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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.”

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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.

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