Compassion in Action

The roots and shoots of the American humane movement
By Kathryn Shevelow, May 2009, Updated February 2015

Horse-drawn ash cart, New York City; circa 1896.

Rural dogs pulled their weight (and more); 1916.

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.


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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.

In their early struggles on behalf of animals, Bergh and his allies planted seeds that have flowered into a vigorous and sprawling modern movement. Within two years of the founding of the ASPCA (which, though based in New York, cast itself as the national organization it remains today), other SPCAs sprang up, first in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts and then in other regions and states, with similar but often more local agendas. Related organizations, such as the American Anti-Vivisection Society (AAVS), founded in 1883, emerged to address specific causes.

Today, the humane movement consists of national and international advocacy groups concerned with policy, large-scale activism and legislation coexisting with loosely related or unrelated local groups often more focused on practical matters such as rescue, adoption and law enforcement. Many people are unaware, for instance, that the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a national advocacy body founded in 1954, is not officially affiliated with the humane societies that operate shelters in many municipalities.

Political differences that characterize today’s humane movement emerged at an early point, too. For example, Caroline Earle White, who founded the AAVS, had been a founder of the Pennsylvania SPCA (though, as a woman, she was not allowed to serve as an officer). The AAVS at first worked in conjunction with several SPCAs to protest live animal experiments, but in the early 20th century, the ASPCA took a more conservative course.

A political map of today’s humane movement would position groups like the ASPCA and the American Humane Association (AHA) at the conservative or moderate end of a spectrum that on the other end extends beyond the AAVS and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to loosely organized direct-action—some would say “terrorist”—movements such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), which conducts raids on animal research laboratories and fur farms, and has condoned violent tactics such as firebombing. Yet even within this spectrum, the ground is constantly shifting as groups with different politics unite around specific causes.

Perhaps the most vexing problem in trying to characterize today’s humane movement is sorting out the relationship between animal welfare and animal rights. Prior to receiving approval of the ASPCA’s charter, Henry Bergh convinced some prominent citizens to sign a petition entitled “Declaration of the Rights of Animals.” His title intentionally invoked Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which, along with contemporary documents such as revolutionary France’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen” and Tom Paine’s treatise, “The Rights of Man,” drew upon the Enlightenment idea of natural rights: rights understood to be inherent in all people. His own declaration on behalf of animals, Bergh optimistically predicted, would become as well known as Jefferson’s.

While the title of Bergh’s declaration suggested that animals have natural rights, its actual content was less strong. Noting the “cruelties inflicted upon Dumb Animals by thoughtless and inhuman persons,” the petition called for ending these cruelties “from considerations affecting the moral well being of society, as well as mercy to the brute creation.” That is, cruelty to animals was not seen as a violation of the animals’ rights, but rather, as a failing of humans’ compassion and morality.

The early humane movement embraced the notion that while beasts are inferior to humans in intelligence and emotional capacity (whether they possessed immortal souls was a seriously debated question), like us, they can suffer—and this is the basis of their claim on us. This idea did not necessarily challenge the dominant anthropocentric notion that animals exist to serve humans as food and labor.

Many advocates also argued that kindness to animals distinguished a civilized culture from a barbaric one. Since cruelty to animals often led to cruelty to humans, teaching compassion for animals improved human society. Nearly all the early animal advocates were what we today would call animal “welfarists,” dedicated to alleviating animal suffering without necessarily challenging their use by humans. Animal welfare remains the orientation of a large sector of today’s humane movement.

The 1975 publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation is often credited with launching the modern animal rights movement. Very generally speaking, contemporary animal rights theory holds that non-human animals’ interests should be given equal weight to those of humans; that they should have legal status in themselves; and that they are not ours to eat, to experiment on, or to use for labor or entertainment. (The animal rights purists known as “abolitionists” would abolish all exploitation of animals.) While a welfarist believes in alleviating animals’ suffering without necessarily altering their legal and moral status, a rights advocate challenges our unequal relationship with animals as “speciesism,” a term coined by the British animal-rights activist Richard Ryder.

