Change has been a hot topic in South Carolina over the past couple of weeks, and I for one am thankful. Change is good. Impassioned opinions are good. Constructive debate is good. It means we still care; we are still communicating; and we still want things to be better. Naturally, better to one person might seem backwards to another, but one area of progress in which I hope we can all agree is animal welfare.
In 1866, Henry Bergh, who could only be described as pure empathy wrapped in a top hat and spats, founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He did so just three days after his lobbying resulted in passing by New York Legislature, the first effective animal cruelty legislation in the U.S. It is said that the very night the law passed, he tucked his written version in his pocket and took to the streets looking for violators.
People would stand and gawk, not at the lanky, underfed mules being whipped by their masters, but at the well-dressed gentleman who defended those animals. Disgusted by the abuse animals sustained at the hands of their masters and saddened by the limitless crates of dogs being drowned in the Hudson in the name of animal control, Bergh sought a better way.
Having inherited a great deal of money, Bergh was able to travel abroad where he studied the practices of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He brought these practices home and immersed himself in his passion. Some celebrated the progress. Others criticized Bergh for being more concerned with animals than people, for his enemy-seeking tactics and in general for being a bit of a sap.
No matter what side of the argument folks may have been on, one thing is for certain: Bergh’s pointing out unfairness to animals opened eyes to it. Perhaps his tactics were outlandish; maybe he even hindered some of the movement with his zealousness. But he got people thinking and then moving toward change. And, if I’m not mistaken, his compassion for animals prompted the formation of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, ironically some eight to 10 years after the ASPCA.
Since the inception of the ASPCA, wonderful things have happened. Local groups, though not generally affiliated with the national organization, have been founded to combat animal abuse and neglect in their localities. Our own SPCA Albrecht Center was founded by winter colonists in 1935 to provide better treatment for farm animals and horses. Our founders offered leather harness covers for mules and stainless bits in exchange for the old, rusty ones.
In the 1940s, the first veterinary hospital for pets was founded. The 1960s brought the sexual revolution, leading perhaps to the first ever preventive measures for pets, too. Voila! Spay and neuter initiatives were born, and the first low-cost clinic opened in Los Angeles, California.
Not long after, in the mid-1970s, people began seriously studying the psychology of pets. The 1980s brought about implementation of behavior programs in the savviest of shelters. In 1991, a standardized certification for animal behaviorists was introduced, and, just seven years later, the first center for behavior modification was created.
Euthanasia rates are down from their all-time highs in the 1960s, thanks to progressive thinking, low-cost clinics and licensing of pets. There is reluctance among communities and their shelters to euthanize for space, and we realize that prevention is the key to ending this killing. It is becoming trendy to adopt. “Breeds” including “Great American Shelter Pet,” “Heinz 57” and “House Blend” are recognized jargon by people who love pets.
The animal welfare professionals are changing, too. These people are no longer wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve folks who run screaming at ne’er-do-wells to change their ways. They are compassionate administrators who fight in terms their audiences can understand; dollars, numbers, human resources, research, public relations and marketing are all being used effectively to serve the animals. There are CAABs, ACAABs, DACVBs, CPDTs and CAWAs – a sampling of accreditations an animal behaviorist or animal welfare administrator might earn to prove their professional experience and knowledge in the field.
In South Carolina this year, stricter laws govern those that are unkind to animals (thank you, Sen. Tom Young, Reps. Bill Taylor and Don Wells and Husband-of-the-Year David Miller). People are fighting the good fight in words their opponents can understand. There is no doubt we have a long way to go, but sometimes I think we need to pause and give thanks for how far we’ve come.
If you’d like to help us win the next battles in the animal welfare fight, make an appointment to have your pet/s sterilized, donate or volunteer. You can find out how at www.LetLoveLive.org.