RSPCA Shop Next Gen Education
Colour mode

A pivotal moment

by Chris Sherwood

At this point in the history of human relationships with animals, what questions should we be asking?

The first animal welfare legislation in the world was passed in the UK in 1822. Martin's Act forbade 'the cruel and improper treatment of cattle'. Two years later, the world's first Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was conceived in Old Slaughter's Coffee House (really) in London. Queen Victoria, a keen animal lover, became the Society's patron soon after, bestowing a royal title on the infant Society. In the succeeding 200 years, the RSPCA has waged many campaigns against animal cruelty, first outlawing sports such as dog fighting, bear-baiting and cockfighting, then improving welfare conditions in slaughterhouses. Later in the century, laws were introduced to regulate experimentation on animals. The lives first of ponies in the pits and then of horses on the field of battle came under greater public scrutiny. These developments inspired reforming movements abroad, with the USA launching its own animal protection society in 1866, followed in turn by Australia and New Zealand.

Currently, legislation before the UK Parliament seeks to address a range of modern ills, from the illegal puppy trade and live exports of animals for slaughter to keeping primates as pets. Farmers, environmentalists and animal welfare advocates have combined to oppose new free trade deals that might undermine UK agriculture's environmental and animal welfare standards, hitherto among the best in the world. And they have enjoyed widespread public support: opinion polls show that most people agree more should be done to replace animal experiments. UK consumers want to buy, and expect others to buy, animal products raised according to higher-welfare standards. And the public wants to see an end to the degradation of wild animal habitats and the extermination of species. Growing public concern is reinforced by recent scientific evidence for the extent of animals' emotional, cognitive and social lives, which confirms what most people already sense, that animals experience pain and joy. 

A few years ago, the famous Harvard cognitive psychologist Stephen Pinker argued in his bestselling book Enlightenment now that life for most humans on this planet has been getting steadily better over time, thanks to the advance of rational thinking, science and humanism, those Enlightenment forces that led alike to the abolition of slavery and the first campaigns for animal welfare. If reproductive success and longevity are key measures of success for a species, humans are indeed doing well. The world population has been rising continuously; humans born today are more likely to live longer and escape a violent death than at any time in our history. Scientific and technological advances, particularly in agriculture and medicine, mean fewer of us will die in infancy, grow up in poverty, suffer chronic malnutrition or succumb to infectious diseases. Admittedly, Pinker published his book before the pandemic or the latest alarming forecasts about the impact of climate change, and we may be fast approaching a turning point of our own making in our fortunes as a species. And inequality is growing: to the billions who are still living in abject conditions with poor prospects, it is doubtless little comfort to know that others are doing much better. Still, Pinker makes a powerful case that, in material terms at least, you are statistically more likely to be enjoying a good life if you happen to have been born in the year 2000 than at any time in the past. That is, of course, if you happen to come into this world as a human.

There is little agreement over how many other animal species there are on Earth. Estimates range from a conservative two million to as many as eight million, and some argue that even that last figure could be a huge underestimation. It may be that half or more of the animal species we share this planet with are still undiscovered. Alas, the outlook for the great majority of them is not nearly as rosy as it is for humans. You wouldn't fancy your chances of having a good life as a mouse or a zebrafish, given that these are among the most popular choices for the more than 100 million experiments conducted on animals each year. Nor would you want to be one of our closest relatives, the primates, whose numbers in the wild are dwindling rapidly. They, too, are used in experiments, including in brain research, because they think so much like us.

If you are a meat chicken, provider of the most popular meat consumed in the world today, your species is doing very well, with around 70 billion raised for human consumption each year. But while the species may be thriving, you won't be leading the life of your 19th-century predecessors, foraging in the kitchen garden; you may, in fact, never see the light of day. So selective has breeding been in the past 100 years that our grandparents might not even recognise you as the same animal, just as they wouldn't recognise most of the dogs running about today. Genetic manipulation has not been to the benefit of your health and comfort (it hasn't benefited some dogs, either). Modern meat-chicken breeds put on weight at a rate their hearts and legs cannot support. Your ancestors in the wild may have had a life expectancy reckoned in years. Yours is limited to between five and seven miserable weeks.

