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Two hundred years of animal welfare legislation is something to celebrate

Two hundred years of animal welfare legislation is something to celebrate

(Alamy)

3 min read

It is often said the United Kingdom is made up of animal lovers – so it’s my privilege to have been re-elected vice chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare; a role uniquely placed to keep the needs of pets, wildlife, farm and other animals on Westminster’s radar.

This is an exciting time for animals, with their sentience recently enshrined in UK law – on the same day a law banning glue traps in England received Royal Assent. But there will be new challenges to follow – and the insights, expertise and experiences of the RSPCA, the world’s oldest animal welfare charity, will be key in understanding how to make this an even better place for animals to thrive.

It is 200 years since Parliament first passed an animal welfare law – Martin’s Act – forbidding the improper treatment of cattle. Two years later the charity, then the SPCA, was founded in a London coffee shop, with parliamentarians including James Mackintosh, William Wilberforce and Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton in attendance. Since then legislative progress has been vast, including the 2006 Animal Welfare Act – a historic achievement for the RSPCA’s advocacy work.

As the RSPCA prepares to celebrate its 200th birthday, in 2024, it will no doubt reflect not only on the sweeping UK policy and legislative change for animals over two centuries but how the status of animals in society has progressed. Animals are no longer just commodities for food, transport, or sport but are our friends, companions, and members of the family.

As the RSPCA approaches its big 200th birthday, it’s time for a conversation about the future of humans and animals together over the next two centuries.

Little highlights better the impact pets have on our lives than the Covid-19 pandemic. As the nation locked itself away from friends, and family, the companionship of animals became even more important. Many adopted rescue animals during this time; amid the unprecedented social turmoil, pets remained a constant, reassuring, presence. They were rescuing their owners just as much as the owners were rescuing them.

This changing status of animals is one of the reasons I’m excited by the RSPCA’s plans to launch a new essay collection, entitled “What Have Animals Ever Done For Us?”. A launch event on 9 June will showcase the collection, which brings together key thinkers – including advisers to the administration of former American president Barack Obama, journalists, environmentalists and philosophers – to reevaluate society’s relationship to animals.

At the heart of this collection is a reminder that animal welfare shouldn’t be seen as a standalone issue. Just as the pandemic highlighted – and as Robin Hewings, programme director at the Campaign to End Loneliness, explores in his essay – the role pets play for mental wellbeing is huge. Other major ethical, social, and economic challenges also hinge on how we treat animals. However there should be considerations when decision-makers ponder how to build a better future for animals and humans alike. To quote animal welfare campaigner Philip Lymbery’s essay: “protecting people means protecting animals too”. The march of technology, climate change and seismic global disruption, means we need these discussions.

The collection asks uncomfortable questions and some of the answers we parliamentarians may not agree with but, as journalist Henry Mance considers, are we doing enough to talk about animals in classrooms? Or, as barrister Paula Sparks ponders, are animals given the legal recognition they deserve? And does public policy ever consider humans and non-humans equally, as philosopher Jeff Sebo explores?

As the RSPCA approaches its big 200th birthday, it’s time for a conversation about the future of humans and animals together over the next two centuries – and how to build a better future not just for humankind, but for the trillions of animals alongside us. It’s a conversation I’m ready to have and I urge colleagues across Parliament to do the same.

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