Bright account of the much-reviled reformers who fought to end animal cruelty in England.
In 1822, the British Parliament passed the Ill-Treatment of Cattle Act, the world’s first animal-protection law, setting the stage for the founding two years later of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Shevelow (British Literature and Culture/Univ. of California, San Diego; Charlotte: Being a True Account of an Actress’s Flamboyant Adventures in Eighteenth-Century London’s Wild and Wicked Theatrical World, 2005, etc.) details at length how people mistreated animals in the century and a half leading up to reform. Blood sports were commonplace, with bear gardens and cockpits attracting both criminal riffraff and noble lords. The belief that animals existed to serve human needs changed gradually, the author notes, with writers like Margaret Cavendish arguing that animals were rational and had their own forms of expression. But it was the growing popularity of household pets in the early 18th century that turned the tide, as owners of lapdogs and songbirds became animal lovers. Shevelow draws on journals and other writings to describe the affection for animals among such notable figures as Sir Isaac Newton and Samuel Johnson, both of whom favored cats, and the diminutive Alexander Pope, who was dwarfed by his Great Danes. She also offers stories of dog thievery for ransom, performing animals and the phenomenon of “monstrous birth”: women supposedly having infants that looked canine. Polemics against animal abuse, such as William Hogarth’s famous engravings The Four Stages of Cruelty, finally gave rise to a formal movement; reformers in 1800 launched a two-decade battle to win animal-protection legislation. The author describes animated debates, which culminated in the successful 1822 legislative drive led by Richard Martin, an Irish MP who once engaged in a gunfight to avenge the killing of a dog.
Shevelow celebrates these and later reforms, but warns that much remains to be done to protect animals in this era of factory farming.