Fall 2001

Beastly Agendas: An Interview with Kathleen Kete

The unexpected political history of animal rights

Sina Najafi and Kathleen Kete

The history of animal rights and animal protection is usually understood as part of a larger history of the victory of middle-class liberalism. But this linear story is complicated by the interest repressive political movements—including Nazism—have had in passing laws to protect animals. Kathleen Kete, Associate Professor of History at Trinity College, has written recently on the complex ways in which the history of animal protection and rights have been determined by questions of class, nationalism, and gender. Sina Najafi talked to her on the phone.

Cabinet: Your work on the history of animal protection in Europe critiques the standard history of animal rights. What is that history, and what are some of the issues that it ignores or oversimplifies?

Kathleen Kete: It’s important to understand that research on the history of European attitudes towards animals is very new. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that significant work on the subject began. What that work presents us with is an unexpected account of the human/animal divide in Europe, one whose implications we should attend to. It tells us that the history of animal protection belongs neither to the ideological “right” nor to the “left,” and that laws made to protect animals fall sometimes within a progressive agenda, sometimes within a repressive one.

We tend to think that the history of animal protection is simply about the relationship of humans to other animals, or that it is coupled to liberalism and other movements of liberation that trace Europe’s trajectory from feudalism to modernity. But what is at stake in the history of animal protection is power, and that power is shifting, not linear, and sometimes it’s very malign.

And why is the standard version of this history attractive to us?

The Enlightenment belief in progress is still very compelling, and we can assure ourselves in that belief by acting towards the betterment of animals. We have control over very little in our lives, but the status of animals is one of those things our actions can improve. Moreover, we have inherited from the nineteenth century the association of animal protection and civilization, and we don’t recognize the historical contingency of that link.

What are some of the key landmarks or examples in this alternative history of animal liberation?

The landmarks are the same as those of a naïve history of animal liberation but we have to look at them a little more carefully. I think an interesting case is the Puritans in England who in 1654 issued the Protectorate Ordinance, the first legislation in Europe against cruelty to animals. The law was passed during the radical stage of the English Civil War as part of the Puritan program to reform “mankind” and establish a godly republic on earth. It was part of a widespread attack on popular recreations—such as dancing round the maypole—which were believed to distract the lower classes from their main duties to be sober and God-fearing.

The Ordinance outlawed cock-throwing and cockfighting. In cock-throwing, a cock is tied to a rope and hit with stones and other objects until it dies. Other so-called “blood sports” of the age include bull baiting and bull running. Bull baiting is similar to cock-throwing. Bull-running involved the entire community.

Is the running of the bulls in Pamplona related to this?

I think bull running is a holdover from early European slaughtering practices. There was a belief that bull meat was not tasty unless the bull had been run. It was too wild, too sexual—it needed to be tamed, or sub-dued, before it could enter human culture as food. The taming of nature is what we see in Pamplona.

What was behind the Puritans’ drive toward protecting animals?

Social control was critical—if you accept the argument that a developing middle class depended on the internalization of norms of discipline on the part of the lower classes. The Puritans’ attack on popular blood sports set them in opposition to the Crown, and some landed gentry, as well. The so-called King’s Declaration of Sports issued in the early seventeenth century defended popular recreations against the Puritans’ attempt to control them. Here we see that animal protection was not important in and of itself but as part of a social and political revolution.

But history also points us to other aspects of Puritan animal protection. Reading the Bible led Puritans to the conclusion that humans have a duty to, if not be kind to animals, at least not cause them any unnecessary pain. Animals, too, were expelled from the Garden of Eden as a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. We are responsible for their state of suffering and therefore have a duty to mitigate their suffering as much as possible.

Were the British in fact at the forefront of animal laws and liberation in Europe?

The first animal protection society was founded in London in 1824. The French animal protection society, founded in 1845, was modeled on the SPCA. The French agreed with the English that it was the lower classes who were cruel to animals and in need of chastisement and instruction. Both the French and the English agreed that urban workers, peasants everywhere, the Spanish, and other Mediterranean peoples living on the fringes of civilization were marked by their barbaric treatment of animals.

How did certain English practices, like hunting, continue to elude this way of thinking?

Some historians stress the class nature of the animal protection movement of the nineteenth century, pointing to the objective of social control. One of the main arguments of animal protectionists at that time was that violence towards animals led to violence towards humans—murder and revolution (and only in the last quarter of the century on the part of anti-vivisectionists, rape). It was the lower classes who were feared for most of the century. Closer to nature, like women, they lacked self-control. Violence could tip them over the edge.

