The earliest humans began interacting with other animals they began walking the African savannah over two million years ago. It’s been a long and complicated relationship ever since. Most people imagine cavemen as hunters, wielding large clubs as they roamed around ancient grasslands, while cavewomen busied themselves gathering berries and other fruits—work that supplied about 70 percent of the dietary calories. In fact, the earliest cavemen likely did more scavenging than hunting, according to archaeological evidence.
At a site near the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya, archaeologists discovered stone tools and the cracked skulls of large antelopes, similar in size to wildebeests. The skulls were almost certainly scavenged by ancient humans two million years ago. Animal scavengers like hyenas consume almost all of a carcass, but leave the heads because they lack the ability to crack open the skulls to extract the brains. Nomadic humans, however, mastered that trick. They opened the discarded animal heads to gobbled up the fatty, nutritious, energy-rich brains. In addition, animals’ bone marrow, also fatty and energy rich, was likely an important food source for scavengers. Researchers theorize that these additions to the diet fueled the evolution of modern humans. Without animals, we wouldn’t be who we are.
The relationship of animals and humans began to undergo a fundamental transition as humans moved from hunting and gathering economies to agrarian economies. Humans began the process of domesticating animals, realizing the benefits that come from having sources of meat and milk on hand when hunting was unproductive. In addition, domestication served other goals, including work, transportation, pest control, and companionship.
The ancients found uses for animals beyond serving as sources of food, work, or companionship. For one, ancient people simply enjoyed seeing exotic animals. As early as 2000 BCE, lions were kept and displayed in cages in Macedonia. Rulers from Egypt to Babylonia, Syria, and Rome took great pride in their collections of wild animals, that might include elephants, bears, tigers, and giraffes. The Roman Empire is well-known for its use of animals for entertainment. Emperors held gory spectacles in circular arenas, the most famous large venue being Circus Maximus in Rome, in which animals fought to the death, either with each other animals or with human gladiators.
“Descartes argued that animals were basically machines that lacked true speech.”
In contrast to the Romans, the Greek took a more scientific interest in animals. They were the first, or among the first, to collect wild animals for study. By the late fourth century BCE, Greeks were using animals for testing. Aristotle performed experiments on animals. It is difficult to have an animal as a pet and think of it merely as a thing, rather than as a being whose welfare should be a subject of human concern. The domestication of animals inevitably produced a shift in attitudes toward animals. The Middle Ages was a period of myths and superstitions—and animals were the subject of a good many of them. Cats got the worst of it, the result being a two-century long wholesale slaughter of the cats of Europe. Cats probably aroused suspicion in part for their general unwillingness, unlike dogs, to take orders from humans. In the thirteenth century, a devil worshipping sect in southern France came to be linked to black cats. The sect believe the Devil could slip into a cat’s body. Cats became the symbol of heresy and evil. Much of Europe, with the support of the Church, went on a cat-killing rampage, so severely depleting cat populations that by the early fourteenth century only a small number of feral cats survived in many areas. When the bubonic plague, or Black Death, swept across Europe beginning in 1347, it was made far worse by the fact that cat populations had dropped to the point that they were no longer a serious check on the infected rodents that spread the disease.
The Middle Ages also witnessed the strange spectacle of animals put on trial for their “crimes”. Hundreds of animal trials, for crimes ranging from murder to fraud and theft, occurred in in Europe from roughly 1400 to 1600. In most cases, animals were appointed a lawyer and carried into court. The track record for animals in court was not good. Most were found guilty and executed, often by hanging.
Swine faced murder charges most frequently, as could be expected at a time when pigs often bedded in the same space as peasants. But due process for the animals was expected, and when it wasn’t given, there were consequences. When the municipal executioner of Schweinfurt hanged a pig that had bitten off a child’s ear before a death warrant was issued, the executioner was forced to flee for his disrespect of process.
Although guilty verdicts were the norm, there were sometimes acquittals. The killing of a five-year-old boy in 1457 in Burgundy led to the prosecution of a sow and six piglets, all found covered with blood and next to the boy’s body. The sow was convicted and hanged after the court heard from eight witnesses, but the piglets were ultimately acquitted on the ground that no evidence directly implicated them in the murder.
