Join us!
Basic- Yellow 120px

Brief History of the Animal Protection Movement


In the UK, the first legislation ‘Martin’s Act’ for the protection of animals (mainly cattle and horses) was passed in 1822. Two years later, in 1824, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (which became the Royal SPCA in 1840) was established. The society focused especially on enforcement of the law, with prosecutions where appropriate. In 1835, the Act was amended to protect domestic animals, such as dogs and cats, against cruelty.

The first American animal protection organization, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was established in 1866. By 1900, several hundred other animal protection organizations had formed in America.

In 1860, the Battersea Dogs’ Home was established by Mr. Mary Tealby, the first woman to found a British animal welfare organization. The organization was the first place to provide a home for stray dogs, in order to end their miserable lives on the streets.

The movement started primarily as a compassionate practical activity – protecting animals against cruelty through providing shelter for unwanted animals, and inspections and enforcement of anti-cruelty laws (where these existed).

Companion animal ownership became increasingly popular, and when the British people started to recognize the relationship between themselves and dogs and cats, this led to an increase in concern for animals’ lives more generally.

From around 1875, another form of cruelty towards animals entered the public arena – that of animal experimentation. From the 1870s, mammals, particularly dogs and cats, were used in animal experiments instead of reptiles (which were used during the 1830s & 1840s). During the 1870s, groups were established to focus upon animal experimentation e.g. the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) and National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS. The BUAV was formed by Frances Power Cobbe in 1898 after she resigned from the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS) because it adopted a policy to adopt improvement measures along the way to the abolition of vivisection (whereas Cobbe and her supporters believed that with determination vivisection could be abolished within four years!).

Then in 1906, the ‘Brown Dog Affair’ took place. Two Swedish students who studied medicine at King’s and University College exposed shocking experiments procedures on animals by medical institutions. The statue of a brown dog was erected in Battersea Park, London, by the International Anti-Vivisection Council, as a memorial for animals used in laboratories. A year later, 100 medical students tried to remove the statue, but local citizens successfully defended it. Although the statue disappeared in 1910, there was a protest against animal experiments in Trafalgar Square attended by several thousand people. The incident successfully gained much more publicity for the cause, and also stimulated considerable media coverage.

During the First and Second World War years, the movement was not very active. Richard Ryder, a UK scholar, claims that the history of social reform suggests that war had a cauterizing effect upon conscience.

The cruelty of factory farming of ‘food animals’ was revealed to a shocked public in the 1950s & 1960s, Ruth Harrison’s seminal book ‘Animal Machines’, which was published in 1964, was instrumental in fuelling the debate and increasing both public and government awareness. In 1967, Peter Roberts founded Compassion in World Farming to protest against the abuse of farm animals. However, at the level of legislation and official administration little changed in practice. The hope of campaigners turned into disappointment and frustration at the institutional and policy system. During the 1970s, public recognition of animal rights increased, as the idea of stopping animal exploitation was raised. Activists become disenchanted by the failure of the government to take humane, effective action on animal issues.

The highly influential book by Peter Singer ‘Animal Liberation’ is said to have motivated activists at such a time, and led to increased mobilization of the movement. Public demonstrations, protests, and petitions were organized. The release and removal of animals from laboratories or factory farms, sabotage of hunting, laboratories and breed establishments begun in the 1970s and continue today. Such events have provided a controversial topic to magnify public awareness of the animal rights issue.

From the 1970s, the movement also started to split into two categories - animal welfare and animal rights. Those who believe in animal rights believe in an animal's natural right to life. They seek to establish basic rights for animals and stop the use/exploitation of animals by humans. Those who believe in animal welfare tend to accept human use of animals, providing that use is humane.

Colonial influences led to the set up of many SPCA-type organizations in regions such as Asia, South America and Africa. Some of these were set up several decades ago, and the majority of groups mainly tackled issues concerning dogs and cats. Many founders for these groups were expatriates. Nowadays, however, local people run many of these organizations. Also, more and more other new organizations are being set up by local people to tackle a wide range of animal protection issues these days.

