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The ASPCA’s Founder Was Known as “The Great Meddler”

Although Bergh’s efforts to prevent animal cruelty weren’t well-received by all, the ASPCA did change how animals were seen in the United States

The caption to this cartoon from 'Scribner's Monthly' reads "Henry Bergh on Duty" (Wikimedia Commons)
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Henry Bergh had a listless youth. But while traveling in Europe he witnessed everyday animal suffering and found his life’s purpose.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which Bergh founded, received its charter from the State of New York on this day in 1866, according to History.com. It was one step in Bergh’s crusading second act.

Years before founding the ASPCA, Bergh had an aimless youth and dropped out of college. Funded by his father, a wealthy businessman, he decided to travel the world.

In Europe, writes Joan Voss MacDonald for Mental Floss, Bergh began to notice animal cruelty. He witnessed a bullfight in Spain. In Russia, he witnessed a wagon driver beating his horse and reproached the driver, who was surprised that anybody would think there was anything wrong with what he was doing.

Finally, writes The Animal Museum, after leaving Russia, Bergh and his wife traveled to Britain, where he spent time with the president and the secretary of the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He returned to his home in New York with a plan, drafting a Declaration of the Rights of Animals that received a number of signatures before the ASPCA’s founding. Like the RSPCA's founders, Bergh's efforts were seen by many as interfering with business and individual liberties, and he earned the nickname "The Great Meddler," a riff off Abraham Lincoln's nickname "The Great Emancipator." 

"I recognized the fact that I should be much abused and ridiculed, and hence it was necessary to forget myself completely," he said later, reports historiant Nancy Furstinger. 

A week after the organization received its charter, writes MacDonald, the 1866 New York Act “amended a previous anti-cruelty law to allow for the enforcement and punishment of offenders who abandoned animals.” The year after, another act “made animal fighting illegal, mandated proper care and transport of animals, and gave the ASPCA the power to enforce crimes against animals that would now be considered to be misdemeanors,” she writes. Those laws spread to other states.

The horse-beatings, dog-kickings and slaughterhouse brutality that Bergh saw or heard about in Europe and England were as common in his hometown as anywhere else. Horses, writes Macdonald, were the subject of particularly brutal treatment in the pre-car world, and there were so many of them that it can’t have been hard to spot.

“In the late 19th century up to 300,000 horses transported goods and people in New York City,” MacDonald writes. “Starving, overworking and beating these horses was commonplace. And these were far from the only animals to be cruelly mistreated.”

Given this visibility, the first kind of animal that Bergh chose to focus the ASPCA on was horses. He took it on as a duty to patrol the streets, writes the museum. Bergh would go as far as arresting people he saw as abusing horses—something the change in law allowed him to do—and wasn't afraid to get physical in the course of his work. 

He made use of the publicity that his efforts had generated to speak out for dairy cows, overworked turnspit dogs and other dogs who were used in fighting or mistreated, chickens—who at that time were scalded and plucked while still alive—sea turtles and animals on their way to slaughter, MacDonald writes.

Although his detractors called him a bleeding heart, Bergh also had the support of prominent figures like Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, MacDonald writes.

“This is a matter purely of conscience; it has no perplexing side issues,” Bergh said at a meeting about the Declaration

“Politics has no more to do with it than astronomy, or the use of globes. No, it is a moral question in all its aspects,” he concluded.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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