In order to better understand the phenomena described in the preceding chapters, it is necessary to examine, going at least as far back as the Renaissance, the changes, in societies, in both representations of animals and people’s emotional reactions to animals. Once again, rather than attempting to relate this story in all its complexity, we should identify a number of general trends which will form the basis for our analysis of the motives underlying the development of mobilizations in favor of the protection of animals. Within the framework of the civilizing process, which we have placed at the heart of our analysis, animality is often set up in opposition to civilized humanity. For Erasmus, for example, there could be no doubt that “differentiation from animals is the very essence
of good table manners”. As a general rule, the bodily impulses frowned upon in a well-mannered society were regarded as spontaneous uncontrolled animal impulses. Indeed, the pejorative notion of bestiality gradually imposed itself as a yardstick used to stigmatize any human behavior which resembled animal behavior either because of its aggressiveness, or its absence of modesty, or, last but not least, its expression of desire. These developments represented not only a modification in the monitoring of manners but also a significant transformation of human relations with animals.
Popular representations of the animal kingdom and aristocratic heraldic bestiaries were both characterized by a multiplicity of distinctions, positive or negative, flexible, reversible, and independent of one another. The evaluation of animal species – as with the establishment of hierarchical status between humans – depended on a mix of variably applied criteria. Evidence of this complexity can be made out from the frescoes to decorate the walls of the Palace of Justice used to house the city administrative offices and tribunals and contains a series of representations of animal figures, both real and fantastic. Some of these figures were associated with the different levels of the tribunal, while others presented allegories of Justice and the Law. The dog, the cock, the panther, and the centaur depict the moral virtues men must show in order to live in harmony, in the order established by their creator. This kind of representation of the animal world – rich in distinctions and associations and packed with a wide variety of connotations – was gradually replaced by a radical separation of human and nonhuman animals: a rigid division was established between virtuous humanity and repulsive bestiality. In fact, association with pure animality gradually became a way of discrediting behavior that was judged inappropriate. Thus, reformers who mobilized against bullbaiting, the brutality of coachmen, etc., aimed to do more than simply proscribe those repulsive spectacles which upset their sensibilities and advocate the discipline needed to generate wealth. They were also motivated by what they saw as the need to make men more human, and to work toward the systematic humanization of their conduct. This strange pleonasm derives from the belief that a man’s level of civilization of men is dependent on their capacity to break free of a tenacious and untrustworthy animality.
The continuing existence of the practices condemned by moral reformers demonstrated that some men give in to their instincts and show themselves incapable of mastering their latent animality. Once again, this conviction often draws on older religious conceptions, according to which it is man’s destiny to be tempted by the forces of the devil. Contrary to what might have been expected, this determination to put pressure on people to abandon animality was in no way shaken by new representations provoked by observations of the animal world, or advances in a number of fields which would, at first sight, seem to support the idea that nonhuman and human animals were closer than had previously been thought. Comparative anatomy, in the wake of pioneering work, found that, notwithstanding differences between species, there were numerous similarities between organisms, notably between chimpanzees and human beings. Nevertheless these observations – attesting to the closeness between humans and animals – far from allaying fears regarding man’s bestiality, actually strengthened the convictions of those who were determined to work to improve the mores of their insufficiently civilized contemporaries. A strong prejudice established itself in animal welfare circles, namely that a remedy needed to be found for the fact that some human beings, more than others, shared the ignominious brutish properties of animals, where a brute is understood to be “an animal devoid of reason” or “an animal considered in terms of its least human characteristics.”
