Inspiring Animal Activists in History

September 17, 2013

For anyone who casts off the contemporary animal rights movement as transient and without any lasting foothold, think again. Animal activists have been around for tens of thousands of years–perhaps existing as early as Antiquity–propagating the message that animals are not ours to eat, wear, or experiment on. Many of the world’s most revered scientists, philosophers, and authors have been vocal opponents of these issues, speaking openly against the establishment and the egregious cruelty inflicted on our nonhuman counterparts. Take a stroll through history and discover which of your favorite historical figures had a soft spot for animals.

The Antiquities


This period is characterized by violence and brutality toward fellow man and animals, but there were notable figures who spoke out against cruelty toward animals. No less a figure than Cicero condemned the circus games (gladiators fighting against animals) as “that which the rest of the world admires [but] only worthy of contempt,” and proclaimed that “animal has something in common with mankind.” Pythagoras (to whom we owe geometry) was a strict vegan, eating “nothing but herbs and vegetables” and even requiring his disciples to do the same.

The Renaissance

Take Leonardo da Vinci–a Renaissance man and prolific painter, sculptor, architect, and inventor, among other trades. Many have suggested that da Vinci followed a vegetarian diet, and his own notebooks seem to confirm it, with musings that honor elephants and condemn man’s cruelty toward animals. Anther notable figure during this time is John Calvin, who wrote suggesting that animals are not ignorant beasts but “are able to act as witnesses and messengers of his glory to all men.”

The Age of Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment also saw numerous activists, with some of the West’s greatest thinkers like Rousseau and Voltaire speaking up for the rights of men–and of animals. Voltaire has been quoted as saying, “There are some barbarians who will take this dog, that so greatly excels man in capacity for friendship, who will nail him to a table, and dissect him alive, in order to show you his veins and nerves.” With an anti-vivisectionist sentiment, he may very well have been a pioneer in this subsection of the movement.

The Romantic Age

Oft spoken in animal rights circles, Jeremy Bentham’s quote, “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” summarizes the tenets of a vegetarian and vegan lifestyle. Regarded as one of the foremost thinkers during this period, Bentham was a utilitarian philosopher who argued that animal sentience and capacity for suffering are, by nature, criteria for interspecies respect.

The Victorian Age

This historical period saw authors like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain and philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer–all rejecting the accepted practices of society. My personal favorite quote from this time is by playwright and activist George Bernard Shaw, who said, “Atrocities are not less atrocities when they occur in laboratories and are called medical research.”

The 20th and 21st Centuries

Perhaps you are more familiar with activists like Peter Singer, who penned the 1975 tome Animal Liberation. Or maybe modern celebrities like Ellen Degeneres, Bob Barker, and Betty White have been on your radar. Given the advent of television, radio, and (most recently) social media, a compassionate message has never been more widespread.

More than ever, veganism and vegetarianism is perceived as in vogue. Enter your local grocery store and you’ll encounter a wall of meat analogues; sit in the train station and you’ll find a pamphlet boasting the city’s top veg-friendly restaurants; tell a stranger you’re vegan and he understands what it means. The question then becomes, with all this seemingly positive change, what would our forefathers think? In my mind, I think animal activists in history would offer mixed opinions. Some might feel that the movement has lost its founding principles; as more people become vegan and vegetarian, the onus is less on the establishment and more on individual impact. On the other hand, others might argue that animal rights has simply progressed, and any new manifestation is worthy if animal lives are spared. A question for the ages, I suppose!


Who is your favorite historical animal activist?

Also by Molly: 5 Animal-friendly Charities for Your Next Special Occasion

Dispatch – Vegan in Guatemala, a Kaleidoscope of Central America



Photo: Public domain via Wikipedia

Contributing Editor Molly Lansdowne lives in Boston, Massachusetts. In her free time, she enjoys writing, practicing yoga, and traveling around New England. Follow Molly on Pinterest @bostonvegan and Instagram @molly_lansdowne.


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