Books: The age when Man became a reasonably decent creature

Animal Century by Mark Gold Jon Carpenter Publishing pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
Probably eight million horses died in the First World War - after grim battleground lives of being overloaded, undernourished and ravaged by sores. After the war was over, horses were regularly sent from Britain to the horrendous abattoirs of Belgium and France, where they were often incompetently dispatched with hammers and poleaxes. The year after the end of the Second World War, the US government dropped an atomic bomb in the Pacific, targeting 75 ships which had been loaded with living animals, 4,500 in all. The object was to study injuries and radioactivity effects, and the operation was described by President Truman himself as "essential to intelligent planning". Last year a joint enterprise carried out at Nasa by the US, Russia and France subjected monkeys to appalling experimentation; the plan was then to shoot them off into space for a fortnight. This time there was a public outcry, and the project was suspended.

Despite the unprecedented scale and intensity of suffering inflicted upon the creature world by humankind these last hundred years - to further its wars, its rivalries, its health, its living standards, and its faith in progress and science - there are real grounds for calling the 20th century, as Mark Gold does here, Animal Century - above all, one has to add, in the English-speaking world. The plans of a major organisation like Nasa being called off as a result of people's feelings for the animals involved would have been quite unimaginable in another time but ours. And as we look back over our agonised, extraordinary century, the growth during its course of recognition of animals as sentient beings with rights - by significant and sizeable sections of society, and with enshrinement in law - seems one of its most commendable and remarkable achievements; it can give us reason for qualified hope that we are facing a future in which compassion will play a determining part.

Such is the overall belief of the author of Animal Century. You do not have to go far in the world of concern for animals to encounter the name of Mark Gold, for 12 years Director of the admirable Animal Aid, with whom he is still connected, and the author of three now standard books on animal rights. The title of his latest work - in part a reaction to the television series The People's Century - has a double meaning; it both salutes the enormous changes that have taken place in attitudes to and treatment of animals, and makes us look at times and societies from their point of view. By doing this Mark Gold extends our range of vision, the scope of our capacity for fellow- feeling. With exemplary clarity, and backing up every important point with fascinating examples, he takes us through domestic life (pets), our relationship to nature and the countryside (the conservation and preservation of species), sport (the hunting of animals), entertainment (circuses, zoos, exhibitions), agriculture (farm animals), science and medicine (vivisection) and culture (the place we accord animals in the philosophies by which we live - or imagine we live).

Some of what he reveals will surprise; as in other matters we obviously should not look for a steady upward curve of the graph, or for consistency. After the gargantuan carnage of the First World War one might have expected a surge in popular feeling for suffering living beings. In fact, in Britain, a romantic revanchism set in during the 1920s; fox-hunting was cherished as a symbol of picturesque Old England, and that ghastly event, the Waterloo Cup for hare-coursing (still, despite outrage, a going matter today) drew record-breaking crowds - who obviously chose to see no connection between what their society had just been through and the painful pursuit and deaths of terrified hares. Likewise, neither the late 1940s or the 1950s were distinguished for activities on animals' behalf. That honour goes to the first decade of this century and to its two last (though trail-blazing of incalculable importance was done in the 1960s and 1970s, notably the publication of Peter Singer's Animal Liberation in 1974). There can always be, however, an encouraging volte face: Australia, we learn here, for a while held off from the ban on whaling, the only English-speaking nation to do so. But then in the early 1980s, it re-reviewed the situation and committed itself to a ban not only for scientific but - a milestone, this - for moral reasons. As Mark Gold says: "Implicitly whales had become the first non-human animals to be granted rights by people."

Animal Century should provide all readers with a wealth of material for dealing with those arguments which all too often (though less so than in earlier years) greet those of us who work for animals. "I care about people!" you will hear, but so - and to a humbling degree - do those influential friends to animals whom we meet here. The late Victorian Henry Salt of the Humanitarian League, describing himself as "rationalist, socialist, pacifist and humanitarian" and living by a "creed of kinship", was involved in penal reform; the courageous Nina, Duchess of Hamilton and Brandon, who rescued so many animals from the horrors of the bombing in the Second World War, also provided refuge for many hundreds of children. This point can also be backed up by a consideration of the Home Secretary of the previous government, Michael Howard. Though hardly suggesting the rude health of country sports, he showed himself a dedicated defender of the hunt, and in order to deal with what he called all that "anti-hunt nonsense", accorded saboteurs criminal status, despite the fact that any excesses they perpetrated were already legally taken care of. Isn't this completely consonant with Howard's gleefully delivered belief that "prison works", that juvenile offenders should be incarcerated and that the gaols themselves should be harsh places the organisers of which "won't be Butlin's"?

Again (Mark Gold doesn't deal with this objection, perhaps considering it beneath contempt) Hitler's (and the Nazis') fondness for animals is regularly adduced as if by involving oneself too much with animal welfare one could somehow turn into a believer in Herrenvolk or an anti-Semite (and this despite the eminent Jewish contribution to animal rights, Peter Singer conspicuous here). In point of fact the Nazi regime was responsible for many cruelties against non-humans. What Mark Gold quotes Abraham Lincoln as saying about religion is surely also true about politicians and governments: "I care not much for a man's religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it." And not just the dog and cat, of course, but animals of every sort.

Are we entitled to feel that, in our improved dealings with animals in our century, we have something to celebrate? On the whole, I think, yes. The society I knew when younger - even in "animal-loving Britain" - tended to regard too much consideration for creatures' rights as crankiness; now, even by opponents or those indifferent to such matters, vegetarianism, veganism, anti-vivisectionism etc are regarded as virtual orthodoxies, if alternative ones. The causes of this welcome position are many and complex; ground-breaking films about wildlife must be among the foremost, and a general admission into life (in which again films, but also the popular press, have played a part) of suffering, whether human or non- human. Shots of, say, the Vietnam War or the slaughter in Rwanda creatively blur the rigid distinctions between the two categories. Against this one has to put the continuing enthronement of science, the tendency in the most reasonable and compassionate of people not to subject it to rigid ethical criteria. (I personally have found my anti-vivisection point of view the hardest of my beliefs to get across to others.) And then there is the sheer size and power of societies not committed to the same moral standards about the creature-world as ourselves, China and Japan providing alarming major instances.

But Mark Gold's excellent book - and its sane, lively tone - boosts one's spirits into thinking that, if so much has been done so far, more can be done still. The greatest argument for the extension of compassion is surely the joy we receive as a result of doing so; we are the better for richer, more inclusive relations with animals. So have found the toilers in the field to whom we owe so much gratitude for the next century's prospects. Animal Century is, among other things, a testimony to remarkable and good humans.