Today in 1866, the ASPCA was founded. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was first established in New York, by a philanthropist anmed Henry Bergh. Three years prior, Bergh was given a diplomatic appointment to the Czar’s court by Abraham Lincoln. While conducting his diplomatic duties, he witnessed horses being abused by Russian cart drivers. He was disgusted by what he saw. His outrage sowed the seeds of what would become one of the largest anti-animal-cruelty organizations in the world.
On his way back from Russia, Bergh visited London’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He was inspired to establish a charter organization stateside. His hope was to procure legal grounds to arrest and prosecute animal abusers.
Bergh, back in New York, made an appeal for “these mute servants of mankind.” He said that protecting animals was a non-partisan advocacy issue. “This is a matter purely of conscience; it has no perplexing side issues. It is a moral question in all its aspects.” His speech was effective – many powerful individuals put their signatures to his “Declaration of the Rights of Animals.”
Bergh went before the New York State legislature to plea for the ASPCA’s charter. His impassioned speech won him his charter on April 10, 1866. It was nine days before the first real anti-anima-cruelty law was passed. The ASPCA was granted power to investigate animal abuse cases and make arrests where it deemed prudent.
The ASPCA was an aggressive presence in New York. Bergh himself was known for investigating slaughterhouses and busting dog fighting rings.
The ASPCA was the first major animal advocacy group in America but was certainly not the last. Subsequent organizations modeled much of their structure on the ASPCA. The movement was effective in passing anti-cruelty laws across the country. At the time of Bergh’s death in 1888, 37 of 38 states had anti-cruelty legislation on the books.
The ASPCA also boosted the confidence of the anti-child-cruelty movement. Bergh was an early supporter of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which was founded in the wake of the Mary Ellen McCormack case. McCormack, a nine year old girl, was discovered tied to her bed and savagely beaten by her foster parents in 1874.
Animal cruelty remains one of the most popular advocacy issues in America and abroad. The anti-animal-cruelty movement is highly visible and receives broad support from across party lines.