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Animal welfare and rights

by Nancy Swarbrick

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.

Anti-cruelty organisations

Kindness to animals

The idea that it is wrong to treat animals cruelly has existed for centuries, but was not widely accepted until the 19th century. In the 18th century, prompted by many public instances of cruelty, some people, especially evangelical Christians such as Quakers and Methodists, began to advocate kindness to animals as a religious duty. They saw cruelty to animals as a moral failing. In the 21st century animal welfarists still stress the responsibility of humans to protect animals from maltreatment.

Legal change

The first major law to prevent cruelty to horses, cattle and sheep was passed in England in 1822, followed by another in 1835 which outlawed animal-baiting (setting dogs on a bear, bull or other animal to make it fight back) and extended protection to other species. This law applied to New Zealand once the country became a British colony in 1840 and, in addition, Otago and Nelson provinces passed anti-cruelty ordinances.

Public demand for higher penalties for cruelty offences led to New Zealand’s first national law, the Cruelty to Animals Act 1878. Its provisions were extended and incorporated into the Police Offences Act 1884. Attempts to strengthen the law were unsuccessful until the Animals Protection Act 1960 was passed, increasing the range of cruelty offences and penalties for offences. The Animal Welfare Act 1999 put the responsibility for animal welfare onto owners, with provision for the definition of codes of welfare for specific groups of animals. A 2010 amendment raised penalties for cruelty offences.

Can they feel?

The philosophical basis for opposing cruelty to animals is that they are sentient – able to feel physical pain just like humans. In 1789 English philosopher Jeremy Bentham summed it up: ‘The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer?’1

Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) was formed in England in 1824 to police the law and press for improvements to it. This pattern was repeated in New Zealand: SPCAs were set up in Christchurch (June 1882), Dunedin (July 1882), Auckland (October 1883) and Wellington (October 1884). A few other big towns established SPCAs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but the organisation did not spread to smaller centres until after the Second World War. A federation of some SPCAs was formed in 1933, and was strengthened and renamed the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RNZSPCA) in 1982.

From 1884 SPCA inspectors had the powers of special constables to enforce anti-cruelty legislation; from 1960 they shared these rights with inspectors from the Department of Agriculture (which had, by 2012, become part of the Ministry for Primary Industries).


The main aims of the SPCAs were to educate the public, especially children, and to lobby for legal reforms, which they did with varying degrees of success. Major campaigns included opposing:

  • the abuse of urban working horses that hauled carts, cabs and trams in the 19th and early 20th centuries
  • cruel farming practices relating to transport, veterinary treatment and the bobby calf trade
  • blood sports such as hare coursing
  • the use of painful methods such as gin traps and later myxomatosis to control animals defined as pests.

SPCAs became particularly well-known for their work in rescuing, re-homing and advocating for stray and homeless animals. By the late 20th century they had substantial public support.

Other welfare organisations

SPCAs were the only animal welfare organisations in New Zealand until the early 20th century, but others were set up, particularly during the 1970s. They included the Cats Protection League (Christchurch 1971, Wellington 1982), the Humane Society of New Zealand (1975) and various other regional animal rescue and shelter organisations.

    • Quoted in Hilda Kean, Animal rights: political and social change in Britain since 1800. London: Reaktion Books, 1998, pp. 21–22. Back

Anti-vivisection and humanitarian movements

Anti-vivisection debates

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.

Overseas organisations

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

Animal rights

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.

    • Quoted in Nellie F. H. Macleod, A voice on the wind: the story of Jessie Mackay. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1955, p. 83. Back

Animal liberation and animal rights

Animal liberation

In the 1970s a new movement – animal liberation – emerged in the wake of other liberation movements for oppressed groups, including racial minorities, women and gay people. Inspired by Australian philosopher Peter Singer, the movement drew on previous anti-vivisection and animal rights thinking. In Animal liberation (1975), Singer argued that because both animals and humans were sentient creatures that suffered pain and distress, their interests deserved equal consideration. He described as ‘speciesist’ the belief that human interests should always come first. In addition, he denounced the large-scale late-20th-century abuses of animals: commercial vivisection and factory farming.