In the last few decades, some organizations in Europe and North America have started to extend their focus from purely national issues to include international aspects (particularly tackling graphic and higher profile issues such as: fur, whaling, sealing, bear farming/baiting/dancing, bush meat and dog eating). The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) extended its work to include the coordination of international campaigns (with its first international campaign being the ‘No-Fur campaign which started in 1988). These international advocacy campaigns sometimes involved different animal welfare organizations in different countries working together on joint campaign and lobby activities. Through these activities, many countries who were new to animal welfare advocacy gained the awareness and capacity to develop their own animal welfare advocacy agendas. There were also specific ‘capacity building’ programs, which assisted the development of fledgling animal welfare organizations in ‘developing’ and ‘transition’ countries.

The situation in Europe changed significantly after the European Union (EU) developed. This resulted in an increasing amount of legislation affecting animals being decided at the European level. In 1980, Eurogroup for Animals was launched on the initiative of the UK’s RSPCA, becoming the first coalition of animal welfare groups in Europe. Eurogroup for Animals seeks to improve the treatment of animals throughout the EU, and represents animal welfare organizations in almost all the European member states. Since its launch, the Eurogroup has succeeded in encouraging the European Union to adopt higher legal standards of animal protection in a wide number of areas.

Other EU-wide coalitions were subsequently developed, which work together on agreed animal welfare priorities in their own fields – including the European Coalition to End Animal Experiments, which was established by the BUAV) and the European Network for Farm Animal Protection, which is led by CIWF. These carry out collaborative campaigning and lobbying centered on EU legislation.

The movement in the United States dates back to the 1860s, when like-minded citizens launched independent, non-profit societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals (SPCAs) in one city after another and pursued their goals of compassionate treatment on a range of fronts. During the first decades of the 20th century, the movement focused their attention on practical programs largely connected to horse, dog and cat welfare activities, urban animal control, and educational work on pet keeping. Their animal control activities made it difficult for them to advocate against the cruel treatment of animals in other contexts.

After a period of considerable vitality, the movement lost ground during World War I (as it did in Europe), and animal welfare issues dropped from public and media concern.

In the second half of the 20th century, there was a revival of the movement in the USA. Discontent with existing organizations’ restricted mandates and their readiness to negotiate with organizations such as the biomedical research community (who had begun to turn to municipal shelters for cheap sources of dogs and cats in the 1940s to meet increased demand for such experiments) led to intra-organizational disputes and the emergence of breakaway groups. The Animal Welfare Institute was formed in 1951 and The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in 1954. These soon charted a new course, fuelling the renewal of the movement.

These new organizations did not become directly involved with the management of animal shelters or municipal animal control work. Instead, they focused on areas of animal use that their predecessors had not tackled. These included revitalizing campaigns devoted to humane slaughter, the regulation of laboratory animal use, and the abolition of the steel-jawed leg-hold trap. They also identified and campaigned against emerging animal welfare issues that their predecessors had never faced. They directed much of their energy toward policy change objectives. Cruelty investigations at both the national and local levels also played their part in placing issues on the public agenda.

In the meantime, the movement slowly expanded. There were legislative advances – including the Humane Slaughter Act (1958) and the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) (1966) - although these were largely achieved through political connections, rather than organized advocacy. However, animal welfare was finally gaining a place on the US political landscape.

Wildlife concerns became prominent platforms for several of the organizations that joined the field in the late 1950s and 1960s. So coverage of animal welfare issues was increasing, as well as the number of organizations. The additional of rational arguments to the debate was a crucial factor in its wider acceptance as a legitimate concern.

Subsequent legislative accomplishments in the 1960s and 1970s drew more on grassroots mobilization and direct-mail contact with supporters to generate the support for positive legislation. Also, animal welfare organizations began to form alliances with interest groups working in related areas, especially those connected with environmental protection.

