Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The UK's long history of animal protection and animal harm

Soon after arriving in Birmingham, England's second largest city, I headed out for lunch. The closest eating area was the local shopping centre called 'The Bull Ring'.

Arriving at the Bull Ring, and seeing the magnificent statue of an angry bull, I was immediately reminded of the UK's long history of animal harm and animal protection.

The world's first modern animal protection statute, 'Martin's Act' was an act of the UK Parliament. Martin's Act became law in 1822, following many attempts to create legal protection for urban animals, particularly beasts of burden and animals used in sports and entertainment. Two years later, in 1824, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded. It would later become the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSCPA).

More radical aspects of the contemporary animal protection movement also have their origins in the UK, most notably the Oxford Group which meet in the 1960s and 70s. That group gave us terms such as 'speciesism' and was also where Peter Singer began thinking about the issues he would later articulate in his book Animals Liberation (1975). 

But while the UK has a proud history of animal protection, it also has a dark past.

The Bull Ring is most likely where bull baiting was conducted in Birmingham in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

Here is a definition of bull baiting by Mike Radford who wrote a history of animal welfare laws in the UK:

Bull-baiting involved tying a bull to a stake and setting one or more dogs upon it, the object being for the dogs to get hold of, and hang on to, the bull’s nose. Other animals used for baiting included bears and badgers. Bull-running was a variation on this, during which a bull was chased through the town until it became exhausted, whereupon dogs were set upon it (Radford 2001:18).

Here is a description of the practice, that appeared in the magazine 'Rural Sports', probably in the late 18th century:

The animal is fastened to a stake driven into the ground for the purpose, and about seven or eight yards of rope left loose, so as to allow him sufficient liberty for the fight. In this situation a bulldog is slipped at him, and endeavours to seize him by the nose; if the bull be well practised at the business, he will receive the dog on the horns, throw him off, and sometimes kill him; but, on the contrary, if the bull is not very dexterous, the dog will not only seize him by the nose, but will cling to his hold till the bull stands still; and this is termed pinning the bull. What are called good game bulls are very difficult to be pinned, being constantly on their guard, and placing their noses closer to the ground, they receive their antagonist on their horne; and it is astonishing to what distance they will sometimes throw him (cited in Fairholm and Pain 1924:75-76). 

I wonder how many people who shop at the modern day Bull Ring are aware of the shopping centre’s dark past. I also wonder how many spare a thought for all the bulls that must have suffered over many hundreds of years, right in the centre of Birmingham. 

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