“On a New York street corner on April 22, 1866, Unitarian Henry Bergh gathered his courage and approached a cart driver unmercifully beating his exhausted horse. ‘My friend, you can’t do that anymore.’ Astonished, the driver exclaimed, ‘Can’t beat my own horse?—the devil I can’t,’ and resumed. Bergh added, ‘You are not aware, probably, that you are breaking the law, but . . . I have the new statute in my pocket, and the horse is yours only to treat kindly.’ Mouth agape, the driver advised, ‘Go to hell—you’re mad!’”
This little vignette from a fine article by John Gibb Millspaugh is very illustrative of Mr. Henry Bergh (above), at least later in his life. It was the heartfelt pleas on behalf off animals everywhere by Bergh which led to the incorporation of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (the ASPCA) on today’s date, April 10 in 1866. Called “the Great Meddler” in some quarters, Bergh made it everyone’s business to prevent callous cruelty to animals, and his organization has made it everyone’s business ever since.
Bergh is Appalled by What He Sees
Bergh had indeed been an occasional play writer as a young man. He had no pets, and apparently didn’t much think about animals early on in his life. A prominent citizen who had studied at Columbia University, he was an heir to his father’s shipyard business. In 1862, Bergh was appointed secretary and acting vice-consul to the
American legation in St. Petersburg, Russia during the reign of Czar Alexander II by President Abraham Lincoln. It was while he was engaged in this diplomatic work that Bergh witnessed the cruel way in which many of the peasant drivers in Russia beat their horses that he became so very horrified with this attitude of wanton cruelty towards animals that he made it his mission to do something about it. The cold climate in Russia obliged him to resign his diplomatic post in 1864. Bergh travelled around Europe and it was in June of 1865 that he paid a visit to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in London. Here he studied the work that that organization performed.
Bergh Crusades for Animal Rights in the U.S.
Bergh returned to the United States determined secure a charter to incorporate the ASPCA. Further, he was dedicated to the idea that there needed to be statutes on the books which exercised the legal authority to arrest and prosecute violators of the law. At New York’s Clinton Hall on February 8, 1866 Bergh made a speech in which he spoke up for humane consideration of animals, “these mute servants of mankind.” This was an issue of concern to everyone he said, regardless of political party or social class: “This is a matter purely of conscience; it has no perplexing side issues,” he said. “It is a moral question in all its aspects. It is a solemn recognition of that greatest attribute of the Almighty Ruler of the universe, mercy.” This address led a number of dignitaries who were present to sign his “Declaration of the Rights of Animals.”
“The Great Meddler” Triumphs
Bergh lobbied and won the support of such prominent citizens as the Rockefellers, and the great newspaper man Horace Greeley came to support his cause. He was often ridiculed in the newspapers of the day who viewed him as a busybody sticking his nose into other people’s affairs. Derided as “An Ass That Should Have His Ears Cropped.” And also as “the Great Meddler”, Bergh nevertheless
worked tirelessly to achieve his goal of an SPCA, and for working laws to prevent just the sort of indifference and outright cruelty to animals such as demonstrated by the man he spoke to in the encounter that began this posting. His work paid off with the charter incorporating the ASPCA was passed by the New York State Legislature on today’s date in 1866. And just nine days later, the first important law against animal cruelty being passed which enabled the ASPCA investigate crimes of cruelty to animals and to make arrests in such cases. By the time of his death in 1888, more than 25 organizations like the ASPCA had sprouted in the U.S. and Canada, and 38 states had laws against animal cruelty protecting not only horses, but dogs, cats, and farm animals of all kinds. And this work goes on down to the present day, covering any and all animals, whether they are mammals, reptiles, fish or birds.
“Heritage of Care: The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals” by Marion S Lane and Stephen L. Zawistowski Ph.D., Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT. 2008