Furthermore, the landed gentry had a mandate to protect game from local villagers—who would not only kill deer to eat, but destroy foxes, and badgers, and rabbit warrens.

Was the rural gentry allowed to participate in hunts at the time of the Puritans? I was under the impression that at that time all the deer in England, for example, was marked for the king.

By invitation only. Then the Game Law of 1671 extended hunting rights to the landed gentry for the first time. I want to stress that the landed gentry who were allowed to hunt were also the ones who were in charge of the protection of game, against the depredations of villagers and other poachers. The gentry had a close interest in animals and the association of Englishness with kindness to animals is intensified rather than challenged by their behaviors.

So the ability to track animals down, predict how they are going to react under pressure, and then shoot them shows this proximity?

More than that, it’s a matter of understanding habitat and the needs of various species, and of breeding dogs and succoring wounded animals. It’s not a claim that has a lot of resonance anymore, but it’s one that helped shape the history of animal protection in England.

Did the Game Law extend any further hunting privileges to the rural workers?

No. Rural workers were still prohibited from hunting. One could be sent to Australia or hung for killing deer. But the laws that reserved hunting to the landed gentry were not very successful, in part, because of an increasing market for game. That demand eventually led to a permit system. In the nineteenth century hunting was commercialized and opened to wealthy London professionals.

That’s presumably because game became part of standard cuisine in the nineteenth century.

Yes, game speaks to status and we are what we eat.

But is the same bourgeoisie that demands game on its table also involved in the animal protection groups of the nineteenth century?

Animal protection societies were voluntary organizations of middle-and upper-class people concerned about lower-class violence towards animals. Hunting is not the issue because to a large degree, class is. It is mainly over the issue of vivisection that elite cruelty towards animals is defined, and there the enemy is science and rationality.

Marx notes the class interests of animal protection societies in a passing reference in the Communist Manifesto when he groups them with other reforming groups, like temperance societies. These groups wanted to solve the social problem by transforming the mores of the workers.

Were there other contemporary critiques of these protection societies?

As vivisection became a concern, animal protection societies were criticized for not taking an aggressive enough stand against the practice. Thus, anti-vivisection societies were formed in the last third of the century to specifically address this issue.

Where was vivisection practiced?

French and German science depended upon vivisection in the developing field of physiology. Experiments were carried out on dogs and horses towards understanding how the body functions. Experiments on the pancreas and the liver, for example, laid the basis for our understanding of diabetes. Dogs worked well because they were easily available, of a manageable size, and submissive. Horses from the army were available in veterinarian schools.

Reluctance to practice vivisection became a way for the English to mark their superiority over the French, to establish the special affection they had for animals. Public opinion ran strongly against vivisection throughout the century and prevented French physiologists from demonstrating their work in Britain.

Was vivisection practiced in universities?

The fears of anti-vivisectionists were centered on private laboratories. The back room of an apartment where the medical student or researcher would be, secretly, exploring the physiology of a live animal was, in the phrase of the century, “the torture chamber of science.” When animal protection societies involved themselves in debates over vivisection, they focused on the need to regulate the practice—to license its practitioners, to bring vivisection out into the light of the law.

When was anesthesia invented?

Nitrous oxide was available for use on animals from the 1820s. Experiments on conscious animals continued because the researchers believed the subjects needed to be awake in order for the experiments to work.

Were the animals’ nationalities important? For example, the fact that a lot of monkeys for experimentation today come from India is a factor in the way the issue is discussed. Are the French in the nineteenth century experimenting on French horses, or are they importing them from somewhere?

The French experimented on French horses and French dogs. What is at issue is the fact that the dogs experimented on are pets. Faithful, loving, animals, the solace of the old and the lonely, the child’s companion in play, they were snatched from the street or a shelter to serve the needs of a cold, brutal science. Feminist consciousness seems to have crystallized when women came to identify with these animals as victims of male rationality. Some women were very active in the anti-vivisection movements in England and France.

Are dogs a problem because they fall on both sides of the border as pets and as subjects of experiments?

Exactly, and they cannot be both. An apocryphal story describes the young daughter of Claude Bernard, one of the most famous of French physiologists, discovering her father vivisecting her best friend’s dog, a lost pet Mademoiselle Bernard was searching for. It is unclear whether this incident really occurred, but we do know that the Bernard marriage broke up over the issue of Bernard’s work—when Claude married he was a medical practitioner, not a researcher—and their daughter dedicated her adult life to expiating the sins of her father. She rescued stray dogs from the streets of Paris to keep them out of the hands of scientists.