In fact, the first animal protection movements were built on an ambivalent representation of the relationship of humans with animals. On the one hand, being kind to animals was regarded as being a distinctive feature of respectable milieus: “Pity, compassion and a reluctance to inflict pain, whether on men or beasts, were identified as distinctly civilized emotions.” At the same time the discrediting of certain social groups – “faithless lawless brutes,” “savages,” “primitives,” “barbarians” – led them to be associated with the most repulsive features of animality. Such prejudices underpin, firstly, the success of physiognomy, as theorized by Cesare Lombroso, who claimed to be able to identify common facial traits in criminals, anarchists, and the great apes, and, secondly, the prejudices of colonial anthropology, according to which the Indo-European peoples are largely devoid of animality, whereas even an intelligent dog would be capable of thinking on a par with that of a Bushman. In contrast to later developments, which will be discussed below, the main initial effect of the methodical observation of the similarities between animal species and certain humans was not to generate sympathy for animals but to infantilize and attribute a lower status to peoples who allegedly resembled animals.
Thus, it is apparent that there is a close articulation between, on the one hand, the stigmatization of the bestiality of certain humans, and, on the other hand, the processes of setting “Them” up in opposition against “Us.” These processes of differentiation, as we shall see, came in various forms which relied on the definition of national qualities, the perception of regional differences, and the competing legitimization strategies of dominant groups. Disgust at the bestiality attributed to certain humans, pride at distinguishing oneself by one’s gentle treatment of animals: the emotions experienced and displayed by the first animal protection activists sets up a clear differentiation between “Them” (the brutes, in the way they treat animals) and “Us” (the righteous, in the way we treat animals). In the century of triumphant nationalism, it was inevitable that distinctions of this kind would be associated with the praising of virtues which, supposedly, characterized the people to which the animal protectors were proud to belong. Thus it was not uncommon for British pioneers of the animal welfare cause to mention the need to “purify the country from foul and disgraceful abominations” which were common practices in Europe. From this perspective, ill-treatment of animals was symptomatic of more generally depraved behavior or, even worse, irreligiosity and revolutionary spirit worthy of a Frenchman, no less! Thus, in a sermon titled “On National Cruelty” the Reverend Thomas Greenwood from Trinity College Cambridge, one of the founders, in 1830, of the Association for Promoting Rational Humanity toward the Animal Creation, attributed “the awful calamity [the 1789 Revolution] which has befallen the nominally Christian France” to its twin atavistic demons of effeminacy and cruelty: a “compound of the monkey and the tiger”. The tone of these attacks was all the more virulent because the moral reformers who congregated in the animal protection societies considered the irreligiousness and Jacobinism imported from France as intolerable threats to the alliance between the Church and the State, which they regarded as the twin pillars of the English nation.
In fact, the first animal protection mobilizations took place within a historical context deeply marked by hostility toward the French Revolution and an intense religious revival. The idea that the protection of animals in Britain was something that distinguished it from other, less advanced nations persisted, however, for the rest of the century. Thus, in a sermon given in 1860, the Anglican vicar Thomas Jackson claimed that bullfighting, which was popular in other European countries, appealed to an archaic fierceness which was absent from the English character and which would remain so, providing his countrymen remained true to their religious convictions. In modern times the peoples who indulge in bullfighting are the same peoples who enjoy the unhappy distinction of having surpassed all the other peoples of the earth in the arts of torture, as well as having invented the most ingenious methods for inflicting horrible and long-lasting pain on men, women and children. On our own island, the taste for the gallows and the mutilation of traitors has disappeared, along with bearbaiting and the brutal treatment of cattle being dragged to the abattoir; if ever religion and morality went into decline in our land and the old fever for ferocity returned, you can be sure that a renewed inhumanity toward animals would be one of its first symptoms.
Throughout the 19th century, national pride and evangelical missionary spirit merged to the point that the protection of animals was equated with the magnificent British oak – a traditional symbol of the nation – and contributed to justifying its extension well beyond the boundaries of the Empire. Thus, at the annual conference of the RSPCA in 1933, one speaker chose to emphasize the extent to which compassion for animals and religion were intimately bound up with the civilizing mission which it was incumbent upon England to pursue. If, when the banner of England is unfurled on distant shores in the cause of Christianity, missionaries inculcate these doctrines of mercy to the brute creation which we labor to diffuse then humanity will flourish, not only at home, but abroad, and the branches of a glorious tree will also extend, so that animals who cannot describe their woes, will find shelter, and sleep under its shade.
