The Gospel of Kindness: Animal Welfare and the Making of Modern America

review by Jack Kittredge

This is a scholarly work, published by a university professor for use in university classes. So if you are looking for a soft read, look elsewhere. If, however, you are looking for a detailed factual history of the origins of the animal rights movement in America, its growth and close relationship to many other re-form movements like abolition, temperance, and suffrage, and its fascinating role in establishing a litmus test by which national assimilation was ascer-tained, you will want this short volume. Those who are interested in the mythology of American exceptionalism, that belief in the uniqueness and benevo-lence of America’s republican political institutions, will find much to ponder in its shared history with animal welfare concerns.

Although there were clear precedents in such conflicts as Puritans versus Royalists regarding animal sports in very early 15th century England, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s adoption in 1641 of a Body of Liberties which prohibits “any Tirranny or Crueltie towards any bruite Creature which are usuallie kept for man’s use”, Davis places the origins of animal protectionism in the Second Great Awakening, that Protestant religious revival movement which swept America from about 1790 to 1840. As a part of the much larger Romantic movement, that Awakening rejected rationalism and deism in favor of enthusiastic emotion and a direct relationship with God. One outward sign of that relationship, according to Davis’ reading of the period, was a concern with animal mercy.

And ‘mercy’ was the operative term in the early part of this movement, not the current preference for ‘vegetarianism’ and ‘animal rights’. As Davis puts it, “…a flesh-eating, deeply religious constituency that supported euthanasia and tolerated the presence of animals in entertainment would likely seem un-familiar to animal activists today.”

She tracks the interaction between animal welfare activity and the larger social history through which it passed from the early years of American colonial settlement until the end of World War Two. Several key influences were abolition, temperance, the changing technology of transport, and American impe-rialism.

The parallels between abuse of animals and slavery were clearly drawn by activists by about 1830. The treatment of animals was used as a litmus test of character in abolitionist writings, which in the last three decades before the Civil War increasingly focused on the slave’s excruciating bodily suffering. The advent of nitrous oxide gas and ether anesthesia in medical and dental experiments at the time had the unexpected effect of redefining pain itself as preventable — no longer an inevitable symptom of God’s wrath – and therefore a product of human agency.

The legal partnership of George Angell, founder of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and Samuel Sewell, prominent abolitionist and Massachusetts Senator, was a major resource in support of the suffering. Their office defended fugitive slaves and was a Boston head-quarters not only for abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, and Wendell Phillips, but also the internationally known gentle horse trainer John Rarey. When he funded the US publication of “Black Beauty”, Angell referenced the inspiration he received from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.

In its day the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (founded in 1874) was a major engine of reform with Departments of Mercy (animal welfare), Purity in Literature and Art, and Penal and Reformatory Work along with the activities focused on alcohol abuse. The all-female group used the valorization of marriage and motherhood in contemporary society to enhance the appeal of its messages. The Department of Mercy was active in opposing vivisection (surgery on living creatures for research or educational purposes) as well as protecting domestic and wild animals. Wearing parts of birds in women’s hats was a major fashion trend around the turn of the century and became a focus of Department of Mercy efforts to pass legislation, including the 1900 Lacey Act prohibiting interstate commerce in specific birds.

A major current in animal reform movements was to characterize animal abuse as “un-American”. Immigrants were associated with eating dogs and pas-senger pigeons, overworking and beating carthorses, encouraging dog and cock fights, and inhumane slaughter when MSPCA president Francis Rowley clashed with Jewish leaders over shechitah or the kosher requirement to have an animal conscious when its throat is slit. D. W. Griffith’s short 1913 film The Battle at Elderbush Gulch even has Native Americans snatch puppies from two tearful white girls to celebrate the “Feast of Dogs” (never fear, the US Cavalry saves them in the end!) American civics textbooks such as “The Teaching of Civics” (also 1913) exhorted immigrant children to practice animal kindness (“always protect birds and other animals”) as a pathway to proper citizenship.

Animal welfare was even associated with justifying American imperialism abroad. Congress, in the July, 1898 annexation of Hawaii, passed an expansive animal welfare law for the islands. A year later we established a “Protectora de los Animales in Puerto Rico, and in 1900 banned cockfighting in Cuba. In 1902 the Mu-nicipal Board of Manila, working directly under civil governor William Howard Taft, passed an “Ordinance for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals”. As far as the use of animals in war itself, although some leaders such as George Angell opposed the Spanish American War on the basis of “all the animal creations that suffer so terribly in wars”, others applauded the patriotic service of horses, mules, elephants, camels and dogs on the battlefields of World War One.

As the centrality of animal power to our economy slowly changed to mechanical power, so too did the concerns of the animal welfare movement. Before World War One animals were ever present in most people’s lives and cases of suffering from bad treatment were evident to all. As the years progressed, however, draft animals slowly disappeared from view and livestock operations became larger but more remote and less visible. The fragile status of wildlife, though, became more central in popular media.

During the first half of the twentieth century animal advocates lost two important allies. As a result of the professionalization of the social sciences during the Pro-gressive era, child welfare organizations turned away from their alliance with animal welfare ones in favor of a more scientific and less emotional approach. Tem-perance groups precipitously lost influence after the repeal of Prohibition and tended to stick to lecturing about the dangers of drunk driving and not characterize drink as the source of creeping moral degeneration and cruelty.

After World War Two animal advocacy appeals have separated into two overlapping stands, both somewhat more secular than the strong Christian “stewardship” basis of the early movement. One was still concerned with animal welfare and prevention of suffering of other fellow creatures. The second stressed animal rights to self determination and concerned itself with liberating animals from serving human uses, including dietary ones. Future directions for animal welfare are not clear, but environmental consciousness about human activity causing elimination of habitats is certainly growing, as is a recognition of the role of biological diversity in the functioning of ecologies and natural sustainability.