In April, 1866, over one hundred forty years ago, passersby spotted a gentleman named Henry Bergh explaining to the driver of a coal cart who was whipping his horse, that it is against the law to beat one’s animal.
Henry Bergh thus earned the name of The Great Meddler. He was born in New York City, an aritocrat, the son of a prominent shipbuilder.
Bergh was appointed by Abraham Lincoln to the American Legation at the court of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. Later, on his way back to America, he stopped in London to consult with the Earl of Harrowby, president of the English Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, founded in 1840, gathering information on how the Society was formed.
Bergh’s philosophy of protecting animals from cruel treatment reached out to all classes of people. Armed with a charter proposing a society to protect animals, Bergh convinced politicians to pass his charter, incorporating the ASPCA on April 10, 1866. Nine days later an anti-cruelty law was passed and the ASPCA was given the right to enforce it. With a staff of 3 people, Bergh did just that.
New York City dog catchers at that time would round up as many as 300 dogs daily, place them in a cage and drown them in the East River. Because dog catchers were paid by the dog caught, some would steal pets from owners’ yards. The abuses were so flagrant that in 1894, the ASPCA was put in charge of collecting strays. Expenses were covered by licensing fees. Gassing was instituted as a more humane method of euthanasia for unclaimed pets.
With the increase of pets in homes, the Society launched a plan to promote spay/neuter operations. They offered free sterilization surgeries to owners financially strapped and unable to pay.
What Bergh began in 1866 has expanded today, with the main office in New York City and offices and federal lobbyists throughout the U.S.
The ASPCA continues to implement Bergh’s legacy of advocating for animals and a cruelty-free world.
In Bergh’s own words, “This is a matter purely of conscience; it has no perplexing side issues. It is a moral question in all its aspects.”
List of some interesting dates:
1867: ASPCA operates first ambulance anywhere for injured horses.
1867: David Heath sentenced to 10 days in prison for beating a cat to death. A $25 fine is added to the punishment when “he remarked that the arresting officer should be disemboweled.”
1867: Bergh helped pass a law prohibiting the use of dogs to pull carts without a license.
1894: ASPCA took charge of animal control, picking up lost, stray or injured animals and maintaining shelters for them.
1912: ASPCA opens a hospital for animals.
1918: ASPCA doctors helped develop the use of anesthesia.
1944: ASPCA institutes a 9 week training program for owners and their dogs.
1954: ASPCA hospital added pathology and radiograph laboratories.
1961: ASPCA veterinarians performed their first open-heart surgery on a dog.