Let Nature’s commoners enjoy
The common gifts of Heaven.
Today, the RSPCA in Britain is fighting hard to keep all their animals from harm. In Europe, The Whale and Dolphin Conservation is trying to save the whales and dolphins from extinction by any means necessary, and across the globe, PETA is causing yet another stir to keep animal welfare prominent in the minds of the world.
This is barely the tip of an enormous iceberg of examples of animal welfare and protection groups currently active. They are a dime a dozen, often founded in America, and some of these organizations make millions every year for the sole purpose of protecting animals. They are titans in the battle for animal protection and they will fight for anything from a bison to an elephant to the smallest of hummingbirds.
But one of the first recorded moments of animal activism was not for anything as majestic as the elephant or as sweet as a bee, but rather a critter we consider today a pest; the mouse.
In 1773, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, a popular poet of her time, walked into her friend’s workspace at the science department of the University and spotted a small caged-rodent that sat ready for the next day’s experiment. It was to be suffocated in the morning. Her friend was studying the effects of different airs on living things, specifically carbonic acid.
The following morning, when her friend walked in to get started on his experiments, he found a small note pinned to the mouse’s cage.
It was a poem, a petition from the mouse not to be killed, and it would fire up a heated debate across Europe on the worth of an animal's life. It started as such.
Oh, hear a pensive captive’s prayer,
For liberty that sighs,
And never let thine heart be shut
Against the prisoner’s cries!
For here forlorn and sad I sit,
Within the wiry grate,
And tremble at the approaching morn
Which brings impending fate.
It would be published by Barbauld, who was already a very talented author and hailed as one of the best in her time. But many would consider this to be her Magnum Opus, and for good reason. As this above second stanza shows, she specifically tried to put the reader in the shoes of the terrified mouse. The Mouse’s Petition seemed to be the first recorded incident of a human trying to see cruelty through the eyes of an animal, and it stirred something wonderful in everyone who read it, empathy.
Oh, do not stain with guiltless blood
Thy hospitable hearth,
Nor triumph that thy wiles betrayed
A prize so little worth.
The goal of the poem was to push forward the ongoing debate that animals can feel as much as humans can. It further attacks the human ambition for scientific progress, and it reminds them of the ethical costs involved when leaving benevolence and understanding at the door. And the knowledge that what might be gained through these experiments, could still be a ‘prize of so little worth’.
Animal experimentation goes as far back as the Greeks, but it has only been well documented since the 19th century.
It stirred a wonderful sense of understanding in readers that animals experience pain, fear and dread as easily as humans. The poem managed to touch the hearts of the coldest of scientists and challenged the minds of all intellectuals.
The well-taught philosophic mind
To all compassion gives;
Casts round the world an equal eye,
And feels for all that lives.
Specifically, to address how all of these intelligent, sophisticated and learned men should be seeing the world. Also, in turn, to spotlight that their learning should give them the wisdom to understand that animals are not something to be trod on, but cherished - even something as tiny as a worm.
Beware, lest in the worm you crush,
A brother’s soul you find;
And tremble lest thy luckless hand
Dislodge a kindred mind.
So when unseen destruction lurks,
Which mice like men may share,
May some kind angel clear thy path,
And break the hidden snare.
And lastly, to remind all who put animals through such tortures, that they should remember that one day they might find themselves in a similar situation. But the mouse instead of finding glee in this thought hopes that an angel will come and free them before they die. The old saying ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ is quite heavily implied.
So although today we fight for those near-extinct exotic beauties, or the colourful macaws of the rainforest, or even our dearest dog-best-friend we pull out from ditches. Long ago, our eyes were turned to the mouse and through those black-pearl eyes, we finally managed to see the world a little clearer.