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Henry Bergh, Founder of the ASPCA

Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Henry Bergh may have been something of a disappointment to his parents. Born in 1813 to a wealthy New York City family, he enjoyed the privileges that his status entailed, but seemingly wanted none of the responsibilities. Yet despite an aimless youth, Bergh would eventually make good. He became the most prominent advocate for animal rights in the United States and the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Although his father made a fortune building ships, Bergh didn’t want to work in the family business. He was not interested in a career, or at least not a conventional one, and dropped out of college. After leaving school, he devoted his time to art and poetry, spending his parents’ money touring the globe. He wrote a few plays, which flopped, and lasted less than two years at the only diplomatic job his politically influential friends secured for him.

However, it was his travels through Europe and time in Russia that would eventually present him with a cause he enthusiastically championed—the defense of animal rights.

While traveling through Europe from 1847 to 1850, Bergh witnessed various forms of animal cruelty, noting them in the diaries he kept of his travels. He attended a bullfight in Spain, and expressed his disgust at the way bulls were treated. In 1863, President Lincoln appointed him to the United States Embassy in Russia. During his short-lived diplomatic post there, Bergh encountered a carriage horse being beaten and chastised the driver, who was shocked at his outrage over an animal.

Bergh decided he wanted to do something to protect animals, and found his inspiration in England. As Bergh was returning to the United States in 1865, he stopped in England, where he met the president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Founded in 1824, the RSPCA was originally focused primarily on the treatment of English horses and livestock.

The mistreatment of horses was just as common in Bergh’s hometown of New York City. According to Nancy Furstinger, author of Mercy: The Incredible Story of Henry Bergh, in the late 19th century up to 300,000 horses transported goods and people in New York City. Starving, overworking, and beating these horses was commonplace. And these were far from the only animals to be cruelly mistreated.

Bergh decided to create an organization similar to the RSPCA in the United States. On his return to New York, he drafted a Declaration of the Rights of Animals and asked his influential friends to sign it. On April 10, 1866, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was incorporated, created to monitor abuse and continue the fight for animal rights. The next week, the 1866 New York Act amended a previous anti-cruelty law to allow for the enforcement and punishment of offenders who abandoned animals.

Bergh knew the laws would not be effective if they could not be enforced. The next legislation he worked to pass was the 1867 New York Act, which made animal fighting illegal, mandated proper care for and transport of animals, and gave the ASPCA the power to enforce punishment for crimes against animals that would now be considered misdemeanors. A few years later other states adopted the same laws.

“A savvy promoter, he made use of the publicity his activities drew from many newspapers in New York to draw attention to other animals: turnspit dogs who ran 16 hours on rotating treadmills to turn meat over a fire, pit dogs who fought while gamblers bet on the outcome and hundreds of stray dogs who were drowned in the river each day,” Furstinger told mental_floss.

Bergh also worked to improve the handling of chickens, which at the time were scalded and plucked alive by butchers; sea turtles that were kept upside down for weeks while ships carried them to chefs; and cattle and pigs on their way to slaughter. He even took on P.T. Barnum, now most famous for Barnum & Bailey Circus, protesting the feeding of live rabbits to circus reptiles. Bergh also chastised hunters for pigeon shooting and fox hunting.

While his efforts on behalf of animals had influential supporters, such as Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, his attempts to reform public opinion were not always met with approval.

“In the 19th century, the belief that animals should be treated humanely was a revolutionary concept,” Furstinger told mental_floss. “Bergh was ridiculed as ‘The Great Meddler’ and lampooned in sarcastic cartoons, but he found his voice as an animal protector and roamed the streets on his mission of mercy, exposing cruelty and lecturing to any groups who would listen.”

Scribner’s Monthly via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Bergh did not just talk the talk. He also patrolled the streets in fine suits and top hats, making sure the anti-cruelty laws were enforced. He personally intervened when he encountered an act of cruelty. In one such case, Bergh discovered that a boatload of turtles had been shipped from Florida with their flippers pierced and tied together. He approached the captain of the boat and asked him to hand the turtles over. The captain refused so Bergh arrested him and members of this crew. (However, a judge dismissed the case after the captain successfully argued that turtles didn’t qualify as animals under the law, and the holes in the fin would have felt like “a mosquito bite” to the turtle.)

Bergh’s efforts on behalf of animals also led to a greater recognition of the rights of children. In 1874, a church worker approached him on behalf of a child who was beaten daily by her foster mother. The worker had approached several people about the case but Bergh was the first to respond. He used his influence to secure custody of the child. In 1875, after the child’s foster mother was convicted of assault, Bergh and his ASPCA legal counsel founded The New York Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC). The SPCC was the world’s first child protective agency. The child at the center of the abuse case was placed in an institution for adolescent girls, but was soon taken in by the family of the church worker who had first brought her case to Bergh’s attention.

Bergh continued to lead the ASPCA for 22 years and also served as a board member for the Audubon Society. He died at the age of 74, during the Great Blizzard of 1888, and is buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. 

Today, many laws protect America’s animals, although animal advocates still fight for better protection.

“Animal organizations continue to wage many of the same battles against animal cruelty that Bergh did,” Furstinger told mental_floss. “They lobby for stronger laws to protect carriage horses and farm animals, and they speak out against dogfighting and forcing wild and exotic animals to perform in circuses.”

However, Bergh’s advocacy helped end some of the abuse suffered by animals, and helped to change how society saw violence against animals. His work continues to positively influence attitudes today.

Header images: Wikimedia // Public Domain

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Animals
15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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