The History of Laws Against Cruelty to Animals – Lexology

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Up until the middle of the Enlightenment (late 1600s to early 1800s), some of history’s most influential and revered philosophers and theologians enabled animal cruelty by professing that non-humans were non-sentient beings; in other words, lacking in the ability to experience sensations, thoughts or feelings, or to perceive through the use of sense faculties.
This led to a conclusion unfathomable to anyone with real-life exposure to a non-human animal – that what we now understand to be animal cruelty is a misnomer, as only humans are able to feel pain, and it is therefore moral to engage in conduct which would amount to cruelty if committed against a human.
Such a view was espoused by a laundry list of thought-leaders, including Aristotle, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Rene Descartes, Thomas Hobbes and Immanuel Kant.
For example, in his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), Descartes theorized that non-human animals are autonomous beings that can do none of the things considered as thoughts and feelings in humans, leading many to cite him as a primary source of the view that ‘anima’s cannot feel pain’, and that it is therefore entirely moral to not only kill and eat, but to use and experiment on them in any manner desired.
The consequence of these views was that such act were considered totally permissible and even desirable until around the middle period of the Enlightenment.
Historical mistreatment
Indeed, thousands of years before the arrival of Christ, animals were mistreated in numerous ways which had nothing to do with killing to feed society.
From times of ancient wars, pulling chariots into battle, to Hannibal attaching flaming material to the horns of cattle and elephants, the screams of the tortured animals should have been proof enough of the ludicrous albeit reasoned opinions of the theorists.
The masses were entertained by both animal and human torture in the Roman Colosseum and like arenas throughout ancient times, and the public in Medieval Britain reveled in the spectacle of bear and dog baiting, resulting in horrific deaths purely for entertainment purposes.
Modern versions of such entertainment include cock fighting, dog blood sport and both greyhound and horse racing which is not properly regulated to protect against cruelty.
To this day, there is trophy hunting of large and often-endangered game animals, with primarily men showing their manhood by shooting defenceless animals, and decapitating and displaying their heads or bodies.
But things have changed through history, albeit slowly and in a piecemeal fashion, and laws to protect animals against abuses were brought into effect.
Impetus for change
Although various laws and informal prohibitions had been implemented prior to this time, 1822 saw the first British Law introducing criminal laws against animal cruelty, albeit limited to cattle.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) was established by a group of animal activists two years later in 1824, over coffee in a London Café.
The organisation was initially called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals until, in 1840, Queen Victoria gave Royal Assent to add ‘Royal’ to its name.
The body successfully lobbied for Britain’s first general laws against animal cruelty, which were enacted in 1835.
A catalyst for the proliferation and enhancement of such laws were the widely-read and respected works of William Youatt. In 1839, the English Veterinarian Surgeon began to author books on his experiences with animals, which opened the eyes of many to the fact non-human animals experience a range of emotions and feelings, including pain.
Charles Darwin’s iconic work, On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, supported this view through the gound breaking finding that humans and animals have a shared evolution. The inference, of course, is both must therefore share feelings, including that of pain.
But it should be said that, to this very day and even in places like our very own state of New South Wales, laws against animal cruelty are subject to a very broad range of exceptions and defences, and are often rarely enforced.
Chronology of events impacting on animal protection
History’s most evil person enacts sweeping laws to protect animals
There can be no words to sufficiently encapsulate the appalling atrocities perpetrated by one of history’s most evil people, Adolf Hitler, and his fascist Nazi party.
And one must take special care before giving credit for any act to the person at the helm of history’s most disgusting and shameful political, social and cultural regime, whereby millions of innocent men, women and children were tortured and murdered, including the systematic use of humans for medical experimentation, annihilation of ‘undesirable’ groups in society including the disabled and slaughter of large segments of targeted racial and religious groups.
Hitler and his extreme right-wing party exemplified the very worst of humankind, and the regime’s ultimate demise was a Godsend to all moral people.
But the irony must also be acknowledged that while on the way to murdering millions of human beings, the famously vegetarian and dog-loving Hitler took unprecedented steps to protect non-human animals from cruelty. And many of the enacted laws go way further than present day legislation.
In that regard, 24 November 1933 saw the German parliament (the Reichstag) the under the Chancellorship of Hitler and Presidency of Hermann Göring) pass the Reichstierschutzgesetz, or Reich Animal Protection Act, which is listed in the above table.
The law imposed a total ban on the almost-universally accepted, and even encouraged and publicly funded, practices of vivisection (operating or experimenting on live animals) and slaughter of animals without anaesthetic.
In a 1933 speech approved by Hitler, Göring declared an end to the “unbearable torture and suffering in animal experiments” and warned that those who “still think they can continue to treat animals as inanimate property” would be sent to concentration camps.
The regime saw a range of further prohibitions to protect animals including bans on animal trapping, the boiling of crustaceans such as crabs and lobsters, live baiting, neglect and cruel acts to domestic animals, and severe restrictions on hunting.
And so it was – perhaps history’s most evil regime was ironically perhaps the most benevolent in the treatment of non-human animals.
Present day laws against animal cruelty in Australia
Each Australian jurisdiction has specific legislation in place which is aimed at bringing those who inflict cruelty to animals to account, and deter others from engaging in such conduct.
New South Wales, for example, has the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 which has been amended several times since its enactment.
And while police in all states and territories have the power to prosecute animal cruelty, this can also be undertaken by organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), which has offices in every jurisdiction.
Laws against animal cruelty in New South Wales
Section 5 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 (NSW) (‘the Act’) makes it an offence to commit ‘an act of cruelty’ upon an animal.
Section 4 of the Act defines an ‘animal’ as:
A member of a vertebrate species including any:
The definition also includes crustaceans, but only when at a building or place – such as a restaurant – where food is prepared or offered for consumption by retail sale in the building or place.
