From Prey to Property: A Historical Exploration of Animal Rights

A captivating journey through diverse ancient societies and their perspectives on animal treatment

30 mins read
From Prey to Property: A Historical Exploration of Animal Rights

Join us for an insightful interview with Prof. Dr. Altan Armutak, Head of the Department of Veterinary Medicine History and Deontology at Istanbul University Cerrahpaşa Veterinary Faculty, as he delves into the fascinating and often complex history of animal rights.

From Prey to Property: A Historical Exploration of Animal Rights 1
Prof. Dr. Altan Armutak was born in Istanbul in 1961 and graduated from Istanbul University’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in 1985.

Can you define animal rights and give information about their historical origins?

The concept of animal rights is defined as the concept that the fundamental interests of animals are or should be protected by law, just like those of humans. The historical background of this concept dates back to the domestication of animals. The domestication of animals is one of the most important processes in human history. In the hunting period before the domestication of animals, people hunted animals and consumed their meat to meet their food needs. In this phase, the relationship between humans and animals is limited. Man is the hunter; the animal is the prey. When animals are domesticated, this picture of prey and predator changes completely. At this point, instead of being a hunter who hunts wild animals, man becomes the owner of animals, and in time, a trader who makes his living from animals. A close relationship emerges between man and animal, and this relationship is shaped to the benefit of man and to the detriment of the animal. Man now begins to use the animals he has domesticated, cared for, nurtured and produced without any rules and as he wishes. We abstractly call this phenomenon the “Human-Animal Contract”.

Animals have to pay the heaviest price for being cared for and fed by humans, first and foremost by losing their freedom. Domestication is the theoretical beginning of the violation of animal rights by humans and dates back to approximately 15,000 years ago. This approach is based on the thesis that humans are superior to animals and that animals were created for human needs. This approach, which is mostly advocated by divine religions and in which humans are considered to be God’s stewards, has led to the opening of many doors to animal rights violations in history. For thousands of years, humans have continued to use animals for food/victims, for protection, as mounts, for military purposes, and for scientific research and training, without limit, as they wish, and without accountability. As God’s steward, man believes that he is also the owner of the animal.

What can we say about animal rights in ancient societies?

Before the divine religions, the Code of Hammurabi is the oldest document on animal rights and the rights of sick animals in history. In ancient Egypt, animals were generally highly respected, protected and mummified. Here, the Ox Apis and the cat goddess Bastet are very sacred and beloved animals. The cat in particular has a very special place in this culture and the Pharaohs forbade the taking of cats out of Egypt. Brahmanism and Buddhism also forbid the killing and suffering of animals. In Hittite Laws, criminal provisions are mostly found regarding animal theft. Roman law, on the other hand, has a different approach to animals. According to Roman law, an animal is an object, but if it brings income, it should be protected against bad behavior. All life in the world should also be respected. Animals should also be respected as they are a part of this life, or rather the environment. In this context, in the Roman Empire, work animals were given one day of rest a week and their rights and welfare were protected. But the approach here is based on the fact that animals are a source of income.

How did the Christian religion view animals, especially in the Middle Ages?

However, the worst period for animal rights was undoubtedly Medieval Europe. In this dark age dominated by the Christian Catholic Church, a series of sanctions were imposed on animals. In this period when science and scientific thought were banned, the scholastic views of church father philosophers such as Thomas de Aquinas (Thomas of Aquinas) gathered supporters. Accordingly, the Christian church defended the view that animals were created for human beings, that they had no souls and therefore could not feel pain and suffering, and that, as a result, it was God’s will and a divine gift to human beings to make use of animals everywhere, in every work and under every circumstance. The consequences of this view would be very severe for animals.

The Holy See also issued decrees on the punishment of animals. Accordingly, animals were accused and tried in courts just like humans; they were subjected to severe punishments and tortured. In particular, it was claimed that the eyes of cats were the eyes of the devil and that these animals were helping women accused of witchcraft, leading to massive cat hunts in continental Europe, followed by serious cat massacres. Along with the women accused of witchcraft, hundreds of thousands of cats were stuffed into bags and burned. These bloody processes led to a gradual decline in the cat population in Europe and, as a consequence, an increase in the number of rodents such as mice and rats. This resulted in the continent of Europe suffering several small and large plague epidemics at different periods, and many people died from the plague over the centuries.

How has Islam contributed to animal rights and animal welfare?