If you are a sheep or a cow, you may see rather more of the world, but quite likely from the back of a lorry or the hold of a cargo ship on the way to distant markets and abattoirs. Farm animals are not in danger of extinction - their numbers are increasing rapidly, crowding out wild species - but the quality of their lives is nothing to envy.

Even if born free, you may well end up in captivity or fall prey to those who want you dead or alive or to evict you from your home. Human-induced climate change may force you to migrate from your home territory as temperatures rise. Your progeny will have it even tougher, with the United Nations (UN) estimating that at least a million species are now threatened with extinction. The three species of orangutan that live on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, for example, are all endangered. These incredible animals, who have been known to laugh, use tools and recognise themselves in mirrors (an indicator that they have an idea of self) are the victims of the inexorable expansion of palm oil plantations and the illegal pet trade.

Orangutans are not alone in having an amazing repertoire of social skills, learned from parents and peers. As our observations get sharper and our animal intelligence tests smarter, we're discovering that many animal communities, both on land and at sea, have their own constantly evolving talents, cultures and traditions. Sadly, at the current rate of habitat destruction and species extinction, many life-forms - many cultures -  will vanish without us realising they ever existed. 

If you are one of the many wild ocean-fish species that humans find palatable (or if you just hang out with those that are, so you end up as 'bycatch') then it is very likely your species' numbers are declining sharply, your chances of living to full maturity much diminished. Even without overfishing, you face an increasingly hostile environment due to rising temperatures and ocean acidification, as well as a precipitous decline in the food sources upon which you rely.

Things are about to get even worse for fish. With the rapid increase in global demand and the depletion of fish stocks in the oceans, aquaculture has become a vast industry, providing about half of the fish we consume, a percentage that will grow rapidly in the coming years. Unbelievably, some people still argue that fish don't really feel pain or have complex feelings, despite having a backbone, an array of highly developed senses and a peripheral nervous system connected to the brain. Ironically, just as fish are becoming a mainstay of agriculture and laboratory research, we are having to acknowledge that they are every bit as sentient as mammals. We now know that fish have excellent memories and learn quickly how to avoid danger and unpleasant experiences. They plan, play and solve problems. In almost any meaningful sense they are conscious and aware. Indeed, as fish-like animals were the first vertebrates on the planet, preceding humans by 100 million years or so, they may well have been the first conscious beings. With 34,300 known species, fish exhibit greater species diversity than any other group of vertebrates. It is humbling and exciting to realise that these species are as different from one another as a pig is from a cow and that each individual fish has its own unique personality, as do you and your dog.

Two hundred years ago, Britain led the way in eliminating some of the most egregious forms of cruelty, at a time when it was normal for most people to think of animals as mere 'dumb beasts'. Even then, Darwin wrote that 'there is no fundamental difference between man and higher animals in their mental faculties... the lower animals, like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery'. Darwin came to his conclusions through his own painstaking observations. We have learned an enormous amount in the past two centuries. How much more might we come to understand in the next 200? What do other species have to teach us about ourselves? Given new research and technologies, is it possible we could be communicating and interacting with animals on a whole new level in years to come? Theirs is a hugely varied and constantly evolving world, which we have largely overlooked for too long. The answer to the age-old question about whether there is other life in this universe is staring us in the face.

The more we appreciate how much animals are like us, however, the more it seems we want to see them as having nothing to do with us. Perhaps the most profoundly unsettling new discovery of recent times, for those who see humans as a species apart, is that we aren't. Traditionally, a species has been defined by who can breed with whom. Recent DNA research now shows that modern humans were interbreeding with a range of other contemporary species, including Neanderthal, Homo denisovan and Homo floresiensis only a few tens of thousands of years ago. What does this imply about our own perceived exceptionalism?

The time has come to ask some uncomfortable questions. Is it right always to put the interests of all humans before those of any other animals? With great power comes great responsibility, and we have developed the capacity to determine not merely our own fate but that of millions of other individual species, trillions of individual animals trying to live alongside us. David Attenborough describes humans as 'intruders' and 'late arrivals' in the natural world; he suggests we should think and act a bit more like stewards or trustees of the planet and a bit less like plundering colonists.

