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Compassion in Action
The roots and shoots of the American humane movement
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Horse-drawn ash cart, New York City; circa 1896.

On April 10, 1866, almost exactly a year after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox ended the Civil War and, with it, the institution of human slavery in the United States, the New York state legislature granted a charter to a new organization dedicated to fighting another form of bondage. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the first animal protection group in the Americas, was modeled after Britain’s RSPCA,  which had been established more than 40 years earlier.

In Britain, animal advocates such as the courageous abolitionist William Wilberforce had battled for decades to pass the world’s first national anti-cruelty law. Though they failed to ban bullbaiting—a blood sport that killed and maimed numerous bulls and many more dogs—in 1822, after the flamboyant Irishman Richard “Humanity Dick” Martin joined the fight, Parliament finally passed the “Ill-Treatment of Cattle Act,” also known as Martin’s Act. The new law gave a degree of legal protection to large domesticated animals, including horses and cows. (Dogs and cats gained some protection in 1835.)

The British example influenced animal protection activities across the Atlantic. By 1866, when the ASPCA was chartered, 14 states and six territories already had animal welfare laws on the books. But these laws were weak, limiting or vague about the kinds of animals they covered, and seldom enforced.

In 1866, after chartering the ASPCA, New York legislators strengthened their existing anti-cruelty law so that, like Martin’s Act, it gave animals more protection—but it still only applied to large domesticated beasts. In 1867, Bergh and the ASPCA successfully lobbied the New York legislature to pass a law that, although it remained weak, explicitly covered all animals. During the next few years, several other states also adopted anti-cruelty laws that extended to dogs, cats and other companion animals. Some states were slower to act, however: for instance, California did not pass a law giving protection to companion animals until 1900.

Recent histories of the U.S. humane movement, such as Diane L. Beer’s For the Prevention of Cruelty and Marion Lane and Stephen Zawistowski’s history of the ASPCA, Heritage of Care, show that from the very beginning, animal advocates adopted publicity-seeking actions familiar to us today. The ASPCA’s president, Henry Bergh—called “the Great Meddler” by his enemies—would snarl traffic by ordering horses to be unhitched from overloaded omnibuses in the middle of the street. Early on, he engaged in a high-profile prosecution of a schooner’s entire crew for abusing the sea turtles they carried. The crew was acquitted and newspapers heaped ridicule upon Bergh—but by the end of the trial, nearly everyone in New York had heard of the ASPCA.

Surprisingly, Bergh was not particularly an animal lover; unlike many of his fellow activists, he did not share his life with a beloved dog or cat. For him, the anti-cruelty cause was a matter not of emotion, but of morality: his conviction that God’s mercy extended to all. As the ASPCA went about its work on behalf of animals, newspapers would sometimes comment that abused women and children enjoyed even less legal protection than beasts did.

In 1874, a missionary working in the New York slums came to Bergh with the story of a child named Mary Ellen Wilson, whose adoptive parents treated her with horrific cruelty. Bergh and Elbridge Gerry, the ASPCA’s lawyer, initiated a prosecution of the abusers under a section of the habeas corpus act (not, as is sometimes believed, the law against cruelty to animals). In the wake of this highly publicized case, Bergh and Gerry founded the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the country’s first organization dedicated to fighting child abuse.

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