Justice in medieval times could be tough. A sow convicted in 1386 in Falaise for gnawing the face of a baby was ordered not only executed, but tortured. A mural was painted in the village church depicts the scene, showing a thrashing pig, dressed in human clothes, on the gallows.
It was not only mammals that faced their days in court. A rooster in Basel in 1474 that performed the “unnatural” act of laying an egg was executed.
The moral status of animals began to receive considerable attention from philosophers in the Renaissance. René Descartes argued that animals were basically machines that lacked true speech, reason and even the ability to feel pain. Descartes’ followers were reported to kick their dogs just to hear the machine creak.
Many enlightenment philosophers begged to differ. Voltaire argued that simple observation of an animal should convince anyone they deserve our respect. Consider, he wrote, “the dog which has lost his master, which has sought him in all the thoroughfares with cries of sorrow, which comes into the house troubled and restless, goes downstairs, goes upstairs; goes from room to room, finds at last in his study the master he loves, and betokens his gladness by soft whimpers, frisks, and caresses.” Kant saw mistreatment of animals as a violation of our duties toward humanity: “We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”
By the 1700s, as Enlightenment views took hold, the nations of Europe began enacting laws forbidding cruelty to animals. This trend was fueled by a rising urban middle class that had grown disgusted both with the casual cruelty of the lower, largely rural, class toward animals, and with the oftentimes cruel hunting practices of the aristocratic class. By the 1800s, animal cruelty laws were extended to ban cockfighting, baiting, and dog fighting. Around the same time, vegetarianism won advocates, including the poet Percy Shelley, who wrote essays advocating a vegetarian diet, both for ethical and health reasons. Later, Mahatma Gandhi became an important champion of vegetarianism, arguing in 1931 that vegetarian diet should be pursued for the sake of animals - and not just as a human health issue.
Yet, the trend toward greater concern for animal protection has never been a straight line. Many scientists continue to treat animals as tools. After World War II, the use of animals in research increased. By 2000, about 50 to 100 million animals were being used for testing annually. At the same time, in a time of rising affluence and population, the number of animals killed for food soared, rising into the billions annually, thanks to the cruel efficiency of factory farms and selective breeding, which has created such creatures as chickens with giant breasts, practically unable to even stand up.
“Some nations, including Bolivia, Singapore, and several Scandinavian countries, banned the use of animals in circuses.”
Pushback against the rising animal death toll took off beginning in the 1970s. In 1975, Australian philosopher Peter Singer to write a book on discrimination by man against other species. Singer’s book, “Animal Liberation”, is considered a canonical text in the animal rights movement. Singer argued in favor of the equal consideration of human and animal interests. He contended that there is no reason to assume that an action that causes suffering to animals should count for less than one that causes an equal amount of suffering to humans. Suffering is suffering; pain is pain. Singer used the term “speciesism” to describe the favoritism we show human beings over other animals. The book's publication triggered a groundswell of scholarly interest in animal rights and welfare.
In recent decades, many nations have enacted sweeping legislation to protect animals. In 1999, New Zealand passed a new Animal Welfare Act that effectively prohibited experiments using “non-human hominids.” Some nations, including Bolivia, Singapore, and several Scandinavian countries, banned the use of animals in circuses. In 2010, Catalonia enacted a law banning bull fighting, the first such ban in Spain. No place as gone so far to protect animals as Palitana City, in the Indian state of Gujarat (a destination for Jain pilgrims). In 2014, Palitana became the first city in the world to be legally vegetarian. Search the city as you might: no meat, fish, or eggs are for sale.
Today, the world is living through a pandemic brought on by our failures to fully appreciate, and guard against, risks associated with human-animal interactions, whether the actual source of the zoonotic virus proves to be live animal markets, wildlife trade, or meat packaging. Will this pandemic, or the one that follows, finally lead end to change in our heavily animal-based diet? A hundred years from now, how many Palitanas will there be?