The opening scene of the movie Amazing Grace, which chronicles 18th and 19th century abolitionist William Wilberforce’s battle to stop the British slave trade, portrays a true event in Wilberforce’s life in which he intervened when he saw a coach driver beating and kicking a fallen horse. It’s a heart-wrenching scene, and no doubt many people in the theater were thinking to themselves, “Thank God, we’re more civilized than that today.” But as I watched, I was reminded of a recent incident in New York City involving a carriage horse driver who beat his collapsed horse so viciously that passersby, including a police officer, tried to intervene. The man was never charged with any crime, and later that same night, the horse died.
Were Wilberforce alive today, he would probably be on antidepressants, seeing how little we have progressed since his day. We seem to have lost the connection that was obvious to him: Animals and people suffer alike. While Wilberforce is best known for his work to end slavery, he and a group of his fellow “radicals” also gathered in London in 1824 to found the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—the first animal welfare society in the world.
As the film depicts, Wilberforce was shouted down in Parliament and dismissed as a zealot and traitor during his four-decade-long fight to abolish human slavery. His work in behalf of animals, which included supporting Britain’s first animal protection law and the abolition of bull-baiting, was similarly ridiculed. Today, he would likely face the same derision from many people at the notion that animals, like humans, do not deserve to be treated like slaves.
It’s no exaggeration to say that animals are treated like slaves. Try telling some people that roosters shouldn’t have blades tied to their feet and be sicced on each other for “sport.” And if that kind of thing isn’t embraced by the mainstream, then what about cows and pigs dismembered in slaughterhouses while still conscious? Chickens and turkeys, animals people like to make sandwiches out of, have their beaks seared off with a hot wire. Millions of farmed animals are transported in appalling conditions. Animals are caught in steel-jaw traps because some other species fancies making a collar out of their skin. Monkey mothers still have their infants snatched from them to be used in experiments, and stray dogs and cats are still shot by police in rural areas where there are no humane societies to provide euthanasia. Elephants in the circus are kept in chains and beaten.
As in Wilberforce’s day, the abuse is justified for economic reasons, as if making money off cruelty makes it acceptable rather than all the more reprehensible.
It’s easy to look back at injustices of the past and wonder how anyone could ever have defended them. But what’s harder by far is looking at injustices that occur today with fresh eyes and an open mind and realizing that they, too, are indefensible. George Bernard Shaw, another staunch animal advocate, once said, “Custom will reconcile people to any atrocity.”
But not all people.
William Wilberforce knew that “tradition” and expediency are no excuse for cruelty to any living being. Perhaps audiences will come away from Amazing Grace inspired to right a wrong, even if no one else knows that it’s wrong yet.
Ingrid Newkirk is president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org. Her latest book is 50 Awesome Ways Kids Can Help Animals.