The distinction between animal welfare and animal rights is sometimes seen as establishing a sharp divide among animal advocacy organizations. The ASPCA, for instance, is considered to be an animal welfare group and PETA, an animal rights group, while HSUS falls somewhere between them, though it is often placed closer to the rights end of the spectrum. But the actual nature of this apparent division can become very slippery to pin down.

Animal-rights advocates themselves approach the issue of rights from various perspectives. Philosophers debate at length about what a philosophy of animal rights might actually entail in both theory and practice. (A useful example is Animal Rights, a collection of essays edited by Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum.) The debate can be fractious, with abolitionists hurling the label “welfarist” at less extreme rights advocates and arguing that policies that fail to overturn animals’ status as property only perpetuate a cruel and unjust system.

However, the majority of rights advocates work both to relieve immediate suffering and to make gradual changes in public opinion, rejecting such all-or-nothing logic. As Voltaire wrote, “The best is the enemy of the good.” Singer co-founded the Great Ape Project, for instance, which seeks fundamental rights—life, freedom and protection from torture—for these primates. It could be said that, by singling out certain primates based on their similarity to humans, the project practices speciesism, but it has made significant advances toward the legally acknowledged rights of at least some animals.

When we move from theory to practice, to animal advocacy organizations’ positions on individual issues, the distinction between animal rights and animal welfare becomes even more blurred. Take, for instance, the work on behalf of animals in our industrial agriculture system, arguably the most important issue within the humane movement today. PETA holds that “animals are not ours to eat,” and promotes veganism. HSUS also encourages a vegetarian or vegan diet, and, like PETA, publishes vegetarian/vegan recipes. But both PETA and HSUS adopt strategies of gradual change; both support incremental approaches, encouraging people to begin by replacing some meat meals with vegetable ones, or at least switching to products from less inhumanely treated animals.

When it comes to legislation to reduce animal suffering in our factory farms—such as California’s HSUS-sponsored Proposition 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, which was on the November ballot, gained bipartisan support, and passed with 63.3 percent of the vote—differences between welfare and rights can virtually disappear. The act outlaws battery cages, veal crates and gestation crates. While abolitionists maintain that working for less inhumane farms actually perpetuates oppression by making animal farming seem more acceptable, PETA supported Proposition 2, as did many other humane organizations of various political stripes.

Animal rights author Norm Phelps argues that such reformist campaigns accustom people to thinking of farmed animals as sentient beings rather than “things,” and thus makes it harder to ignore the suffering behind the plastic-wrapped meat in our supermarkets—the campaigns have the practical effect of challenging “the concept of animals as mere food-producing commodities.” Paul Shapiro, who, as the senior director of HSUS’s Factory Farming Campaign spearheaded Proposition 2, says that this act will reduce the real suffering of nearly 20 million animals in the immediate future—a worthy goal of any animal advocate.

In fact, continues Shapiro, the claim that there is discord between rights and welfare groups is mostly being made by forces hostile to the humane movement altogether. “There just isn’t a real conflict here for a lot of folks in the animal movement. Our opponents in the animal-exploiting industries would like to portray the movement as divided into two camps, but I think they make a mountain out of a molehill in this case. To the general public, these are distinctions without difference.”

In practice, the alleviation of animals’ suffering in our factory farms is a goal that largely unites the humane movement, which is growing in size and political influence. (HSUS alone has 10.5 million members, far outnumbering the NRA’s membership of “nearly three million.”) As Shapiro remarks, though farmed animals “were largely ignored by the national U.S. animal movement for decades, now they are in the front seat.” Today’s humane movement is returning to its origins, when the suffering of horses and cows in the streets and slaughterhouses sparked the activism of people like Richard Martin and Henry Bergh.

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 52: Jan/Feb 2009

Horse-Drawn Cart Photo
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Dog and Cart Photo
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection

Kathryn Shevelow, PhD, teaches in the Literature Department at the University of California, San Diego; her most recent book is For the Love of Animals: The Rise of the Animal Protection Movement.