Behaving responsibly towards the planet and other animals is in our interest. We have had a profound impact on every habitat we've occupied, sometimes deliberately, sometimes unintentionally, always enduringly. We're just beginning to understand the complex ecosystems of our planet, in which animals play a central role and which provide us with everything we need. Civilisation has been carried forward on the backs of beasts: we have exploited animals on the farm, in the battlefield and in the laboratory. Regardless of how far we move away from the horse and plough, of how all-encompassing our virtual worlds become, we are still entirely dependent on the material resources provided by nature and the animals in nature.

Many of us acknowledge this debt, celebrating the richness of life on Earth and our dependence upon it - and most of us choose to share our homes with other creatures, voluntarily and, often, at considerable expense and inconvenience. We do this because animals make life more interesting and contribute to our happiness and well-being. Pets may still suffer, on occasion, from neglect and cruelty, but this is now wholly unacceptable. As a society, we have taken the stance that we will not tolerate the abuse of these family members.

Too often though, we overlook the systematic abuse of animals that takes place behind closed doors or in distant locations. We have other problems. We aren't directly responsible. It's too difficult to think about, too complex; along with climate change and the destruction of the natural environment, it's an inconvenient truth. We care, but we don't know where to start.

The suffering of animals at the hands of farmers and scientists is incidental rather than intentional. For the animal concerned, however, it matters not a jot whether suffering is the point of the human behaviour or merely a side effect. And ignorance is no excuse for humans to overlook this suffering - not, at least, if we pride ourselves on an innate sense of justice and fairness. We damage our personal integrity when we ignore the consequences of our species' actions.

The good news is that we can greatly alleviate suffering and provide a much better life for many animals without making enormous personal sacrifices. There's no shortage of good ideas about how to eliminate or reduce pain and enrich animal lives. We can, for example, select different, slower-growing meat-chicken breeds with fewer welfare problems. We can insist that farm animals are raised to higher standards and that our government protects those standards in its trade deals. We can help create or restore wild habitats and invest in lab-grown meat and plant-based meat substitutes. Collectively, we can invest in further research to discover what individual species need in order to lead good lives and have humane deaths, and encourage greater investment in non-animal technologies to replace animals in research and testing. We can educate ourselves and teach our children about how complex ecosystems work and what we can do to sustain them. We can make sure that economic and political decisions reflect the interests of both animals and future generations of humans, not simply the material demands of today's consumers.

As with climate change, globalisation can help knowledge-sharing, collaboration and the adoption of common standards and behaviours. COVID-19 is the latest warning that we are putting ourselves at risk if we don't act together, internationally. Deadly diseases have been jumping from animals to humans at least since the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago and, probably, far longer; but now the combination of intensive farming, habitat destruction and globalisation is making these leaps more likely and the consequences more devastating.

The essays in this collection urge us to take a fresh look at our relationships with animals. Writing from a variety of perspectives, the authors argue for a recalibration of the terms of engagement with other species. They acknowledge the myriad benefits animals bring to us, as well as the impacts, negative and positive, our actions have on them. These essays reflect the range of our intellectual, emotional and psychological relationships with animals, relationships that reach well beyond the material or transactional. An oft-repeated fallacy is that valuing animal lives more must mean valuing human lives less, but compassion is not a zero-sum game. On the contrary: compassion inspires compassion. We need to value all life more and reset the balance, not between us and nature, but within nature, because we are very much a part of nature.

We can look in horror at the blood sports that were popular 200 years ago and note with justifiable pride that they are becoming no longer acceptable today. But what will our children's children think about the treatment of animals in our time? Will our love for and care of animals remain one of the national qualities other nations most admire in us? Could the UK set the standard for animal welfare in the 21st century, as it did in the 19th? 

We want these essays to help us rethink what animals do for us and what they deserve from us in return. Two hundred years on from the founding of the RSPCA, we believe it's time for another conversation about the future of humans and other animals, together.