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

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 http://www.hsus.org/ (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.

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.

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

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