Why must we commemorate “The Animal Protection Act” from 200 years ago

A plant-based diet is known to aid short-term memory. However, what about the long-term? What happened two centuries ago this month?

It’s a half-serious question: I can’t see vegans being so healthy that they can recall that long ago. However, remembering the past is a crucial responsibility for this month. Last Friday, July 22, marked the 200th anniversary of a significant event for animals.

It was the bicentennial of the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act of 1822, also known as Martin’s Act. This was the first piece of legislation ever introduced to protect animals from cruelty. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that almost every law and rule in the world that says you can’t hurt animals come from that day.

It was commemorated with a significant animal law conference and the release of a new audio documentary by the Culture and Animals Foundation entitled Martin’s Act at 200 (and narrated by me).

Regarding Martin’s Act

Then why is it known as “Martin’s Act”? How did this legislation come into existence? And why is it so crucial that we recall past animal advocacy?

The piece of law is named after Richard Martin, the member of parliament who proposed it. He was also called “Humanity Dick” because he tried to help (some) animals and other people who were in pain.

Martin, an Irish landowner born in 1754, was the most renowned duelist of his time. He came to the new British and Irish parliaments to represent Galway. Even though he ate meat and hunted, he was a great lover of animals and was horrified by their terrible treatment. (Martin could have been vegan; at the time, there were others, such as Lewis Gompertz.)

However, Martin detested seeing brutality. With the rise of urbanization in the 19th century, more cattle and sheep from as far away as Scotland were driven to London’s Smithfield market to be butchered. The drovers who brought them did not hesitate to beat the animals with sticks. All of this was clear to Martin and the other people who lived in the city, as was how cruel it was to bait bears and badgers in the infamous Westminster Pit.

Together with his colleagues in the Houses of Parliament, Martin made it his mission to pass new legislation to safeguard animals from the cruelest treatment. Martin’s Act was the only one of these initiatives to be successful. In our new audio documentary, the voice of Martin was done by actor and animal rights activist Peter Egan.

Why is it essential to remember the Martin Act?

But why is it crucial to recall these laws from two centuries ago? What bearing do they have on current attempts to make the world a safer, more equitable place for animals to live out their natural lives and thrive? At least three causes exist.

First, according to the philosopher George Santayana, “Those who forget the past are destined to repeat it.”

As stated above, Martin and his fellow activists had many more unsuccessful attempts to pass legislation than successful ones. So, both successes and failures can teach us things that can help us plan more successful projects today.

Sadly, the losses continue to mount. The Nonhuman Rights Project’s efforts to grant legal personhood to Happy the elephant were dismissed by a New York court only last month. Nevertheless, it was not a complete failure, as the case did make progress.

It is a common critique of the modern animal rights movement that we do not know enough about our past to learn from our mistakes and successes. The Save Movement was not the first to provide testimony. DxE and Animal Rebellion were hardly the first groups to engage in civil disobedience without violence. The surge was not the first organization to hold marches.

The more we can learn from the past, the more effective our current efforts will be. Those movements that pay attention to how things were done in the past are typically more effective in their current methods. For instance, a significant portion of Animal Rebellion’s success was attributable to its creator, Dan Kidby’s, foundation in nonviolence and the lessons learned from the American civil rights struggle.

Second, by learning about the strategies, terms, and opposition these advocates faced through research, we might get a better idea of how our current strategies can be used.

I went back in time to read the words of people who advocated for animals 200 or more years ago. Lord Thomas Erskine’s 1809 speech in the House of Lords arguing for animal rights is so relevant and modern that it could have been delivered today. (And in many circumstances, is superior to the current arguments.)

When people who don’t want to help animals use the same arguments as wealthy elite politicians did 200 years ago, we can at least see how little they’ve changed in that time.

Thirdly, it is essential to know our legal history (in whichever country you live in). By understanding this, we can see that the majority of gains for animals have been made through the law.

The significance of legal disputes

Why, then, do animal advocates devote comparatively little time to legal challenges and legislative development? Jane Tredgett, the founder of Humane Being and the driving force behind Scrap Factory Farming’s judicial review of intensive animal agriculture, stated for the audio documentary that “campaigns, protests, and marches all have their place, but there are far too few legal challenges” to improving the lives of animals.

Is it because we lack sufficient knowledge about animal legislation? Or do you fear the law? That is changing. Animal law schools, centers, and lawyers who know how to use animal law in court are becoming more and more common.

But perhaps we can improve the most in politics, where laws are enacted. Animal rights activist Kim Stallwood gave the keynote speech on Martin’s Act at this week’s major animal law conference. She has called for a lot more political attention to be paid to animal rights.

Here, previous laws can be contested and new ones, such as the Animal Sentience (2022) Act, can be enacted. However, this means that animal advocates must devote far more time and energy to persuading legislators to adopt new animal laws. It involves forming political coalitions rather than becoming adversaries. It is frequently about compromise as well. Are we prepared to do so?

For “Humanity Dick” Martin, the law was an instrument to prevent animal cruelty. Two hundred years later, animals continue to suffer. Most of our laws are anti-cruelty and not based on human rights. As the Happy case recently demonstrated, there is so much more to do. But it is also important to recall and acknowledge how far we have come.

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