the luck to be preserved, not destroyed, and not entirely forgotten. I imagine future historical research, when we are ready to discover and discuss this line of thinking, will come up with many many more events, names and written documents.)

The Humanitarians did not invent animal rights; they developed it from earlier thoughts and positions. In the first century, Plutarch (46-120) wrote Of the Eating of Flesh, the ethical wrongness to kill for food, in accordance with his general principle of kindness to all creatures, man and animals alike. Plutarch’s text is not widely known, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that it remains to be perhaps one of the strongest pleas for vegetarianism in history.

Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), artist and inventor, and his friend Tomasso Masini, were other forerunners, 400 years after Plutarch: Andrea Corsali, contemporary with Leonardo, writes in a letter from West India in October 1516 to Guiliano de Medici, count of Nemours, about a people on the Canary Islands that he has met called the Guzzaretti: 'They are so kind and friendly not to eat anything with blood, nor do they permit anyone to hurt anyone or anything living, just like our friend Leonardo da Vinci.'

Leonardo himself writes in his notebook (which amounted to 3 500 pages!): 'I have, since I was young, renounced the eating of flesh, and I believe one day people like me will look upon the killing of animals in much the same way as we now regard the murdering of people.' (Pers commun; letter 14/4-94 from Carlo Pedretti, Head of the Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies at UCLA.)

Tomasso Masini, also known as Zoroastro, Leonardos friend and possibly also his lover, was an even more radical advocate for the well-being of animals. He dressed in linen-clothing and refused to wear leather, fur or anything that had caused the death or suffering of animals. Tomasso Masini, would he have lived among us, most likely would have called himself an animal rightist and a vegan.

So would most probably Lewis Gompertz 300 years later; Jewish author and inventor, anti-slave abolitionist, one of the founders of the animal welfare-organization SPCA (The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) who resigned from The SPCA because he thought the organization’s view and strategy on animal rights was too feeble. Gompertz, who lived between 1779 and 1861, called for radical reforms in general, practised vegetarianism, and even refused to use horse-drawn carts – a common mode of transportation in Gompertz’ time. All slavery, be it man versus man or man versus animals, was to be abolished, according to Gompertz.

Now, why is this somewhat heretic tradition, of respecting animals fully, so little known? And is it necessarily combined with respect for all mankind, as seems to be the case in the cited examples? The philosophy of animal rights, as an ideology, seems to be; it has a logic: the respect of all sentient beings, of all beings that can appreciate being respectfully treated and free, be it animal or man. The case of vegetarianism is slightly different. Vegetarianism is a habit that can be adopted for different reasons (health, economy, ecology, hygiene etc), and it can be combined with different ideologies. Actually the ethnic mass murderer Adolf Hitler, for example, did eat vegetarian food from time to time, though his favourite dish was stuffed pigeon, hardly a vegetarian course. He also wanted to be seen as an animal lover, while simultaneously banning animal- and vegetarian organizations.

Hitler is not alone in banning animal rights. Historically, up until today, Western culture has often responded to the ideas of animal rights and practices with silence, neglect, disrespect, ridicule and even violence. People have been silenced, by not being allowed to speak or write, or publish, people have been, and still are, even diagnosed as sick. An example is the famous author Franz Kafka who in a recent biography is said to have been a victim of a certain non-starving form of anorexia – meaning his well reflected ethical vegetarianism (!). People who refuse meat are still being ridiculed, and sometimes even forced to eat animals. At home, at schools, in prisons, in hospitals.

It may be that our dominant history, our failure to record other ideas than the winning and currently practised ones, has do with a lack of perspective. Our present culture may have difficulties seeing itself, and its history, as an animal-using/animal exploiting culture. In this situation, devoid of self-reflection, this culture has had, and still has, difficulties recognizing criticism and alternatives to using animals.

The present culture harbours, I would say, a ’meat-norm’, 'meat normativity', as well as a ’hu-man-norm’, 'human-male normativity'. In a sort of narcissistic self-drowning our present culture cannot and does not see its own ways from the outside. When these norms look upon other forms, deviant to their own, the deviances tend to be devaluated. Animals, for example, are measured by the human-male norm. Qualities that do resemble ours, species that look and behave somewhat like us (humans), tend to be given a high value. Traits and species that do not look and behave and grasp the world around them like we do, tend to be given a lower value or no value at all. Consider our different attitude toward chimpanzees versus cows. Or dogs versus pigeons or parrots. As the poet William Blake wrote:

'How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,

Is an immense world of delight,

clos’d by your senses five?'

(W. Blake. 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell'. In Geoffrey Keynes (ed.) Blake. Complete Writings. Oxford UP, 1966. S 150.)

How do we know that we have the sensory traits to even begin evaluating other species?

Maybe we don’t have what is needed, at all?

The prerogative to place a value on other beings and to act out this ascribed value, is of course a result of our power. That means that the human-male and meat-eating normative society is not able to see that its ways and norms have been chosen, chosen when residing in power. Rather it sees its ways as having being naturally evolved; as an inevitable development.

Still, when we look back upon the past, we do compare and judge. We do ascribe the opportunity to choose to past peoples and cultures. 'How could they commit such crimes, behave so cruelly, act in ways that we now condemn as inhuman?', we say. Seldom we imagine ourselves being looked at in the same way, compared and judged by future generations, i.e. people, like ourselves, looking back at past times. The past time that is now our own time.

Our time is no more natural law than yesterday’s, and vice versa. However much we close our eyes, and hold on to what always seems to have been, this fact will not change.

What is future? What is history? What is history not? History is not only something that kings and queens and politicians made in the first and Second World War, of course. For every alternative that we in our society decide upon, history is made. But we are not only making it, we are going to be judged by our making. This may sound trivial. The problem is that we do not seem to act as if we had grasped the meaning of our participation in the order of things.

What do we want people to say about us in the future? What will they actually say? Will they gaze in wonder or will they shake their heads? Will they wonder how we could not see animals as other nations, as other peoples? Will they wonder how we did not see ourselves reflected in the eyes of the calf soon to be transported and killed in today’s Swedish and European and Earth’s slaughterhouses?

Or, will they maybe not wonder at all and just condemn. History teaches us chances are that they, like us, will distance themselves all they can in respect to cruelties. In doing that, most probably, they will be right, and our dominant culture will be wrong.

Copyright Lisa Gålmark