19th Century England was an interesting place—the land of Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens, a century that began with a powerful agrarian naval power vying with France for dominance and ended with an industrial giant that, for a brief time, ruled the world.
Into that interesting century entered one Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, second richest woman in Europe (behind Queen Victoria). In her long life, which, like the queen’s spanned much of the 19th Century and into the early 20th, Angela funded many philanthropies, among them early animal rights groups.
Now, I’m not always a fan of the concept of “animal rights.” Human rights, at least in a political sense, exist so humans can self govern—animals don’t have that issue. Animals don’t take many steps to try to protect endangered humans.
(But, a smart person would interject, we’re in the middle of a species die-off as extensive and extreme as the one that wiped out dinosaurs, only the asteroid is us. Too true, but not my point here).
On the other hand, I’m not so species-centric to say that we have no obligations to animals.
But, I’m getting bogged down in my own conflicted attitudes to our finny, feathery and furry neighbors. Back to our story.
Dr. Adam Ebert, Associate Professor at MMU, gave an interesting lecture today as part of the university’s global issues series on “The Ethical Treatment of Animals in Western Culture.” Besides an interesting and very rich British lady who could fund many efforts that promoted animal welfare, changes paralleled other attitude shifts—such as the outlawing of slavery.
But it all began, Ebert said, with bees as “everything does.” Bit of an inside joke there, as Ebert is a bee keeper, but the 19th century practice of gassing a bee colony to collect honey was one of the first practices the new animal rights movement tackled.
Horses, too, were a symbol of the movement.
What did I learn, besides a cool new British name? Well, more than I’ll write here, but the connections and different attitudes of other times are always interesting.
As Ebert noted, we have our own frame of reference for how we think of the world. In a time when there was the suggestion that animals have rights, animals could also be charged with crimes.
He shows a drawing of a sow being hung for killing a baby. I suggested that other pigs in the area should have been gathered and forced to watch, except they might have decided, on the whole, that hanging wasn’t so different from having your throat cut for Bacon, and nasty old Mrs. Porker got to eat a baby in the bargain, too.
Well, while there are those Christians who like to cite scripture that gives humans “dominion,” let’s not forget that scripture also talks a lot about stewardship.
I don’t think it’s too much to ask that perhaps we can work a bit harder to show some respect for creatures whose DNA is not so different from our own—and, maybe, to wish that someday we can stop being the asteroid without some cataclysm having to happen to us first.