On April 10, 1866, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) was founded in New York by philanthropist and diplomat Henry Bergh, 54.
In 1863, Bergh had been appointed by President Abraham Lincoln to a diplomatic post at the Russian court of Tsar Alexander II. It was there that he was horrified to see work horses beaten by their peasant drivers. On his way back to America, a visit in June 1865 to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in London aroused his determination to obtain a charter not only to incorporate the ASPCA, but also to exercise the power of arrest and prosecute law breakers.
Back in New York City, Bergh pleaded on behalf of “those silent servants of mankind” at a meeting on February 8, 1866 at Clinton Hall. He argued that animal welfare was an issue that crossed party and class boundaries. “It is a matter of pure conscience; he doesn’t have any confusing side issues, ”he said. “It is a moral question in all its aspects.” The speech prompted a number of dignitaries to sign his “Animal Rights Declaration”.
Bergh’s passionate accounts of the horrors inflicted on animals convinced the New York State Legislature to pass the charter incorporating the ASPCA on April 10, 1866. Nine days later, the first effective anti-cruelty law in the states United was passed, allowing the ASPCA to investigate animal cruelty complaints and make arrests.
Bergh was a practical reformer, becoming a familiar sight on the streets and courtrooms of New York City. He regularly inspected slaughterhouses, worked with the police to close dog and rat fighting pits, and lectured in schools and societies for adults. In 1867, the ASPCA established and operated the country’s first horse ambulance.
As a pioneer and innovator of the humanitarian movement, ASPCA quickly became the model for more than 25 other humanitarian organizations in the United States and Canada. And by the time Bergh died in 1888, 37 of the 38 states in the Union had passed anti-cruelty laws.
The dramatic street rescues of abused horses and cattle by Bergh served as a model for those trying to protect abused children. After 9-year-old Mary Ellen 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 group’s first vice-presidents.