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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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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
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Art
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
Original image
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b
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Animals
Here's the First-Ever Video of Sand Cat Kittens Playing in the Wild

Sand cats are as elusive as they are adorable. Native to the isolated deserts of Asia and Africa, the nocturnal felines are adapted to desert life, and can go for long periods without water. They’re stealthy predators of venomous snakes and small rodents, and escape detection thanks to their pale sandy coats and furry paws, the latter of which make their tracks nearly invisible. These reasons, among others, are why sand kittens have never been captured on video—until now.

As The Independent reports, researchers from Panthera France, a wild cat conservation group, recently found and filmed three sand cat kittens in Morocco. Thought to be around two months old, they were hiding among vegetation as they waited for their mother to return.

Led by biologists Alexander Sliwa and Grégory Breton, the managing director of Panthera France, the researchers first embarked on their quest to locate and study the wild cat in 2013. Over the course of multiple expeditions, they encountered adults, but no offspring.

In April 2017, during their fifth expedition, Sliwa and Breton were heading back to camp at night when they spotted three pairs of gleaming eyes in the darkness. "They belonged to young sand cats, yellowish, small wild cats with broader faces and larger ears than domestic cats," Breton recounted on Panthera France's blog. Astonished, the scientists managed to record the kittens and identify and radio-collar their mother.

Experts think this is the first time that sand cat (Felis margarita) kittens have been documented in their African range. Until Sliwa and Breton locate even more baby cats for us to ogle, you can enjoy their video footage below.

[h/t The Independent]

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