Is the name Henry Bergh familiar to you? Probably not. It wasn't to me before coming to work in this field. But if you are at all involved in or supportive of the progress that has been made in animal welfare over the last 100+ years, you should read on to learn where it all started.
In 1866, Henry Bergh founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, better known as the ASPCA. He did so just three days after the state of New York passed the first effective animal cruelty legislation in the United States, thanks to Mr. Bergh's lobbying efforts. 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 at the well-dressed man defending the skinny, miserable mules being whipped by their masters. Disgusted by this abuse and saddened by the limitless crates of dogs being drowned in the Hudson River in the name of animal control, Mr. 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 (RSPCA). 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 for people.
No matter what side of the argument people may have been on, one thing is for certain: Bergh opened eyes to the mistreatment and unfairness being pressed upon animals. He got people thinking and moving towards change. His work was so effective and admired, that when he died 22 years later, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow eulogized him as "among the noblest in the land... friend to every friendless beast."
Since then, amazing progress has been made across the country. Local groups have been founded to combat animal abuse and neglect in their own communities. 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, followed soon after by the first ever reproductive prevention measures for pets. Spay and neuter initiatives began to take hold and the first low-cost spay/neuter clinic opened in Los Angeles, CA in 1969.
Thanks to progressive thinking, positive change has come about for animals. Low cost spay/neuter and pet licensing have significantly decreased euthanasia rates from their all-time highs in the 1960s. There is now reluctance among communities and shelters to euthanize pets for space and we now understand that prevention is the only sustainable and humane solution to pet overpopulation.
Animal welfare professionals are changing, too. The people working hard to save the lives of homeless pets are no longer just bleeding heart maniacs screaming for people to change their ways. They are compassionate, dedicated administrators using professional skills and experience in public relations, customer service, marketing, finance, human resources and research to effectively serve the animals by educating people and changing minds.
We're learning to fight the good fight in words our opponents can understand. There is no doubt we have a long way to go, but sometimes we need to pause and consider our history, giving thanks for how far we’ve come.
If you’d like to help us continue to make positive progress in animal welfare, schedule an appointment to have your pet spayed or neutered. Adopt, donate, or volunteer. Find out how at www.LetLoveLive.org.
Sarah Neikam is the Marketing Director for the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare. She is an Aiken native and has been with the SPCA since 2012. Sarah lives in Graniteville with her family which includes three adopted cats: Bastian, Luna and Grady, who are all living happy, loved lives thanks to the efforts of the SPCA.