Animal rights

Other philosophers went further than Singer, arguing that animals should have rights enshrined in law. Animal rights activists often distanced themselves from animal welfarists, whom they saw as too conservative. They also advocated a ‘cruelty-free’ diet – vegetarian or, preferably, vegan.

Animal rights groups

As a consequence of the debates around animal liberation and animal rights, a number of radical groups were formed in Britain and other countries. Some of these, such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), raided vivisection laboratories and battery farms to liberate the animals held there. Others, notably the Animal Rights Militia, advocated violence, planting car and letter bombs, and some members were jailed for their actions. Meanwhile, existing anti-vivisection and animal advocacy groups were revitalised.

New Zealand organisations

In New Zealand small animal rights groups and ALF cells operated in the late 1970s and 1980s. Some of them continued through into the 21st century.

Active anti-vivisection groups emerged from the ashes of the long-established branches of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV).


In Wellington English immigrant Bette Overell tried to establish a new branch of the BUAV to replace the one that had faded away. When she got no support from the parent organisation in London, she set up the New Zealand Anti-Vivisection Society (NZAVS) in 1978. The NZAVS campaigned against vivisection on the grounds that it was scientifically unsound, and in 1989 presented a petition to Parliament calling for the abolition of vivisection, with 100,640 signatures. After Overell’s retirement in the mid-1990s, the NZAVS was based in Christchurch.

Anti-vivisection activists campaigned for restrictions on the use of non-hominoid great apes in association with the international Great Ape Project. Restrictions on harm to individual animals became illegal in New Zealand under Section 85 of the Animal Welfare Act 1999. This was recognised internationally as a significant achievement for animal rights.

NZAVS continued to actively campaign against the use of animal testing in the 21st century. It led a campaign to prevent legal highs being tested on animals and the testing of cosmetics on animals in New Zealand. In 2015 it was successful in achieving the discontinuation of the Draize test (a skin and eye test used on animals) in New Zealand.


In Auckland the local BUAV branch regrouped and renamed itself Save Animals From Experiments (SAFE) in 1978. It also campaigned against vivisection, presenting a petition with 120,000 signatures in 1982.

Scientists fought back, persuading Parliament to allow animal experiments to continue under stricter guidelines. In the 1980s amendments were made to the Animals Protection Act 1960, introducing codes of ethical conduct and an ethics advisory committee to regulate experiments on animals.

Caged for freedom

In April 2011 Carl Scott spent a month inside a cage on the side of the road north of Dunedin to draw attention to the plight of battery hens. His protest was inspired by SAFE’s No Cages Campaign, and helped the organisation publicise its attempts to change the Layer Hen Code of Welfare.

From vivisection to wider animal rights issues

In 1987 SAFE changed its name to Save Animals From Exploitation to reflect a broader approach to animal rights issues. It began major campaigns against battery farming of chickens and the use of crates for pigs, with considerable success. As a result of these campaigns, cages for battery hens were increased in size from 2008, and in December 2015 sow stalls were banned. Factory farming remains a major issue for animal rights activists. SAFE opposes colony cages for battery hens and its ultimate goal is to ban cages completely.

In the 21st century SAFE aimed to improve animals’ lives by raising awareness, challenging abusive practices and changing attitudes. In 2017 it had over 20,000 members who are involved in a range of campaigns, demonstrations, meetings, educational activities and research relating to improving human-animal relations in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Vegetarianism and veganism and animal rights

Many vegetarians in New Zealand avoid consumption of meat, fish and bird flesh for ethical and political reasons. The New Zealand Vegetarian Society advocates vegetarianism as both a healthy life style and a way of reducing cruelty to animals, protecting the environment and preserving natural resources.

Vegans often avoid the consumption and use of all animal, fish and bird products as an animal rights life style that avoids the exploitation of animals by humans. VeganNZ provides information about alternatives to meat and dairy products, non-animal clothing and footwear. The society produces a vegan magazine, hosts blogs about vegan life styles on its website, and organizes festivals and other public events.

New organisations and coalitions

At the turn of the 21st century many animal rights and welfare issues had been around for a long time. As well as continuing the fight against experiments on animals and factory farming, activists opposed the hunting of wild animals and cruelty in sports and entertainments such as rodeos, circuses and zoos. While they maintained distinct philosophical positions, different organisations cooperated on some issues: for example, the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals supported the anti-factory farming and anti-vivisection campaigns of Save Animals From Exploitation (SAFE). The Companion Animal Council, established in 1996, became a forum for a range of welfare and rights groups.