However, the attitude towards animal rights of a new religion and its founder, which took shape in the southern Arabian peninsula, far away from the European continent, is very different. The growing religion of Islam, believed to have been completed in the 7th century, has 114 chapters (suras) in its holy book, 7 of which are dedicated to different animal species. In addition, this holy book, like the other two divine religions, states that God created animals for the benefit of human beings. However, it is also clearly stated that any misbehavior of human beings towards animals will not go unpunished and that Allah will surely punish them. This is a detail not found in the other two major divine religions. In addition to all these, especially the animal-loving personality of the Prophet of Islam, his unusually pro-animal welfare and animal rights statements in his words, attitudes and behaviors towards animals in his daily life, and his reactions against those who mistreated animals have a very rare feature in the history of religions. In these respects, the Islamic Middle Ages is a culture with significant developments in terms of animal rights and animal welfare.

What are the approaches to animal rights in the Age of Enlightenment?

The end of the Middle Ages in Europe was marked by the Reformation movements. During these processes, the influence and power of the Catholic Church declined. Protestantism begins to spread. The Renaissance enlightens the whole of Europe starting from Italy. Interest in art and science grows. With the end of the Renaissance, the Age of Reason or the Age of Enlightenment begins. The most important aspect of this age is the increased importance given to reason, education, science and scientists. The most important philosopher of this age is undoubtedly Rene Descartes. Descartes says that thinking is unique to human beings. He categorizes non-human beings, living beings but not mentally capable, as animals, plants and things. He argues that humans are superior to all living and non-living beings, including animals. According to Descartes, animals have no consciousness, no soul and therefore do not suffer. Accordingly, humans can freely use animals wherever they want. This includes scientific research. For a long time in the Age of Enlightenment, animals were not believed to be sentient beings. It was argued that animals could be understood by mechanical principles. For these reasons, animals were used unrestrictedly in all kinds of scientific experiments and research, and they suffered greatly.

While in the Middle Ages animals lost their lives in communities due to religious concerns, this time, as a requirement of the Age of Enlightenment, animals began to lose their lives in experiments and classes, in the name of research and education, for the benefit or interest of human beings. Horses are undoubtedly the animals that have paid the heaviest price for domestication. From the Battle of Kadesh to World War II, horses played the leading role in all the wars of mankind for more than 3000 years. Millions of horses lose their lives in religious and national wars for the sake of human desires and ambitions, when they could have grazed freely in the countryside in peace.

What is Kant’s view on animal rights?

Another view on animal rights belongs to the famous German philosopher Immanuel Kant. According to Kant, the tool that humans use to achieve their goals is the animal. Therefore, man has no ethical responsibility or duty towards the animal. Only animals that have rendered services to a human being in his or her life are excluded from this. Except for animals that have served the interests of man, no other animal is of any importance. Man has no ethical responsibility towards stray animals. There is an absolute hierarchy of consciousness between man and animal. Man is superior to the animal. All these anthropocentric approaches will be eliminated by Jeremy Bentham, who laid the scientific foundations of animal rights.

What are Jeremy BENTHAM’s views on animal rights?

British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) argues that if animals feel pain, suffering, in other words, if their interests are harmed, just as the interests of humans are protected in this case, the interests and rights of animals should also be protected. Here, feeling pain or suffering is the main criterion. It does not matter whether the animal is mentally incapacitated, unable to think or speak. In Bentham’s thought, the animal has been transformed from a “Non-Thinking Thing” to a “Painful Creature”. He insists that we have ethical responsibilities in our actions towards animals. Somewhat due to Bentham’s influence, the most important developments regarding Animal Rights in history were achieved in 19th century England. In England during the reign of Queen Victoria, legal arrangements were made in the Parliament and associations were established for animal rights. Animals used in experiments are taken under legal protection. Meanwhile, the opening of the world’s first veterinary school in France in the 18th century and the subsequent opening of many veterinary schools in many European countries in the 19th century are giant steps towards the protection of animal welfare and animal rights.

Which 20th century philosophers come to mind in relation to animal rights?