What is ‘cruelty’?
The same section defines ‘cruelty’ as including any beating, kicking, wounding of an animal, exposure to excessive heat or cold or inflicting pain on an animal.
Cruelty also includes failing to take reasonable care of an animal, or to take reasonable steps to alleviate pain or suffering, or to provide necessary veterinary treatment.
It is also an offence to authorise another person to commit an act of cruelty on an animal that you own, or are in charge of.
The maximum penalty for animal cruelty is 6 months imprisonment and/or a fine of $5,500 for an individual, or a $27,500 fine for a corporation.
The offence of aggravated animal cruelty in NSW
Section 6 of the Act relates to ‘aggravated cruelty’, which is defined by section 4 as:
(a) causing the death, deformity or serious disablement of the animal, or
(b) where the animal is so severely injured, so diseased or in such a physical condition that it is cruel to keep it alive.
The offence is made out where such an act is deliberately or recklessly caused.
A person is ‘reckless’ if he or she foresaw the possibility of any of the above occurred, but went ahead with the actions regardless.
The maximum penalty for aggravated animal cruelty is 2 years imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $22,000 for individuals, or a fine of $110,000 for corporations.
There are many defences to animal cruelty charges
A whole range of defences to animal cruelty are contained in section 24 of the Act, including religious slaughter; see section 24(c)(i) below.
The section says that a person is not guilty of animal cruelty where the act was committed against:
It is also a defence where the act of cruelty is done in the course of, and for the purpose of:
A further defence is where the cruelty was inflicted in the course of, and for the purpose of, destroying the animal, or preparing the animal for destruction:
An additional defence is where the cruelty occurred in the course of, and for the purpose of:
Another defence is where the act was undertaken for the purpose of feeding a predatory animal lawfully kept by the person if:
General legal defences to the charge also apply, including the defences of duress and necessity.
The defences are clearly broad to the point of being almost sweeping, and cover a significant number of the circumstances in which cruelty is inflicted on animals.
That being so, it is fair to say our state has a long way to go to provide real protections to animals.
The offence of serious animal cruelty in NSW
Section 530 of the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) makes it an offence punishable by a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison to commit an act of ‘serious animal cruelty’, which is where a person, with the intention of inflicting severe pain:
(a) tortures, beats or commits any other serious act of cruelty on animal, and
(b) kills or seriously injures or causes prolonged suffering to the animal.
For the purposes of the offence,
The section imposes a 3 year maximum penalty where the act was committed recklessly rather than intentionally.
A person is not criminally responsible for the offence if the conduct occurred:
Again, duress and necessity are defences to this charge.
The case study of the elephant
Elephants suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a significant issue.
From the early 1960s through to the 1990s, those running wildlife reserves were concerned that growing numbers had the potential to destroy the land.
Culling, by murdering the elephants by shooting them from helicopters was introduced.
National Geographic reported that Animal Clinicians assessed that any surviving elephant would be too distressed by their companion’s demise that they couldn’t function on a normal basis.
South Africa’s Kruger National Park was where 14,562 elephants were executed, the park’s elephant specialist, Ian Whyte told the National Geographic magazine.
Psychology tests were conducted by scientists on surviving elephants of the massacre over a 28 year period and found that the experience had damaged their social skills.
Other Findings suggested that, like humans, elephants rely on social nuances to reproduce offspring, however, it gets worse.
25,000 majestic creatures slaughtered annually
This time, purely and simply, for the ivory their tusks provide for a multi-billion dollar Organised Transnational Criminal Enterprise.
Amongst the many countries facilitating this vast global money-making conglomerate are Egypt and China. Each slaughtered elephant has tusks worth us$2,500, only to reap many multiples of that figure at point of sale.
Death Squads hunt their prey with automatic weapons, not always killing them, but leaving them with horrific bullet wounds on many parts of their bodies.
The saviours
Nature Conservancy, a global environmental organisation headquartered in the United States of America, but with 79 branches throughout the globe, including Australia, may be considered one of the saviours in relation to prevention of cruelty to animals.
They assist in funding armed Rangers to endeavour to protect the elephants.
That’s not all they do. It’s much bigger than that!
They research, prepare policy papers and provide training and funding for many conservation projects.
Protecting the vulnerable
This is done by tranquilizing the elephants and sawing off their tusks, so that they will not be hunted.
The United Nations Science-Policy Platform and Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services 2019 report, speaks of another form of animal cruelty.
This, the result of a 3 years study involving 50 countries and endorsed by 130 countries, discusses the potential extinction, within decades, of many thousands of all types of ‘Animal Life’.
Causes include Habitat Destruction, Pollution, Climate Change and the unsustainability of ‘Over-Hunting of Livestock, including the Harvesting of Marine Life’. All perpetrated by human beings.
This is not far removed from the Mission Statement of Nature Conservancy
That was the first year that Indigenous consultation was sought, which enhanced the overall input; leading to being able to implement strategies without waiting for the preparation of the full report.
Subsequent reports indicate that over the previous two centuries, a third of the extinction of mammals, has happened because of what humans did, or didn’t do.
Conservation of ecosystems generally
The protection of animals and particularly preventing endangerment and extinction goes hand-in-hand with protecting natural environments generally, which is sometimes referred to as nature conservancy.
According to multiple peer reviewed studies, the objective of nature conservancy is to:
It could also release more carbon into the atmosphere and perhaps dry the rivers up.
The statistic quoted is 84% of fish could be at risk of extinction, if we are not successful. Not immediately though, but time is not particularly on our side.
The following recommendations have been made with a view to achieving these objectives:
Implementing these suggestions can go some way towards protecting natural ecosystems while maintaining and indeed protecting animals.
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