Gradually the movement developed as a pressure group movement with a realizable legislative agenda and the capacity for national mobilization. But despite this progress, animal welfare had yet to become a ‘household’ issue, and policy-makers were still treating it as a marginal issue.

From 1975 this began to change, as a period of mobilization and transformation took place. Some of the existing organizations began to work more strategically, using a base of research and planning. They also increasingly used the language of rights and liberation. They also linked with newer animal advocates. On example of such co-operation was Henry Spira (who had a lifetime of experience in the labor, civil rights, peace and women’s movements) who interacted with new ethical contacts – including Peter Singer.

In the early 1980s, an important wave of group formation and movement expansion commenced. Several key conferences gave rise to new organizations and generated considerable momentum toward the development of a national grassroots movement. Local organizations also organized, knitting themselves together as larger state or regional coalitions.

From about 1984 activists began to employ civil disobedience measures, and the movement’s reliance on sit-ins, site blockage, and similar tactics expanded steadily through the rest of the decade. National days of action were undertaken, to focus on high-priority issues.

Casework and investigations added to the pressure. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (1981) set the standard for such work. When other groups began to adopt the investigative approach as well, it had an energizing effect.

Animal welfare organizations then began to attract knowledgeable staff at both national and local level, which enhanced their ability to serve the cause effectively. Different form of professional recruitment aided the movement’s growth and outreach. Animal-interest caucuses began to form among attorneys, biologists, medical doctors, nurses, veterinarians, and psychologists, to name the most visible.

The 1980s was a decade of greater media visibility and awareness, coupled with great changes within the movement itself. There was dynamic competition between organizations, and a more active supporter base – which itself had higher expectations. Finally, there was greater informal interaction between staff members of various organizations, ensuring better coordination of effort and approach.

The appropriation by animal advocates of the strategic thinking and mobilization methods characteristic of established justice-based movements was significant and lay at the core of many of the dramatic victories accomplished by US animal rights groups throughout the decade.

The period from 1990 marked an era of consolidation, and a dropping off of the novelty value and impact of animal welfare. As regards legislative ‘achievements’, in reality only a small percentage of the many bills to halt or curb animal suffering introduced during the past half century in the U.S. Congress have actually passed. And when they are passed, enforcement efforts and funding are limited. However, the impact the movement has been changing popular culture and the diffusion of animal welfare values. There is now greater awareness of the ethical implications of lifestyle choices, such as diet, household, beauty and other purchases.

This has led to work to influence and raise consumer products and choice. There is also an ongoing need to forge viable and enduring alliances with other movements whose goals converge with its objectives.

Similar expansion and professionalization of the animal welfare movement is taking place in other parts of the world. Some significant recent developments include the development of the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations (FIAPO) in India, the Animal Welfare Coalition in the Philippines and the Pan African Animal Welfare Alliance (which unites animal welfare organizations from across the African continent). These have all been developed from 2006 onwards (interestingly all from initial meetings and co-operation at conferences), and are working to provide a united front for the advancement of animal welfare across their countries and regions.

This paper concentrates on the early development of the movement; particularly in the UK, which has the longest history of animal welfare. The Humane Society of the United States also has some interesting research on the movement's history in the USA in the post-war period (Bernard Unti, and Andrew Rowan. 2001. "A Social History of Animal Protection in the Post-World War Two Period." In State of the Animals 2001, edited by Deborah J. Salem and Andrew N.Rowan. Washington, D.C. Humane Society of the United States, 2001), and there is another interesting resource: "For the Prevention of Cruelty: A History and Legacy of Animal Rights Activisim in the United States" by Diane Beers.. Together these provide a useful overview of the various stages of development of the animal welfare movement in these countries (with some information beyond). Unfortunately, information is scarce on the development of the movement in other countries.

Don't miss out!

Subscribe to the World Animal Navigator to get monthly updates on our programs and resources! Browse past issues here. 


Log in to update your WAN Directory listing