When the wide eyes of a nine-year-old perused the pages of ‘2000 AD’ in 1977, one strip set in the far-flung future of 23 years hence seemed less feasible to me than anything involving robots, ray-guns or spaceships. In it, I recall an irate father was poised to deliver a smack to his misbehaving child when the mother interjected by reminding her husband, ‘We don’t chastise children in the 21st century’. This required more stretching of the imagination than the rest of the stories in the comic put together; I clearly remember thinking how such a scenario was never going to happen in my lifetime. I mean, routine smacks, slaps, clouts and belts from grownups was part and parcel of my childhood experience, and had been part and parcel of all the childhood experiences there’d ever been before mine. That was one of the perks of being over-18 – you could physically put an unruly child in its place, just like parents and teachers did on a daily basis to those of us who were kids back then. The idea that this would one day cease as a legitimate punishment and would indeed be frowned upon, even legislated against, was pure pie-in-the-sky. Judge Dredd didn’t seem remotely fantastical next to that.
Yes, this was the age when it was still okay for adults to dispense a clip round the ear-hole, and it was also the age in which latchkey dogs roamed the streets, impregnating the neighbourhood bitches, leaving messages wherever feet were guaranteed to tread, and terrorising kids who were terrified of them. Owners let Rover loose without a second thought, turfing him out of the house on a morning in the same way they’d turf their children out during the school holidays; they all ran wild and unsupervised in a way that’s utterly unimaginable today. Mind you, some animals I came into contact with during my childhood weren’t given carte blanche to roam; some were put to work and became more like family breadwinners than the human head of the household. Farmers relied on animals to play their part in the running of the family business, but there were also those four-legged creatures whose working lives were entered into purely for our entertainment.
Circus folk, for example, relied on the attraction of animal employees to pull the punters in. Urban children who maybe lived several towns away from the nearest zoo had a rare opportunity to see bona fide beasts up-close when the big top magically appeared overnight on the local common. Elephants, lions, tigers – yer actual wildlife of Africa and India lifted out a context copyrighted by David Attenborough and transferred to the showbiz stage. It should have been one hell of an eye-popping experience, yet even as a child in that radically different and un-squeamish era, the two circuses I saw in person made me feel sorry for the animals. As impressive as their choreographed routines might seem on the surface, performing elephants always had sad eyes that gave the game away; they were like reluctant strippers faced with little option but to take off their clothes in public just to make ends meet; they weren’t doing it through choice.
Perhaps the fact that one circus I saw as a child was a small, rather shabby low-rent affair a long way from the glitzy glamour of the circuses that always seemed to be broadcast as part of the Christmas Day TV schedule also impacted upon my perception of them. The conditions certainly enhanced the drowsy, drugged-up apathy of the lacklustre lions and toothless tigers on display so that even the crack of the whip failed to breathe any sense of urgency into them. All the animals looked worn-out, weary and wasted, going through jaded motions that were an archaic hangover from the Victorian age. I can’t imagine such a set-up being allowed today – and it wouldn’t be, thankfully. Like the boxing kangaroos occasionally wheeled-out to enliven a lacklustre variety show on TV, not everything in the past was superior to now; some things really have changed for the better. When the Wild Animals in Circuses Act of 2019 came into effect at the beginning of last year, circuses in England were belatedly banned from including wild animals in their line-ups, following similar Acts passed in Scotland and Wales a year or two before.
At a time when so much legislation that passes through Parliament seems to constitute little more than the ongoing erosion of civil liberties and all the hard-fought rights of which we were once so proud and are now prepared to give up without much in the way of a fight, how refreshing to see changes to the law that are actually worthwhile and long overdue. The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill received its third and final reading last week and is deserving of a round of applause. It increases the maximum sentence for cruelty to animals from a paltry six months to a far more substantial five years. Coming at a moment when a vile crime like dog-theft is on the increase, the Bill couldn’t be more timely; whilst the Wild Animals in Circuses Act is intended to curb the exploitation of exotic beasts, this new Bill casts its net wider and turns its attention to abuse of the domesticated members of the animal kingdom, those we are far more likely to come into contact with than lions, tigers or elephants.
All-too often, it seems, animal rights are monopolised by (and assumed to be the exclusive property of) the ‘activist’, the stager of stunts and the disturber of the peace, the kind that arguably does more harm than good in making people aware of animal exploitation and cruelty – just as legitimate concerns over the future of the planet become negatively associated with the disruptive clowns of Extinction Rebellion, putting people off the issue when it’s so closely linked to the prats that use it as a vehicle for their own antisocial narcissism. However, legislation such as the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill and the Wild Animals in Circuses Act wrestle the subject out of the hands of the activist and remind us that this is an issue that concerns all of us. After all, it’s barely a year since the overnight removal of traffic from the roads and aircraft from the skies suddenly opened the floodgates for animals to claim the vacated spaces with amazing speed; the birdsong soundtrack and the surreal sight of deer grazing on suburban lawns served as a salient wake-up call to the fact that we actually share this place and don’t own it outright.
It’s been a long, slow road to getting here – the Proroguing of Parliament in 2019 and then Covid held things up somewhat; but the Statute Book and Royal Assent were finally in sight when the Bill crossed the finishing line at the eleventh hour just 24 hours prior to the conclusion of the current Parliamentary session last week. The various animal charities that have played their part in pushing this deserve credit, and Lord John Randall paid tribute to their work. ‘I commend all the charities involved for the weight and purpose they brought to this campaign,’ he said, ‘to secure one of the most significant changes to animal welfare legislation since the Animal Welfare Act of 2006.’ The Act referenced in his statement had helped lay the ground for both this new one and the Wild Animals in Circuses Act, and even though it won’t end the maltreatment of animals overnight, it undoubtedly reflects a wider change in attitude towards animals within society during my lifetime.
The founding of the RSPCA in 1824 opened eyes to everyday levels of commonplace cruelty that to us today seem barbaric, and perhaps future generations will look back in astonishment at some of the things we tolerated in the same way we now look back at bull-baiting, cock-fighting and fox-hunting. Ah, thinking about it, maybe there’s still plenty of work needs doing yet.
© The Editor