Story: Animal welfare and rights

Opposing cruelty to animals is based on the idea that animals, like humans, can suffer pain and distress. Many organisations in New Zealand work to promote animal welfare and some go further and advocate animal rights.

Story by Nancy Swarbrick
Main image: SAFE (Save Animals From Exploitation) protest against rodeos

Story summary

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The idea that it is wrong to treat animals cruelly has existed for centuries, but it was not until the 19th century that it was widely accepted. People came to believe that it is the responsibility of humans to protect animals from cruelty.

Anti-cruelty laws

The first major laws to prevent cruelty to horses, cattle and sheep were passed in England in 1822 and 1835. In New Zealand public demand for higher penalties for cruelty to animals led to the Cruelty to Animals Act 1878.

Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCAs) were established in many countries around the world. The first SPCAs were formed in New Zealand in the early 1880s. From 1884 New Zealand SPCA inspectors had powers to enforce anti-cruelty laws. In the 2000s they shared these powers with inspectors from the Ministry for Primary Industries under the Animal Welfare Act 1999. The Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RNZSPCA) is the national parent body for SPCAs.

Other animal welfare organisations

Other animal welfare organisations were set up in the 20th century, including Safe Animals from Exploitation (SAFE), the Cats Protection League and the Humane Society of New Zealand. The Companion Animal Council of New Zealand was established in 1996 as a forum for animal protection organisations.

Anti-vivisection movements

Vivisection is the use of live animals for scientific experimentation. Anti-vivisection organisations were active in New Zealand from at least the 1930s. Anti-vivisection activists campaigned for restrictions on the use of non-hominoid great apes. Restrictions on harm to individual animals became illegal in New Zealand under Section 85 of the Animal Welfare Act 1999.

Animal liberation and animal rights

From the 1970s there was a resurgence of organisations concerned about the ill-treatment of animals. Animal liberation activists argued that the interests of animals and humans deserved equal consideration. Some argued that animals had rights that should be legally recognised. Animal liberation and rights groups in New Zealand, notably SAFE (Save Animals From Exploitation), have campaigned against abuses of animals including factory farming of chickens and pigs. For many New Zealanders in the 21st century, vegetarianism (not consuming animals, birds or fish) and veganism (not consuming any animal products) is an ethical and political choice directed at animal rights and avoiding the exploitation of animals.

New organisations and coalitions

In the early 21st century many new organisations were set up to prevent cruelty to animals and promote animal rights in New Zealand. These included:

  • Greyhound Protection League of New Zealand
  • Chained Dog Awareness New Zealand
  • Paw Justice
  • Farmwatch
  • First Strike New Zealand

There are a number of sanctuaries for unwanted and rescued animals.

Some international animal rights organisations have branches in New Zealand, including Sea Shepherd, the Great Ape Project, the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and ZooCheck.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Animal welfare and rights', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 September 2023)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 1 Jul 2017