Animal Rights Movement

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ANIMAL RIGHTS MOVEMENT aims to increase the quality of life of animals by preventing cruelty to animals or the killing of animals except to prevent their own suffering. The movement in America traces its roots to the first settlers. Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans enacted the first animal protection laws in the Western world when they included two provisions prohibiting cruelty to animals in the colony's 1641 Body of Liberties. New York State passed a law protecting animals in 1829, with Massachusetts passing a similar law seven years later.

Despite these measures, it was not until after the Civil War that animal rights became a major public issue. Henry Bergh organized the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866. Heir to a shipbuilding fortune, Bergh became a defender of abused carriage horses in New York City. He also prosecuted butchers, carters, carriage drivers, and organizers of dog-fights and cockfights. Bergh's efforts gained support from influential business and government leaders and inspired George Angell to form the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Caroline Earle White to start the American Anti-Vivisection Society. The early animal rights movement encountered strong resistance to its opposition to the use of dogs, cats, and other animals for medical experiments, but on other issues, animal rights advocates found themselves in successful alliance with conservationists, who saw animals as a resource that must be managed so that they remained in abundant supply.

By 1907, every state had an anticruelty statute in place, and over the course of the twentieth century, state governments enacted further laws prohibiting specific practices. Congress passed the Animal Welfare Act in 1966. Nevertheless, the use of animals in medical laboratories, on factory farms, and for other business purposes increased, because judges saw in the prohibition of "unjustified" infliction of pain an effort to protect human morals, not animals, and generally did not find violations of the law where the purpose of the activity was to benefit human beings.

Support for the animal rights movement mushroomed over the last quarter of the twentieth century. In the 1970s, civil rights, feminist, environmental, and antiwar activists turned their attention to animal rights. Three highly publicized incidents changed animal rights into a national grassroots movement: (1) protests organized by Henry Spira against the American Museum of Natural History in New York City for its experiments on cats; (2) the arrest and conviction of Dr. Edward Taub in 1981 for abusive practices on monkeys at the federally funded Institute for Behavioral Research; and (3) the 1984 release of the Animal Liberation Front's documentary Unnecessary Fuss, which showed baboons at the University of Pennsylvania being bashed in the head for experiments on trauma. In 1990 an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people took part in the March for the Animals in Washington, D.C. By the mid-1990s there were hundreds of local, regional, and national animal rights organizations—such as the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals and the National Anti-Vivisection Society—that devoted themselves to a variety of animal rights issues, including the ethical treatment of animals in laboratories, protection of endangered species, the humane treatment of farm animals, campaigns against killing animals for their furs, preventing the overpopulation of pets, and securing the rights of legal "personhood" for selected animal species.


Finsen, Lawrence, and Susan Finsen. The Animal Rights Movement in America: From Compassion to Respect. New York: Twayne, 1994.

Price, Jennifer. "When Women Were Women, Men Were Men, and Birds Were Hats." In Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Turner, James. Reckoning with the Beast: Animals, Pain, and Humanity in the Victorian Mind. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Wise, Steven M. Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books, 2000.

ErikBruun/c. p.

See alsoAnimal Protective Societies ; Conservation .

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Animal Rights Movement

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