Vii issue 1 2009 Journal for Critical Animal Studies

“Bend or Break”: Unraveling the Construction of Children and Animals as Competitors in Nineteenth-Century English Anti-Cruelty Movements

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“Bend or Break”: Unraveling the Construction of Children and Animals as Competitors in Nineteenth-Century English Anti-Cruelty Movements

Monica Flegel1

Children and animals are often constructed, particularly in anti-animal rights discourse, as somehow in competition with each other for rights and protections,2 a construction very much in existence at the emergence of anti-cruelty to children societies in both America and England. One supposed source of this competition was the assumption that animal lovers did not value children. For example, as one late-nineteenth-century commentator explained, “Those who are kind to their fellow creatures will almost always be found to be also kind and considerate to animals; while, on the contrary, those who are merely fond of animals are known to be often averse to children” (Warren 20).

Though early child protection advocates did not necessarily hold these views, they often suggested that animals, as a result of this sentimental investment, received greater protections than did children. For example, in July 1888, The Child’s Guardian, the official journal of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), published a commentary from the Morning Advertiser on the Bill before parliament to bring about legislation criminalizing cruelty to children. The Advertiser supported the Bill, exclaiming: “It does seem anomalous that it should be easier to punish a man or woman for ill-treatment of a dog or cat than for cruelty to their own children; but such is the state of the law at present” (The Morning Advertiser 58). This complaint echoed that of early child-protection advocates in the United States, particularly in the wake of the infamous Mary Ellen case.
Etta Angell Wheeler, a volunteer “making her usual rounds through the tenements of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhoods tending the souls of the poor and the sick” (Pearson 1) discovered the young Mary Ellen in an abused and neglected condition. After consulting, to no avail, with numerous authorities in an attempt to intervene, Wheeler finally approached Henry Bergh, the president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), and, “according to Jacob Riis, who was then a reporter for the New York Herald, Bergh … declare[ed] that ‘the child is an animal. If there is no justice for it as a human being, it shall at least have the rights of a cur in the street’” (Pearson 2-3).
The Mary Ellen case led to the formation of the first Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1874, and given the circumstances behind this formation, it is hardly surprising that the development of similar societies in England utilized similar rhetoric about the supposed greater rights enjoyed by animals. Though the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (which would later become the National Society) did share many things in common with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in England, Benjamin Waugh, the first director of the NSPCC, nevertheless often castigated the people of England for caring more for animals than for suffering children.3 Nor do the facts surrounding the passage of laws and the formation of anti-cruelty societies seem to contradict the narrative that “curs” had more protection: as James Kincaid points out in Child-Loving, the Victorian Era was “comparatively neglectful of the young in its reforms” (77) pointing out that the London SPCC was not formed until 1884,4 even though the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had been in existence since 1824.5 Similarly, the first laws protecting animals from cruelty had been passed in 1835,6 while the Children’s Charter was not passed until 1889. Evidence such as this would seem to support the long-standing representation of the English as a people whose sentimental attachment to animals represents either a displacement of, or worse a perversion of, a proper investment in human beings.
Examining the origins of the anti-cruelty to children movement in fact displays something quite different than the “irony that an organization existed to protect animals but not children” (Gerry 4). Prior to the child-protection movement, children were protected under the same laws that safeguarded other humans from assault and murder, and parents had been prosecuted, long before the advent of the Children’s Charter, for the abuse of their children.7 What animal-protection discourse provided was not the ability to see children as deserving of better treatment, but the ability to see children as deserving of better treatment in much the same way as animals. That is, it had to be possible to see children as something like animals in order for similar (and in some cases, shared) anti-cruelty societies to come into being. In many cases, this did in fact mean that children should be protected from cruelty and neglect, but in others, it meant delineating proper control over and discipline of the child, to the extent of safeguarding particular forms of violence against children.
In other words, a close examination of the relationship between anti-cruelty to children and anti-cruelty to animals reveals not an English preference for safeguarding animal life over child life, but instead a problem at the heart of protectionist discourse: that safeguarding both animals and children is not solely about preventing cruelty, but also about preserving both animal and child as useful, pleasurable objects. In an examination of “Bend or Break,” a story of child abuse published in the RSPCA’s Animal World in 1870, I argue that this story’s representation of suffering childhood works very much within the more common characterization of children within that journal as sadistic abusers of animals. Far from constructing two contradictory narratives of childhood – one, violent and out of control, the other, victimized and endangered – the representations of children in Animal World instead work together to present models of “appropriate” discipline, narratives that instruct Animal World readers on how they might bend a child’s will without breaking that child, and which coincide with the journal’s articles on how to control and care for animals themselves. Rather than providing a discourse of rights, anti-cruelty societies like the RSPCA–and later, the NSPCC–instead generated narratives of kindness that nevertheless produce justification for power over the animal and the child, and stress the necessity of control over both. What is important about the construction of these similar agencies, therefore, is not that animals received greater protection than children, but that both animals and children, in protectionist discourse, are presented as disempowered subjects.

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