According to a recent Chronicle story, SPCA inspectors are currently viewing a video of a man punching a possum in the face, allegedly striking it so hard that it was sent flying through the air.

Cases of animal cruelty occur all too frequently, and often result in serious consequences for convicted offenders. It perhaps causes us to consider ourselves more enlightened than earlier generations when it comes to the treatment and welfare of animals, even those considered pests.

Or perhaps not, according to an earlier Chronicle article (August 23, 1882).

A Mrs Margaret Smith, "wife of a well known store-keeper at Otaki", had the previous week appeared in the Otaki Police Court. The charge? Cruelty to a rat.

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Mrs Smith had caught the rat in a trap but, as it was still alive, was faced with the problem of how to despatch it.

Her solution? Douse it with kerosene and set it alight. Her counsel argued that burning alive was "quite as legitimate a means of destroying an animal as drowning it".

JPs Hadfield and Kebbell disagreed, convicting Mrs Smith and fining her £1 plus costs.
By coincidence or otherwise, the New Zealand SPCA was established in the same year as Mrs Smith's innovative approach to pest control.

And was it coincidence that saw a sudden drop in the number of animal cruelty cases in our district in 1883, just one year after the SPCA's inauguration? Although a local branch was not established for some time, the Wanganui Crime Report for 1882 listed 19 cases of animal cruelty; but in 1883 there were just six.

In 1903, the organisation led the charge to ban the wearing of feathers in ladies' hats.
the Wanganui Herald (December 2), drew attention to "the increasing cruelty caused by fashion, especially in regard to birds".

And SPCA officer Mr Atkinson stated that ornamenting hats with feathers had been discouraged lately in England, but he believed the prevalence of the custom in New Zealand was due to exporters "sending out here the feathers for which no demand exists in England, resulting in good, kind Christian people thoughtlessly offending in the matter".

The Herald pondered whether the society would "put their inspector to the task of dealing with these offenders".

Even those in high places were not immune to charges of animal cruelty, as Premier Sir William Fox would have discovered had he perused the Herald (January 6, 1872). The paper accused him of, "deplorably un-Ministerial cruelty to animals", the alleged offence having taken place at the Marton-Rangitikei races. Sir William, well known for his stand on teetotalism, had apparently been, "riding his hobby horse to death, by protesting against liquors being sold on the race course, notwithstanding that the Justices had given their permission!"

Cases of animal cruelty documented in our early newspapers are usually accompanied by reports of court appearances for offenders, indicating that when brought to their notice, the authorities generally viewed such cases seriously. But one thing is certain — over 150 years since the introduction of the SPCA in New Zealand, its officers are unlikely to ever be out of a job.

Even rats have rights.

Murray Crawford is a Whanganui author with an interest in local history. His latest book is Whimsical Tales of Old Wanganui. Newspaper references sourced from Papers Past: National Library of New Zealand