‘All I remember … was the screaming’1

For seven years comedian Mike King fronted advertisements funded by the New Zealand pork industry to encourage Kiwis to eat more bacon, pork and ham. Then, after being told by SAFE of intensive pig farming practices, he arranged to visit a North Island piggery with members of Open Rescue in 2009. Horrified by what he saw, he joined the campaign to ban factory farming. Footage of his experience caused a sensation when it aired on national television.

Some animal rights and welfare groups lasted for just a short time, but a number of new organisations that emerged were still in existence in 2010s.


Farmwatch emerged in the early 21st century. It has focused on issues relating to the killing of bobby calves, factory farming of chickens and pigs, the conditions of dogs used in Greyhound racing and the treatment of animals in rodeos. Farmwatch is critical of animal farming. It combines attention to issues relating to the use and abuse of animals and advocacy of a vegetarian and vegan life style.

New Zealand Animal Law Association

New Zealand lawyers formed an association directed at improving animal welfare and rights through the legal system. They make submissions relating to changes in the law that will improve animal rights and include over 200 lawyers working in different practice areas.

Greyhound Protection League of New Zealand

The Greyhound Protection League was set up to draw public attention to the large numbers of greyhounds seriously injured or euthanised as a consequence of greyhound racing, and to protest against the use of the animals as commodities in a gambling industry. Its ultimate goal is the banning of greyhound racing, but interim aims are to keep a close watch on the industry and expose abuses within it, and to lobby politicians.

Chained Dog Awareness New Zealand

The Chained Dog Awareness Trust was established in 2007 to publicise the problem of owners keeping dogs chained permanently without adequate food, water, exercise or veterinary care. As well as rescuing and re-homing such dogs, it sought a total ban on dog chaining.

Christchurch Bull Breed Rescue

Bull breed dogs – Staffys, Pitbulls, Bullys and cross breeds of these dogs have been identified as over-represented among unwanted dogs in Christchurch. This organisation was established to protect and find homes for these breed of dogs. It considers that these animals can be good pets if they have the right owner, love and care. Dogs are de-sexed, fostered and re-homed. Advice is also offered relating to lost and found dogs.

Paw Justice

Paw Justice was established in 2009 to campaign for tougher penalties for cruelty offences against companion animals, and its nationwide petition led to the 2010 Animal Welfare Amendment Act. Other causes included establishing a pet-food bank for needy animals, giving financial aid to owners unable to afford emergency veterinary bills, a children’s education programme and a justice fund.

First Strike New Zealand

First Strike was established in the early 21st century and focuses on the links between social and domestic violence and animal abuse.  They contributed to the development of a memorandum of understanding between NZ Police, women's refuges, and SPCAs that highlighted the need for pets to be taken into account when assessing and intervening in domestic violence situations.


Sanctuaries for unwanted and rescued pets, farm and circus animals were set up. They often care for animals untilo they can be fostered or adpoted. These sanctuaries included:

  • the Black Sheep Animal Sanctuary (established by the Animal Protection Society in 2009 at Ōtaki Forks, north of Wellington)
  • HUHA (Helping You Help Animals) Animal Sanctuary (established near Wellington in 2001)

In addition volunteers fed and managed a growing number of colonies of stray cats throughout New Zealand.

New Zealand Human-Animal Studies

Research and publishing on the relationships between humans and animals developed in New Zealand in the 2000s. The New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies (NZCHAS) was established at the University of Canterbury in 2007 by Dr. Annie Potts and Dr. Philip Armstrong.

Human-Animal Studies (HAS) draws on a wide range of disciplines and explores new ways of thinking about animals and human-animal relationships. It also advocates for the interests and agency of animals.

International organisations

Many New Zealand welfare or rights groups had links with international organisations, but some were branches of worldwide groups. They included:

  • Sea Shepherd New Zealand, which aimed to protect ocean wildlife and ecosystems
  • The Great Ape Project
  • World Society for the Protection of Animals, which campaigned for animal welfare around the globe
  • ZooCheck, which lobbied to prevent the suffering of animals in captivity.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Animal welfare and rights', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 September 2021)

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