Story: Pets

Page 3. Animal welfare history

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Prevention of cruelty

The belief that humans have obligations towards animals has evolved slowly. It is still widely accepted that humans have the right to own, use and, in some circumstances, kill animals. However, most people in western countries now agree that animals can feel pain and distress, and that there should be laws against inflicting suffering on them. This major shift in opinion has occurred since the early 19th century, when horses and cattle were often flogged mercilessly, and bear and dog baiting were popular sports.

English precedents

In the early 19th century English reformers campaigning against slavery and the subjection of women and children also pushed for laws to prevent cruelty to animals. An act to prevent ill-treatment of livestock was passed in 1822, and in 1835 another act extended protection to domestic animals. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was formed in 1824, gaining royal patronage in 1840.

Animal welfare after 1840

After New Zealand became a colony in 1840, English laws applied. Nelson and Otago provinces also passed ordinances protecting animals, but the first national law was the Cruelty to Animals Act 1878. It outlawed cruel treatment of any species, domestic or wild, imported or indigenous. It also regulated the transport, branding and slaughtering of farm animals.


Around the same time, branches of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) were set up, starting with Canterbury and Otago (1882), then Auckland (1883) and Wellington (1884).

Animal lovers were concerned by the numbers of stray and starving animals, especially dogs, in towns. The public ill-treatment of some working horses pulling cabs and other loads received newspaper coverage, and probably swelled SPCA membership. The first SPCAs mainly provided shelters for abandoned animals, but lobbying for improved animal welfare laws became important.

1884 legislation

In 1884 the provisions of the Cruelty to Animals Act were incorporated in the Police Offences Act. Not supplying an animal with food, water and shelter was also outlawed. SPCA inspectors could be appointed as special constables, with the power to take animals and vehicles into custody, enter saleyards to inspect animals, and arrest offenders. This enforcement measure was then unique in the British Empire. With some amendments, the law was in force for the next 76 years.

Pet rescue

After the massive Hawke’s Bay earthquake of 1931, people were evacuated from the district, leaving behind pet animals and birds. Concerned at this situation, the Hawke’s Bay SPCA inspector, Mr Davis, immediately organised house-to-house visits and all the deserted animals were accounted for. Since 1990, animal welfare has been part of the national civil defence emergency plan.

SPCA campaigns

In the 20th century the growing numbers of SPCAs in the regions shifted their attention to farm animals. Individual SPCAs, which in 1933 joined in a federation, opposed practices such as neutering and de-horning animals without anaesthetic, and advocated better conditions for transporting and slaughtering animals.

1960 legislation

The Animals Protection Act 1960 widened the range of cruelty offences to include various kinds of neglect. It also restricted some farming practices, and increased penalties. Farming organisations were involved in developing the legislation, and Department of Agriculture inspectors became responsible for enforcing it, along with police and SPCA inspectors.

Further campaigns

The SPCA federation, which was reorganised as the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1980, campaigned against new farming methods. These included docking tails of dairy cows, caging hens and exporting live sheep.

Animal rights activists, angry about inconsistent treatment of different kinds of animals, began to protest against the use of animals in scientific experiments. Public concern about cruelty to wild animals through such activities as hunting and culling also grew. These campaigns influenced the Animal Welfare Act 1999.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Pets - Animal welfare history', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 24 Nov 2008