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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Authorities Want This Roadside Bear Statue in Wales Removed Before It Causes More Accidents
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There are no real bears in the British Isles for residents to worry about, but a statue of one in the small Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells has become a cause of concern. As The Telegraph reports, the statue is so convincing that it's scaring drivers, causing at least one motorist to crash her car. Now road safety officials are demanding it be removed.

The 10-foot wooden statue has been a fixture on the roadside for at least 15 years. It made headlines in May of 2018 when a woman driving her car saw the landmark and took it to be the real thing. She was so startled that she veered off the road and into a street sign.

After the incident, she complained about the bear to highways officials who agreed that it poses a safety threat and should be removed. But the small town isn't giving in to the Welsh government's demands so quickly.

Wooden bear statue.

The bear statue was originally erected on the site of a now-defunct wool mill. Even though the mill has since closed, locals still see the statue as an important landmark. Llanwrtyd Wells councilor Peter James called it an "iconic gateway of the town," according to The Telegraph.

Another town resident, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Telegraph that the woman who crashed her car had been a tourist from Canada where bears are common. Bear were hunted to extinction in Britain about 1000 years ago, so local drivers have no reason to look out for the real animals on the side of the road.

The statue remains in its old spot, but Welsh government officials plan to remove it themselves if the town doesn't cooperate. For now, temporary traffic lights have been set up around the site of the accident to prevent any similar incidents.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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10 Scientific Benefits of Being a Dog Owner
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The bickering between cat people and dog people is ongoing and vicious, but in the end, we're all better off for loving a pet. But if anyone tries to poo-poo your pooch, know that there are some scientific reasons that they're man's best friend.

1. YOU GET SICK LESS OFTEN.

Dog snuggling on a bed with its person.
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If cleaning commercials are to be believed, humanity is in the midst of a war against germs—and we shouldn't stop until every single one is dead. In reality, the amount of disinfecting we do is making us sicker; since our bodies are exposed to a less diverse mix of germs, our entire microbiome is messed up. Fortunately, dogs are covered in germs! Having a dog in the house means more diverse bacteria enters the home and gets inside the occupants (one study found "dog-related biodiversity" is especially high on pillowcases). In turn, people with dogs seem to get ill less frequently and less severely than people—especially children—with cats or no pets.

2. YOU'RE MORE RESISTANT TO ALLERGIES.

Child and mother playing with a dog on a bed.
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While dog dander can be a trigger for people with allergies, growing up in a house with a dog makes children less likely to develop allergies over the course of their lives. And the benefits can start during gestation; a 2017 study published in the journal Microbiome found that a bacterial exchange happened between women who lived with pets (largely dogs) during pregnancy and their children, regardless of type of birth or whether the child was breastfed, and even if the pet was not in the home after the birth of the child. Those children tested had two bacteria, Ruminococcus and Oscillospira, that reduce the risk of common allergies, asthma, and obesity, and they were less likely to develop eczema.

3. YOU'LL HAVE BETTER HEART HEALTH.

Woman doing yoga with her dog.
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Everything about owning a dog seems to lend itself to better heart health. Just the act of petting a dog lowers heart rate and blood pressure. A 2017 Chinese study found a link between dog ownership and reduced risk of coronary artery disease, while other studies show pet owners have slightly lower cholesterol and are more likely to survive a heart attack.

4. YOU GET MORE EXERCISE.

Person running in field with a dog.
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While other pets have positive effects on your health as well, dogs have the added benefit of needing to be walked and played with numerous times a day. This means that many dog owners are getting 30 minutes of exercise a day, lowering their risk of cardiovascular disease.

5. YOU'LL BE HAPPIER.

Woman cuddling her dog.
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Dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than non-pet owners. Even for those people who are clinically depressed, having a pet to take care of can help them out of a depressive episode. Since taking care of a dog requires a routine and forces you to stay at least a little active, dog owners are more likely to interact with others and have an increased sense of well-being while tending to their pet. The interaction with and love received from a dog can also help people stay positive. Even the mere act of looking at your pet increases the amount of oxytocin, the "feel good" chemical, in the brain.

6. YOU HAVE A MORE ACTIVE SOCIAL LIFE.

Large bulldog licking a laughing man.
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Not only does dog ownership indirectly tell others that you're trustworthy, your trusty companion can help facilitate friendships and social networks. A 2015 study published in PLOS One found that dogs can be both the catalyst for sparking new relationships and also the means for keeping social networks thriving. One study even showed that those with dogs also had closer and more supportive relationships with the people in their lives.

7. YOUR DOG MIGHT BE A CANCER DETECTOR.

Man high-fiving his dog.
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Your dog could save your life one day: It seems that our canine friends have the ability to smell cancer in the human body. Stories abound of owners whose dogs kept sniffing or licking a mole or lump on their body so they got it checked out, discovering it was cancerous. The anecdotal evidence has been backed up by scientific studies, and some dogs are now trained to detect cancer.

8. YOU'LL BE LESS STRESSED AT WORK.

Woman working on a computer while petting a dog.
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The benefits of bringing a dog to work are so increasingly obvious that more companies are catching on. Studies show that people who interact with a pet while working have lower stress levels throughout the day, while people who do not bring a pet see their stress levels increase over time. Dogs in the office also lead to people taking more breaks, to play with or walk the dog, which makes them more energized when they return to work. This, in turn, has been shown to lead to much greater productivity and job satisfaction.

9. YOU CAN FIND OUT MORE ABOUT YOUR PERSONALITY.

Man running in surf with dog.
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The kind of dog you have says a lot about your personality. A study in England found a very clear correlation between people's personalities and what type of dogs they owned; for example, people who owned toy dogs tended to be more intelligent, while owners of utility dogs like Dalmatians and bulldogs were the most conscientious. Other studies have found that dog owners in general are more outgoing and friendly than cat owners.

10. YOUR KIDS WILL BE MORE EMPATHETIC.

A young boy having fun with his dog.
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Though one 2003 study found that there was no link between pet ownership and empathy in a group of children, a 2017 study of 1000 7- to 12-year-olds found that pet attachment of any kind encouraged compassion and positive attitudes toward animals, which promoted better well-being for both the child and the pet. Children with dogs scored the highest for pet attachment, and the study notes that "dogs may help children to regulate their emotions because they can trigger and respond to a child's attachment related behavior." And, of course, only one pet will happily play fetch with a toddler.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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