The Longest Struggle

longest-struggleThe Longest Struggle: Animal Advocacy from Pythagoras to PETA, by Norm Phelps.  Lantern Books, 2007.

This well-researched history of the animal protection movement filled in for me many missing pieces in understanding both the evolution of animal rights philosophy and the development of organizations working to bring compassion for animals into mainstream Western societies. Along the way and down the centuries, we meet a host of committed activists, well-known and obscure.

Among the latter is Lewis Gompertz (1779-1865), an inventor living in London, who campaigned for slaves, women and the poor as well as for non-human animals.  He was advocating a vegan diet as early as 1824 in his book Moral Inquiries on the Situation of Man and of Brutes.  He published the world’s first animal protection periodical, The Animal’s Friend, or the Progress of Humanity. His organization was instrumental in getting a nationwide ban in England on baiting and animal fighting enacted in 1835.  He walked the talk in his personal life as well; he refused to travel by horse or mule-drawn conveyance, which meant that everywhere he went in London, he walked.  (This was before London’s subways were built.)  Horses– numbering in the hundreds of thousands–who pulled carriages, wagons and streetcars, were often whipped and driven until they died, their needs for rest and sufficient food and water ignored in the name of profit.  Beyond London, Gompertz went only to places within walking distance of a railway station.  “It is entirely reasonable,” Phelps writes, “to call Lewis Gompertz the first modern animal rights activist.” (p. 103)

Some of the first who stood up for animals, such as founding board members of the SPCA, maintained a selective, classist view of which kinds of animal abuse were offensive.  These wealthy gentlemen opposed the cockfighting engaged in by the poor, but said nothing about the frequent hunting and shooting indulged in by the rich.

Readers looking for an objective, dispassionate account of this history will not find it here.  Phelps leaves no doubt about where he stands, often allowing his frustration and outrage to show.  For example, he calls the apostle Paul’s taking the Aristotelian view–that animals are a lower order of being to whom we have no moral duties–“one of the most appalling moral choices in the history of Western civilization.” (p. 53) Or this, describing a survey in the 1990s that showed 60% of all animals entering shelters during that time period were killed: “If I entered an institution knowing that the staff were likely to kill me within a few days, I would not think of that establishment as a ‘shelter.’ I would think of it as a death camp.” (p. 112) For those of us who agree with him, though, such passion is understandable.  Phelps, who died a year ago this month, was an engaging spokesperson and a thorough researcher; I wish he were still alive to continue the narrative, which ends in 2006.

I would like to see The Longest Struggle attract a wide readership.  Vegans and animal rights activists are an obvious audience, but anyone interested in social reform would be educated, amazed, and entertained by picking this up and finding out more about how compassion for the most marginalized beings–non-human animals–arose and developed.

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