BOOKS: Animal Revolution

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2001:
Animal Revolution by Richard Ryder
Berg Publishers (c/o NYU Press, 70 Washington Sq. South, New York, NY 10012), 2000. 325 pages; paperback. $19.50.

Twenty years after the first edition of Animal Revolution reconnected the then-young animal rights movement with the preceding several centuries of humane crusading, Richard Ryder has produced an update. New chapters cover the past two decades, plus ante-cedents which now seem to warrant further discussion.

Considering how fluently and provocatively Ryder covered animal protection history before his own time, one might expect equal treatment of the events he has lived. Unfortunately, the new material tends to encumber rather than reinforce the original work.

The first edition of Animal Revol-ution appeared just as the modern animal rights movement emerged as a cause distinct from more limited ideas about animal welfare. The major philosophers and polemicists of animal rights had mostly already nailed their epistles to the doors of “humane” institutions which had degenerated into disposal facilities for unwanted dogs and cats. The first major skirmishes had already been fought and won. Like rebel bands attacking arsenals at the start of attempted revolution, some animal rights radicals had even laid a serious moral claim to the resources of conservative old-guard humane societies which had ceased actively seeking social change several generations earlier. If the radicals gained the use of that wealth, animal use industries anticipated a threat, so threw their weight behind old-guard humane society boards.

Amid this, Ryder was not just an exceptionally lucid historian. He also happened to have been an active partisan since the 1960s in efforts to internally reform and reorient the Royal SPCA, and was an associate of Peter Singer even before Singer wrote Animal Liberation, the book most often credited with sparking modern animal rights activism. Ryder understood that the strongest argument he could make for radical change was to remind anyone who might listen that the original purpose of the RSPCA, 150 years earlier, was nothing less than to seek a wholesale transformation of the human relationship toward animals. Nothing that the animal rights movement sought, Ryder argued, would have been foreign to the goals and dreams of the RSPCA founders.

Some positions, to be sure, were too radical for the RSPCA even then. For example, the vegetarian inventor Louis Gompertz was rousted from the RSPCA presidency and was eventually driven from the organization altogether, after saving it from the verge of bankruptcy. Whether being vegetarian or being Jewish was Gompertz’ greatest alleged offense in the eyes of the RSPCA leadership remains unclear. What is clear, Ryder reminded, is that he was a man of great conscience, compassion, ability, and generosity, who was despicably treated.

More recently, RSPCA leaders have several times flinched away from a strong position on vivisection, under pressure from the British Charities Commission and biomedical research industry.

Yet as Ryder documents, even board members who could not stomach vegetarianism in Gompertz’ time recognized their moral duty to oppose vivisection. Further, Queen Victoria herself donated significantly to the RSPCA in specific support of antivivisectionism.  When Victoria granted the charter that made the society the Royal SPCA, she did so with the clear expectation that opposing vivisection would be part of its mission.

If there was a weakness in the original Animal Revolution, it was that Ryder–as an Englishman and longtime RSPCA officer –may have put too much emphasis on the British humane movement and the roles of British thinkers. He may have undervalued the influence of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain teachings to the global growth of the cause, and seems also to have overlooked the missionary aspect of the early U.S. humane movement, whose leaders sought kind treatment of animals as part of a multifaceted social crusade.

But these points can be debated. Far from giving anyone deliberate short shrift, Ryder acknowledged that the humane movements of Scandinavia and Germany were well ahead of that of Britain at the outset of the Victorian age. Scarcely any other historian has given the German-speaking nations comparable credit, especially as an influence on the British.

Second, eastern religions have greatly influenced the thoughts of European and U.S. humane advocates during the past 200 years–but this began through the commerce in ideas facilitated by the British empire.

Third, it would be difficult to argue that the American humane movement, missionary as it was it outlook, was any more so than its British counterpart, which began global outreach about a generation sooner. Henry Bergh and the other founders of U.S. humane societies did in fact borrow inspiration from Britain, not the other way around.

One must also acknowledge that most of the “foreign” outposts of the early U.S. humane movement were in territories soon swallowed by the western expansion of the U.S. itself. Few were isolated for long from mainstream American culture.

British expatriates who were far from home indeed meanwhile built the Bombay SPCA, the Kenya SPCA, the National SPCA of South Africa, the Royal SPCA of Australia and New Zealand, the Hong Kong SPCA, and many other humane institutions on thoroughly foreign soil which have long outlasted the colonial era, and continue as regional hubs of activity.

The history and moral argument in the initial edition of Animal Revolution were inseparable; but the argument was complete where the book ended, even as the animal rights movement and the internal conflict within the RSPCA rumbled on. Ryder could have insightfully explored the past 20 years of animal protection history in a separate personal memoir. Instead, he offers a condensed recitation which reads like 20 years of summarized meeting minutes, with a sprinkling of abstract references to events he was part of, and long lists of acknowledgements of the deeds and activities of acquaintances. All of this conspicuously lacks the color and critical analysis illuminating Ryder’s discussion of earlier events and personalities.

Ryder then meanders into prolonged discussion of a concept he calls “painism,” and concludes with a sermon about the importance of the humane movement. No one who disagrees is likely to pick up the book.

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