Antivivisectionism, more than any other issue, provides evidence of the way in which indignation stirred up by animal suffering frequently sets in motion a process whereby British virtues and continental abominations are differentiated. Although vivisection – the dissection of living animals for experimental purposes – has a long history, its practice only became widespread over the course of the 19th century. Positivism, according to which knowledge should be verified according to experimentation, was widely embraced by scientists working in the fields of physiology, biology, toxicology, and medicine, and provided the philosophical basis for the use of a practice now regarded as being the most reliable means of achieving scientific progress.
One of the fiercest attacks against vivisection was launched by Frances Power Cobbe, the daughter of a landowning Dublin magistrate, himself descended from a prominent Anglo-Irish family: many members of the Cobbe family had distinguished themselves in either the British Army or the Church Error! No bookmark name was given of England (she had at least five archbishops among her forebears). After the death of her father, Cobbe took a trip comparable with the “grand tours” undertaken by well-to-do young men from the 17th century onward. Traveling through Italy was, of course, an essential part of the itinerary of any grand tour, and, on her return, Cobbe wrote an account of her Italian travels: Italics: Brief Notes on Politics, People, and Places in Italy, the tone of which left the author in no doubt as to the superiority of British civilization. In 1863, while she was staying in Florence, Cobbe, who had recently published an article entitled “The Rights of Man and the Claims of Beasts,” launched a campaign against the German physiologist Moritz Schiff, who used vivisectionist techniques. She wrote a memorial address, which was signed by 785 Florentines, as well as a letter of protest to the Daily News which was picked up and published shortly afterward by the Florence newspaper La Nazione.
Cobbe‘s comments suggest that she envisaged a campaign to enact laws in Italy, modeled on the legislation already in force in Britain. Inquiring last winter of the probabilities regarding a “Martin’s Act” for Italy, I was informed, by gentlemen well acquainted with the country, that the passing of such a law might be affected, but that its practical use, even in Tuscany, would be null […]. I do not feel sure, however, that my informant was right in this matter, seeing that 785 persons, from the highest to the poorest in Florence, were found willing, last winter, to attach their names to a memorial against the practice of vivisection at the Specola. The experience of attempting to spread British mores abroad made a mark on Cobbe and, over a decade later, she went on to found, in London, the Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection, this time with the aim of combating the spread of the practice within Britain itself. In doing so Cobbe contributed to the mobilization, which thus resulted from the indignation over an experiment conducted in public by a foreign scientist.
In 1874, the French psychiatrist Valentin Magnan, who had been invited to the annual meeting of the British Medical Association to present his work on the effects of alcohol, was preparing to induce epilepsy in a dog by injecting it with absinthe when several members of the audience intervened violently to put a stop to the operation. Magnan was obliged to leave the country in some haste, to avoid being the subject of legal proceedings: the RSPCA had lodged a complaint against the French psychiatrist and the organizers of the meeting, accusing them of cruelty under the provisions of Martin’s Act. Over the next two years, a dozen or so antivivisection societies were created across the whole country, although Cobbe‘s organization, now renamed the Victoria Street Society, remained the most influential. To the members of the antivivisectionist movement, the fact that the practice had now begun to become more widespread in British scientific circles made their cause more urgent.
In 1873, Burdon Sanderson wrote the Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory, intended for British students, while significant numbers of British scientists started to use vivisection in an effort to catch up with their European counterparts. From around this time, British opponents of vivisection were largely engaged in stirring up two complementary fears: firstly, the concern that, in the absence of vigilance, a practice regarded as an alien would intrude onto British soil, and, secondly, that experiments on animals would soon lead to experiments on human beings.
It starts with animals and continues with humans […]. Sir [writes a reader of the Zoophilist], allow me to draw to your attention the serious danger to which our hospital patients are exposed. With each passing day it becomes clearer that, once experiments have been performed on live animals, the next step is experimenting on poor people who have no family or friends. And with each passing day, it becomes clearer that these experiments, which have become so common abroad, meet with the approval of certain circles within the medical profession in England.