Significant progress was made towards animal rights in the 20th century. Within the framework of Respect for Life, Albert Schweitzer argues that every living being has equal rights and that these rights must be protected. This is also an indication of animal-human equality. Peter Singer, one of the most important names in this field, attributes the exclusion of animals by humans to “Human Speciesism” and considers the oppression and superiority of the human species over other animal species as “Species Fascism”. Accordingly, humans can disregard the interests and rights of all living species in order to protect the interests of their own species. Tom Regan, one of the most important thinkers of this century in the field of animal rights, believes that animals and humans have the same rights. He argues that the biggest mistake here stems from the system that sees and uses animals as a material resource. He states that as long as animals are a source of material benefit, their exploitation by humans is inevitable.

Legally, centuries after the acceptance of animals as property in Roman Law, the view that “Animals are considered to be akin to persons” gains weight, but this view is an interim or temporary solution. According to this view, animals are a subject of law that needs to be protected today. Since extinct animals are protected, other animals should also be protected. The most contemporary view in this field is “Recognizing the Animal as a Person”. Accordingly, the animal is considered a person based on the fact that it is a sensitive, pain-sensing and suffering creature. It can be said that contemporary legal regulations are based on this point. Here, too, the deep influence of Jeremy Bentham is perceived.

What is the importance of the Universal Declaration of Animal Rights?

In the majority of today’s developed western countries, animal rights are protected by law. These laws are based on the provisions of the “Universal Declaration of the Rights of Animals” adopted at the UNESCO House in Paris on October 15, 1978. This declaration is the first international decision recognizing the senses of animals and the responsibilities of humans towards them. The “European Convention for the Protection of Domestic Animals” is another international step in this field. The vast majority of developed western countries adopt and implement these provisions, and in particular animal welfare protection provisions relating to the care, feeding, habitat, transportation and slaughter of farm animals. In these countries there are no stray animals and animals whose owners cannot be found can be euthanized after a significant period of holding. In these countries, and particularly in the United States, protection measures for animals threatened with extinction are also legally guaranteed.

What is the importance of animal love and animal rights in Turks throughout history?

In the Central Asian period before the adoption of Islam, the Turks were a society that made a living from animal husbandry, domesticated the horse for the first time in history, lived intertwined with mythologically rich animals such as wolves, horses, bears and eagles, had epics such as Bozkurt and Ergenekon, and used the 12-animal Turkish calendar. Born on horses, living and dying on horses, Turks live a life with animals in every aspect of their daily lives, and accept and love animals as their friends. With the adoption of Islam after the 8th century, the Turks added to the love for animals and animal culture they carried with them from Central Asia, the love, respect and sense of responsibility towards animals in the newly adopted religion of Islam, and carried all this synthesized accumulation to the Ottoman Empire through the Seljuk states. Especially by adhering to the values set forth in the Hadiths of the Prophet of Islam, they lived in peace with animals under an understanding of governance that respected animal rights and animal welfare until the Decline and Collapse Period of the Ottoman Empire.

In the Ottoman Empire, the rights and welfare of working animals were meticulously protected. Municipalities were authorized in this regard. Municipal authorities were authorized to impose penalties on animal owners and even to put them to the falaka in cases such as overloading beasts of burden with more than they could carry, making them work at night, misusing them when going from one place to another, and having too many people riding on them. Notices are published on the subject. Fines imposed on animal owners are announced. Foundations provide services in order to feed pet animals such as cats, dogs and birds, except for animals such as horses, mules, donkeys, buffaloes, etc., which are defined as beasts of burden. Sultans also took the lead in these matters and made donations for the care and feeding of these stray animals on special occasions. Birdhouses were adopted and widespread enough to become a part of Ottoman architecture. Animals such as cats and dogs living in plots, empty houses and especially in mosque courtyards were taken care of by people called “Mancacılar” in return for the money they collected from the public. People always take care of cats, dogs and birds living on the streets. They feed the caged birds for the sake of Allah or let them out of the cage.

What was done for stray animals in the Ottoman Empire?

This interest in animals increased the number of stray animals especially in the capital Istanbul. When foreign and western travelers came to Istanbul, they were most interested in these animals, especially dogs, which were living on the streets and numbered in thousands. The Ottoman Empire entered a phase of decline and collapse. Starting with Mahmut II, one of the reform-minded and innovative sultans who tried to adopt western standards, the palace became interested in the problem of stray dogs. Stray dogs were first exiled and sent to the deserted countryside on the Anatolian side of Istanbul. However, these animals returned after a while. Then they are sent to Hayırsız Island, which is located on the Marmara Sea and has no water source. The people of Istanbul petitioned the palace, asking for the return of these silent and innocent animals. After a while, the dogs were brought back. These practices continued during the reigns of Abdülmecit, Abdülaziz and Murat V, but to no avail. The common sense approach of the public on this issue was very effective.

