Kōrero: Animal welfare and rights

Whārangi 1. Anti-cruelty organisations

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

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.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in Hilda Kean, Animal rights: political and social change in Britain since 1800. London: Reaktion Books, 1998, pp. 21–22. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Animal welfare and rights - Anti-cruelty organisations', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/animal-welfare-and-rights/page-1 (accessed 18 August 2022)

He kōrero nā Nancy Swarbrick, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 1 Jul 2017