In Henry Bergh’s lifetime,it was not unusual fordogs to be used to turn treadmills or pull small carts . . . For sporting men to put down their money on a $1,000 championship dogfight . . . for strays to be rounded up from the streets of Manhattan, thrown into a cage and then swung into the East River to drown.
What was unusual was for a wealthy, socially prominent man to notice and say, “Enough!”
That man was Henry Bergh, the son and heir of a successful shipyard owner. His leadership and commitment to the protection of animals led to the incorporation of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) on April 10, 1866, by the New York State Legislature. Nine days later, an anticruelty law was passed and the ASPCA was given the right to enforce it. Badge:
The rise of an animal rights activist
Bergh was a gentleman of leisure, a dabbler in the arts and a European traveler, when in 1862 President Abraham Lincoln appointed him secretary and acting vice-consul to the American legation in St. Petersburg, Russia. There, Bergh was horrified to see how peasant drivers beat their work horses.
He resigned his post in 1864 because of the severe climate. Returning to New York, he stopped in London to visit the Earl of Harrowby, president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, founded in 1824 and received royal endorsement in 1840.
Home in New York, Bergh began to focus attention on the plight of animals in America. His efforts cam to a climax with an eloquent speech on Feb. 8, 1866, to an audience at Clinton Hall that included some of New York’s most powerful business and political leaders.
“This is a matter purely of conscience; it has no perplexing side issues. It is a moral question in all its aspects,” Bergh told them. Dignitaries pushed forward to sign his “Declaration of the Rights of Animals.”
The fight to end cruelty to animals
Bergh was not content to rest with a legislative victory. Like a latter-day Indiana Jones, he visited slaughter houses, finagled his way into buildings to inspect horses’ collars and saddles for sores, and dropped through a skylight into a dog fighting pit run by the the most famous sportsman of the time, Kit Burns. Burns would starve his dogs for a couple of days and then set the against large gray wharf rats — or each other — surrounded by cheering, betting spectators. His son-in-law would bite the head off a live rat for a price.
Bergh lectured often in schools and to social clubs about the importance of preventing cruelty. In 1867, the ASPCA established and ran the first ambulance for horses in the country. He invented a way to substitute artificial for live pigeons for sportsmen to shoot. Throughout Manhattan, Bergh set up fountains to provide fresh drinking water to the horses that pulled carts and streetcars.
The ASPCA was so trusted that in 1894 it was put in charge of New York City’s animal control services in the face of corruption for the city’s dog catchers and abuses in city shelters. The society held those responsibilities for more than 100 years before turning them back to the city.
By the time Bergh died in 1888, 37 of the then 38 states had enacted anti-cruelty laws.
Over the past 147 years, the ASPCA has:
- Set new standards for humane care in municipal animal control departments and shelters.
- Opened a hospital for animals in 1912 that helped develop the use of anesthesia for animals in 1918 and led the way to sophisticated innovations in the medical care of animals.
- Championed pet adoption from shelters.
- Initiated dog licensing to pay for animal services.
- Encouraged training and obedience classes.
- Promoted spaying and neutering of dogs and cats.