Diplomat and philanthropist Henry Bergh founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) on April 10, 1866, in New York City.
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In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Bergh to a diplomatic post at Czar Alexander II’s Russian court. There, Bergh was horrified by what he saw—peasant drivers beating their workhorses. Bergh visited the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in London on his way back to America, in June 1865. He determined to get a charter to incorporate the ASPCA and the power to arrest and prosecute those who violate the law.
After returning to New York, Bergh pleaded on behalf of “these mute servants of mankind” at a meeting in Clinton Hall on February 8, 1866. He argued, “This is a matter purely of conscience; it has no perplexing side issues. It is a moral question in all its aspects.” Several dignitaries, prompted by his speech, signed Bergh’s Declaration of the Rights of Animals.
On April 10, 1866, Bergh convinced the New York State legislature to pass the charter incorporating the ASPCA by detailing the cruelty inflicted on animals. Nine days later, the first effective anti-cruelty law was passed in the US, which allowed the ASPCA to investigate animal cruelty complaints and make arrests.
Bergh, a hands-on reformer, became a familiar sight in New York’s courtrooms and streets. He frequently inspected slaughterhouses, worked with police to shut down rat-fighting and dog-fighting pits, lectured at schools and adult societies. The ASPCA, in 1867, established and operated the first ambulance for horses in the US.
As the pioneer of the noble movement, the ASPCA became the model for over 25 other humane organizations in the US and Canada. By the time Bergh passed away in 1888, 37 of the 38 states in the Union had passed anti-cruelty laws.
Bergh’s street rescues of mistreated livestock and horses became a model for individuals trying to protect abused children. After a 9-year-old Mary McCormack was found tied to a bed and brutally beaten by her foster parents in 1874, activists founded the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Bergh was one of the first vice presidents of the group.