The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) was founded in 1866 by Henry Bergh. It was the first humane society to be established in North America. Bergh was the son of a prominent shipbuilder and spent some time traveling in Europe. He visited the Earl of Harrowby, president of England’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, founded in 1840. He used the knowledge he learned from him to establish a humane society in New York. He convinced the New York State Legislature to incorporate the ASPCA. The legislature passed its first animal cruelty law and the society was given the right to enforce it.

Bergh worked tirelessly to improve the lot of animals everywhere. His society created the first animal ambulance and the first sling for horse rescue. He placed public drinking fountains in the streets for the horses who pulled carts all day long. Other animals took advantage of these fountains as well. Bergh personally rescued injured animals, enforced laws and educated the public about animal welfare. Although the society’s focus was on horses, Bergh helped cats and dogs too. In 1867, he helped pass a law prohibiting the use of dogs to pull carts without a license. He also fought fiercely against dog fighting. By the time of his death in 1888, there were humane societies in many other states, and all but one of the states had passed anti-cruelty laws.

In 1894, the ASPCA took over the responsibility for catching stray dogs in Manhattan. Previously, stray dogs were thrown into the river. Dog catchers got paid by the dog, so they would frequently steal pets from their owners’ yards. The ASPCA opened shelters to care for these dogs. In 1995, when the ASPCA’s agreement with the city expired, the society decided not to renew it for financial reasons.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the society shifted its focus away from horses, towards dogs and cats. It opened an animal hospital in 1912. In 1918, this hospital helped develop the use of anesthesia and performed a previously unheard of surgery on a horse with a broken kneecap. In 1961, the hospital performed its first open-heart surgery on a dog.

In the 1960s, pet ownership became much more popular. The ASPCA shifted its focus to sheltering and putting up animals for adoption. It also ran obedience training courses for dogs and enforced the law that all dogs must wear their license. It began to promote spaying and neutering around this time, although it was not until 1972 that the society recommended it for every pet.

Today the organization focuses on three main areas: “caring for pet parents and pets, providing positive outcomes for at-risk animals and serving victims of animal cruelty.” It runs an animal poison control center and an animal hospital named for Bergh. The ASPCA educates pet owners about disaster response and sends out a team in the event of a large disaster. It offers free and low-cost spaying and neutering, as well as grief counseling. The ASPCA is involved in many other programs which benefit animals around the country.

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