This week we were again warned by the UK’s Chief Medical Officer that we are rapidly approaching a time when antibiotics will be largely ineffective. We are at risk of returning to a pre-antibiotic age in which simple infections and minor surgical procedures will become increasingly fatal.
Upon hearing this news my mind immediately went to the plight of future generations. But the announcement also served to remind me of the extent to which the fortunes of humans and non-human animals rise and fall together.
The movie Amazing Grace tells the true story of the abolition of the human slave trade into Britain. In the opening scene the movie’s protagonist William Wilberforce stops his horse and cart, disembarks, and reprimands a fellow-traveller who is beating his downed horse.
Empathy towards horses, especially urban working horses, was fundamental to the establishment of the UK’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) in 1824. To this day, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) uses as its seal the image of an angel intervening on behalf of a downed cart-horse who is being beaten with a rod.
The reason Amazing Grace opens in that way is that it was the very same people who fought for the rights of humans to own property in their own person – that is, the right not to be a slave – who also created animal welfare laws intended to protect animals against the worst excesses of human brutality.
Wilberforce was a remarkable figure. He championed both the abolition of human slavery and animal welfare. Yet while Wilberforce was remarkable because of the historical role he played in alleviating suffering he is not unique in extending compassion to both humans and animals.
As the welfare state emerged so to did animal welfare principles. More often than not those who are predisposed towards compassion extend that compassion to all those with the capacity to suffer – both human and nonhuman.
Despite the shared history many contemporary commentators do not make the link. The western concept and practice of human welfare and human rights has progressed steadily from its humble beginning in Victorian England. The same cannot be said of animal welfare or animal rights.
The notion that animals might have inherent rights remains little more than an abstract notion agreed upon by a very small number of people. Contemporary animal welfare laws are virtually structurally indistinguishable from Britain’s first animal welfare act of 1822.
Yet despite the historical deviation it nonetheless remains the case that the well being of humans and animals rises and falls together.
One of the most important causes of antibiotic resistance is that antibiotics are routinely feed to animals raised under intensive conditions – commonly referred to as factory farming.
Some 500 million animals are raised for food in factory farms in Australia each year. In the UK alone, factory farmed animals are fed between 350-400 tonnes of antibiotics annually. More than half of all antibiotics produced are fed to animals.
Antibiotics are not added to animal feed for therapeutic reasons; that is, to treat them when they are ill. Rather, they are fed to animals routinely merely to keep them alive under extraordinarily cramped conditions.
In that sense the looming antibiotic resistance crisis serves as a timely reminder that we - humans and animals - are in this together. We feed antibiotics to animals to keep them alive under conditions in which many would otherwise be dead. By doing so we are creating a future in which humans will die from infections that are currently treatable. When humans suffer animals suffer by their side. And vice versa.
Former High Court Justice Michael Kirby will launch the University of Melbourne’s Human Rights and Animal Ethics (HRAE) Research Network, which will be studying the connection between animal and human suffering, at 4.00pm on Friday March 15 in the Melbourne Law School.