Is there a link between the rise of animal protection societies and the rise of vegetarianism?

The link lies between the anti-vivisection movement and vegetarianism. Some famous vegetarians, like Richard Wagner, were anti-vivisectionists. By way of contrast, we see the French animal protection society in the mid-nineteenth century promoting the eating of horseflesh. It was hoped that fewer horses would be flogged to death on the streets of Paris by cab drivers if these workers had an interest in keeping their horses alive and healthy until they could be sold to the butcher.

Was Hitler’s vegetarianism related to Wagner’s?

It’s the connection between anti-vivisectionism and anti-Semitism that is important. Anti-vivisectionists saw vivisection as the extreme expression of European rationalism. It represented the evils of modernity. In some circles in Switzerland and Germany, an earlier representation of modernity and its dangers—the Jew—merged with the image of the scientist. “Jewish science” was targeted by anti-vivisectionists and “Jewish” treatment of animals—evidenced in kosher butchering, and countered by vegetarianism—was deplored.

Were there laws protecting kosher butchering at that time?

The issue for animal protectionists in Central Europe was that there were no laws against it.

And how do these different strands culminate in the Nazi era?

The Nazis were responsible for the most comprehensive set of animal protection laws ever in Europe, issued from the moment of their takeover of the German state in 1933. Arnold Arluke and Boria Sax bring this fact to light in an essay on Nazi animal protection published in 1992. Kosher butchering was outlawed and vivisection was at first prohibited and then regulated. But the proper way to cook a lobster was also prescribed, in order to spare the live lobster unnecessary pain as it dies, as was the least painful way to shoe a horse.

The importance of the Arluke and Sax’s argument lies in its description of the Nazi understanding of the relationship of species to each other. Nazi radicalism can be understood as breaking the traditional binary of human and animals. Humans as a species lost their special, sacrosanct status and a new hierarchy of being was established whereby some “races” of animals lay above some “races” of humans. Wolves, eagles, and Teutonic pigs (“despised by the Jews”) are near the top of the Nazi chain-of-being. Jews and rats are on the bottom.

Weren’t German shepherds bred by the Nazis themselves?

They were deliberately bred to embody the spirit of national socialism, according to Arluke and Sax. The important point is that in Nazism, we see the first twentieth-century solution to the problem of what Keith Thomas calls “the dethronement of humans” which European rationalism effects. If humans were not created by a supernatural being, in “His” image and given dominion over the earth (as Genesis claims), what is our relationship to other species of animals?

The radical right in the 1930s and 1940s produced the worst possible solution to this problem. Animal liberation, on the left, is exploring some others. It is a mark of Peter Singer’s importance that he has raised for us this most central philosophical issue of our time.

Is mad cow disease going to force us to think through these issues?

In our reaction to mad cow disease, I see the continuation of nineteenth-and twentieth-century fears over the consequences of tampering with “nature.” These fears are indicative of the continuing uncertainty we have of our place within the natural world. I suspect we won’t resolve this issue soon and other phobias will follow this one.

Some of the material for this interview appears in Scribner’s Encyclopedia of European Social History (2001) and has been presented at the “Representing Animals” conference at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, in April 2000.

Further Reading
Arnold Arluke and Boria Sax, “Understanding Animal Protection and the Holocaust” in Anthrozoös, vol. V, no.1 (1992), pp. 6-31.
Douglas Hay, “Poaching and the Game Laws on Cannock Chase” in Douglas Hay et al., eds., Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (New York: Pantheon, 1975).
Kathleen Kete, The Beast in the Boudoir: Petkeeping in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994).
Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1987).
Nicolaas A. Rupke, ed., Vivisection in Historical Perspective (London and New York: Croom Helm, 1987).
Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: A History of the Modern Sensibility, 1500-1800 (New York: Pantheon, 1983).

Kathleen Kete is the author of The Beast in the Boudoir: Petkeeping in Nineteenth-Century Paris. She is at work on a cultural history of ambition in post-revolutionary France.

Sina Najafi is editor-in-chief of Cabinet.

If you’ve enjoyed the free articles that we offer on our site, please consider subscribing to our nonprofit magazine. You get twelve online issues and unlimited access to all our archives.