Animal rights and protection is a major force in today’s world. From preventing abuse of animals to conserving wildlife in forests, we are doing everything within our grasp to ensure we protect and preserve the huge variety of animal life around us.
While buzz phrases like “conservation biology”, “animal rights”, and “endangered species” are relatively novel to the world (beginning only in the 1970’s), animal protection has been present in some form or the other throughout history. In this post, I’m going to take you through the Middle Ages to look at how animal protection emerged and evolved over time…
Religions like Jainism and Buddhism have both preached the protection of other forms of life right through the Ancient period, since they originated. However, these teachings were restricted to the East; India, Sri Lanka, China and some other parts of South-East Asia. This included a switch to a purely vegetarian diet (which I have illustrated further here and here). During this period, even kings of this region who followed these faiths did their utmost for the protection of wildlife. King Ashoka is famously known as one of the first proponents of demarcating certain wildlife species for protection.
This continued in the middle ages as well. For example, Sri Lankan King Nissaka Malla in 1150 ordered that no animal shall be killed within a radius of seven gau around the city.
However, such movements originated in the West only during the middle ages. Islam was an influential religion in this regard, as I have mentioned in Environment and Religion.
Christianity, did not lag behind. In 1567, Pope Pius V heavily condemned bull fighting, calling it “a cruel and base spectacle of the devil”. Bull fighting was banned all over Italy. Other popes like Pope Pius IX (1846) and Pope Pius XII (1940) continued the condemnation of bull fighting during their times.
In 1079, the English King William the Conqueror did something unthinkable; he specified certain forests of his kingdom as hunting reserves. These were private forests that fell under the king’s rule. Anyone caught killing animals in these forest would have to pay with their eyes. This was a time when murdering a man carried merely a fine (how times have changed, huh? In today’s age, famous actors can get away with killing protected species with absolutely no consequence.)
There were other individuals, who also had a say in the movement of animal protection and vegetarianism. Among them were St. Francis and Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci has even written that, “The time will come when humans look on the slaughter of beasts as they now look on the murder of men.”
Bartholomew Chassenee of France is considered to be the first ever animal rights attorney in the world. His first case in his professional career was a defense of rats (What?!) in front of the ecclesiastical court.
Perhaps the grandest of all conservationists was Akbar the Great. He is known to have established zoos all over his kingdom; zoos that rival today’s National Parks in size. He actively encouraged the study of animals. He is also known to have kept many cheetahs in these zoos, which helped in hunting expeditions. What is significant about these zoos is that they were not merely for entertainment. At the entrance of each zoo, there were signs that read, “Meet your brothers. Take them to your hearts, and respect them.” All his zoos were open to the public.
Laws against animal cruelty
The first law in the West was passed in 1641 by the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which said that, “No man shall exercise any Tirrany or Crueltie towards any bruite Creature which are usuallie kept for man’s use.”
In 1699, Virginia House of Burgesses limited deer hunting.
Other laws were existent in the East as well, but all of them died out with colonization. The colonizers did not think it necessary to protect wildlife in the colonized countries. Rather, they considered it a sign of masculinity to hunt as many ferocious beasts as they possibly can. Relics of this are still present around the world.
Today, of course, animal protection is of prime importance. However, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring about the vigor of Akbar or William the Conqueror into our laws. I don’t mean death penalties, but certainly stricter punishments for animal poaching and mistreatment is not too much to ask for.