However, the pro-Unionist rulers who took office later on, once again tried to rid Istanbul of stray dogs, as was the case in European capitals. Especially Western businessmen informed the palace that the hides and bones of the dogs to be sent to the island would fetch a lot of money. As a result, in 1910, 80,000 dogs were captured, loaded onto ships and left on No Good Island. For a while, food and water were transported to these animals. However, this practice was first disrupted and then completely abandoned. The 80,000 dogs on the island perish by eating other sick and dead dogs and drinking sea water. Again the people appealed to the palace, but this time to no avail. The fear of the people is that they will be cursed by God for killing these silent and innocent creatures. After a while, the people attributed all the disasters such as the defeats in the First and Second Balkan Wars, the defeat in World War I, the occupations, etc. to these stray dogs left to die on Hayırsız Ada. However, until the proclamation of the Republic, all measures taken against stray animals were not adopted by the public and none of these measures yielded any results. In 1912, 30,000 more dogs were poisoned and killed. As a result, the number of stray dogs in Istanbul did not decrease, but continued to increase.

What has been done for animal rights in the Republic of Turkey?

After the proclamation of the Republic, the fight against stray animals in the name of public health continued uninterruptedly. First dogs and then tens of thousands of cats were culled by poisoning or shooting them with ploughs for fear of rabies outbreaks. Not content with these animals, crows and goats were also hunted on the grounds that they were damaging agricultural lands and forests. In the meantime, a large number of wild animals were seen and killed. As a result, neither the number of dogs, cats nor other animals decreased. Therefore, culling, which has been carried out in about 200 years from the 1820s to the present day, has not produced a solution to the problem of stray animals. However, culling may seem like the easiest, fastest and cheapest method. But it is inconclusive; and most importantly, it is against human dignity and animal rights. Our country enters the 21st century with a commission working on this issue in the Turkish Grand National Assembly.

As a result, the “Law on the Protection of Animals”, which was prepared during the harmonization process with the European Union, was enacted by the Turkish Grand National Assembly in 2004. This Law is actually a turning point. In the 80th year of the Republic of Turkey, a law for stray animals is adopted for the first time in our history as a result of long-lasting efforts. This is actually a very big delay. The price of this delay was paid by innocent animals born on the streets and dying on the streets within a maximum of two years. The law is the Animal Protection Law. Who are we going to protect animals from? From animals; from humans or from the state? For the first time, this law recognizes the existence of stray animals and provides a new solution other than euthanasia or culling.

As a result, dog shelters were established. The culling of stray dogs was stopped and these animals were rehabilitated by veterinarians working in the shelters through a series of health procedures such as sterilization, vaccination, anti-parasitic drug application and ear tag or chip implantation, and then released to the neighborhood or street where they were taken. In this way, many diseases, especially rabies, were brought under control in a short time. Shelters are not places where animals live permanently. They are stations where dogs receive temporary health care. Maybe very aggressive dogs can be kept here, but other animals are released to the area where they are taken in a healthy way. This law also recognizes the establishment of ethics committees for experimental animals. However, the weakest part of this law is that all crimes against animals are considered as misdemeanors and are not evaluated within the framework of the Turkish Penal Code.

In 2021, the Law on the Protection of Animals was revised and crimes against animals were removed from the scope of misdemeanors and included in the scope of the Turkish Criminal Code, and crimes against animals, especially dogs, were no longer punishable by fines but by imprisonment, which is considered a major step forward in our recent history. However, despite such a change in the law, the penal provisions are inadequate, they are vague in places, they do not contain clear statements on the non-conversion of prison sentences to fines, and especially a practice such as good behavior should definitely not be accepted, Considering the fact that people who intentionally and deliberately cause harm will continue to commit this crime throughout their lives and that these people must be placed under a series of restrictions, it is obvious that the final revised version of the Law No. 5199 on the Protection of Animals does not satisfy both veterinarians and animal lovers.

This interview was first published on dosder.org.tr in Turkish.


Prof. Dr. Banur BOYNUKARA
Lecturer at Tekirdağ Namık Kemal University Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. He is a member of the scientific commission of our association and a member of the referee board of the journal Sesi of Nature.

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