Written by Tammy Kiter, Manuscript Reference Assistant.
Many of us are familiar with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA. But lesser-known and truly inspiring, is Henry Bergh, its founder and the man who worked so diligently to maintain it. A native New Yorker, Bergh was born in 1813 and raised on the Lower East Side. His father, Christian Bergh, was a prominent ship builder who, upon his death, left his fortune to his sons. The wealth bestowed upon Bergh allowed him to live a very affluent lifestyle. Involved in government, he had also been assigned an American diplomatic position with the Czar of Russia under President Lincoln’s administration.
At home and while traveling extensively, Bergh was struck by the horrific abuse he witnessed toward animals. In Russia, he saw peasants beating horses that had fallen and were unable to continue pulling carts and was appalled by the violent nature of bullfighting in Spain. During a trip to England, Bergh consulted with his friend, the Earl of Harrowby, regarding the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, founded in 1840. Motivated by this suffering and injustice, Bergh resigned from his position in Russia and moved back to the states. Believing it was his mission to work on behalf of these “mute servants of mankind”, Bergh drafted a Declaration of the Rights of Animals, proposed a society to protect these creatures, and presented his case at Clinton Hall. On April 10, 1866, a charter incorporating the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was signed and the following week, an anti-cruelty law was passed granting ASPCA the power to enforce such laws. The ASPCA agents were often referred to as “Berghsmen”.
Initially, the ASPCA focused their efforts on the welfare of horses and livestock. The organization operated its first ambulance for sick and injured horses in 1867, even developing a derrick with which to pull animals from ditches and excavations by 1875. Concerned about the lack of proper hydration working horses received, Bergh began installing drinking fountains in public areas. With
Bergh as President, ASPCA continued to work on behalf of dogs, cats, and other animals. Bergh fought tirelessly to put an end to dog fighting and cock fights. He designed an alternative to shooting live pigeons at sporting events, was an early proponent of anti-vivisection, and encouraged owners to purchase licenses for their dogs. Bergh believed that “Mercy to animals means mercy to mankind”. He was also instrumental in the founding of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC), in 1874.
Often putting himself in harm’s way, Bergh was known to physically and verbally intervene when he spotted a case of animal abuse. A prolific writer, Bergh penned countless letters to those he felt were involved in mishandling animals as well as individuals supporting the ASPCA. The organization published annual reports beginning in 1867, wherein details were provided regarding the progress being made as well as the criminals who were convicted. He was the recipient of death threats, physical attacks, and public ridicule. Newspaper articles sometimes
referred to him as “The Great Meddler”. Bergh had an ongoing conflict with P.T. Barnum, whom he accused of exploiting animals, pointing out the cruel method by which reptiles were fed live rodents in a public spectacle. To the many who joined the plight of ASPCA, he was thought of as “An Angel in Top Hat”. Among his supporters were a number of well-known literary figures, including Louisa May Alcott (alluding to him in her short story, Rosa’s Tale), Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who presented Bergh’s eulogy in 1888. Ironically, Barnum was one of the pall bearers at Bergh’s funeral.
The founding of the ASPCA crossed party lines and class boundaries. As Bergh stated, “This is a matter purely of conscience, it has no perplexing side issues. It is a moral question in all its aspects”. Almost a century and a half later, the society continues to rescue animals in need, pass humane laws and share resources with other shelters across the world. Just around the corner is April — Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month — so let’s tip our hat to Henry Bergh.