In the late 19th century opposition to vivisection (scientific experimentation on animals, often with minimal or no anaesthetic) became a major crusade in Britain and elsewhere. But as many of these animal experiments were carried out to find treatments for life-threatening human diseases, such as brain tumours and diphtheria, there was much debate over whether they should be permitted. Some animal welfarists conceded that vivisection was necessary. On the other hand, opponents maintained that it was totally unacceptable and insisted that sometimes the interests of animals should take precedence over those of humans.
In Britain organisations such as the National Anti-Vivisection Society and the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) emerged to oppose animal experiments. In New Zealand there was some interest in the cause, and vivisection was occasionally debated. A few groups including feminist organisations and theosophists condemned it, but SPCA members had a range of views from total opposition to reluctant acceptance.
An unpopular cause
When she was reproached for opposing animal suffering caused by vivisection at a time when there were many children who were suffering, Jessie Mackay replied, ‘When the shadows lengthen in the west and one must choose what most earnestly remains to be done, one does not look where many are working, and conscience is publicly awake. One looks for the young, the unpopular, the unlovely causes. Is there one younger or more unpopular than anti-vivisection?’1
At the same time that anti-vivisection debates were occurring, English writer Henry Salt argued that animals should have rights because they were similar in so many ways to humans. In 1891 Salt established the Humanitarian League, which campaigned against hunting, vivisection and the use of fur and feathers for adornment. Salt also opposed killing animals for food. His views were reported widely, including in New Zealand.
New Zealand organisations
Once it became clear that animal experiments were occurring in New Zealand at medical schools and agricultural research stations, anti-vivisectionists began to organise. The first anti-vivisection society had been set up in Auckland by 1930, and branches of the BUAV were established in other centres by the 1940s. In 1944 the Council of Combined Animal Welfare Organisations (CAWO) was formed. This was a coalition of theosophists, anti-vivisection leagues and the newly established Vegetarian Society, led by theosophist Geoffrey Hodson. In its advocacy of animal welfare measures CAWO had much in common with the SPCA, but it had a no-compromise stance on vivisection.
Gains and losses
CAWO was successful in campaigning for regulations governing humane slaughter, and the outlawing of the sports of hare coursing and captive pigeon shooting. However, its anti-vivisection aspirations were thwarted by the Animals Protection Act 1960 which, although it introduced many reforms, made animal experiments legal.