The first animal rights legislation in the western world, which was passed in Massachusetts in 1641, made it illegal for any person to exercise “tyranny or cruelty towards any brute creature.” For two hundred years, this was the only law in the western world dealing with treatment of nonhuman animals. In the late 1700′s articles began to appear in print that questioned sports such as bull, dog and chicken fighting. It was Jeremy Bentham, however, who in 1789 made the first leap forward. He stated, “The question is not, Can they [nonhuman animals] reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” This simple question led nineteenth century English activists to begin to work for better treatment of nonhuman animals. Slavery abolitionists and women suffragists combined forces and included nonhuman animals in their agenda, forcing the English and American governments to pass laws protecting nonhuman animals throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Despite some advances, agitation for nonhuman animal welfare largely resulted in piecemeal reforms. Many activists began criticizing weak state laws, arguing that the movement’s long term goals of liberating nonhuman animals from human domination could not be achieved as long as some forms of cruelty were ignored. After four hundred years of working on legal reforms, exploitation of nonhuman animals–particularly in the area of food production–has only grown and become more systematized (see also Factory farming). Today, billions of nonhuman animals are slaughtered, tested on, tortured and otherwise abused each year.
In light of centuries of failed legislative reforms, activists began directly intervening to alleviate the suffering of nonhuman animals. In 1964, John Prestige founded the Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA) in England, which used lawful methods to disrupt hunts. In 1972, the Band of Mercy was formed out of the HSA to disable hunt vehicles in order to prevent hunts from even starting. In 1973, the Band of Mercy burnt down a building that was being constructed for vivisection labs. In 1974 they burnt down an entire fleet of seal hunting boats, which sealers did not try to rebuild. Again in 1974, the group launched 8 raids against the suppliers of the vivisection labs by breaking into buildings and rescuing the animals. Each time these liberationists accomplished what would have never happened through lawful means.
Today, several groups continue in the tradition of HSA and Band of Mercy, the most notable of which is the Animal Liberation Front. The ALF commits to several key principles, chief of which is that no human beings must be harmed in their actions. The group remains decentralized both to protect themselves from prosecution and to allow its members to be flexible in its tactics as their context allows. It does not view property destruction as violent and encourages its use for the sake of rescuing all those nonhuman animals who will never be able to save themselves. Recognizing that animal welfare laws serve the interests of corporations, they use direct action and other forms of civil disobedience to liberate nonhuman animals, one at a time. Although the animal liberation movement is not without its detractors nor is it without its ethical complications, it has nevertheless been effective in stopping and preventing animal cruelty in ways the legal option has not.