The animal rights movement emerged in the United States during the latter part of the 19th century due in large part to the tireless work of Henry Bergh. A courageous activist committed to disrupting the mistreatment of animals, Bergh founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in 1866.

Cover courtesy of Basic Books

In a “Traitor to His Species: Henry Bergh and the Birth of the Animal Rights Movement,” Ernest Freeberg crafts an engaging work that is part biography and part social history, chronicling the rise of the animal rights movement and the social milieu from which it emerged.

Privileged with inherited wealth, Bergh approached his mid-50s with a scant record of accomplishment. He started law school and dropped out, his literary endeavors failed, and the most noteworthy thing about his brief time as a diplomat in Russia, was that it was, well, brief. While on assignment in Russia, however, Bergh witnessed brutal mistreatment of horses that provoked in him a “conversion experience,” according to Freeberg, a former reporter and producer for Maine Public Radio, who now divides his time between Georgetown, Maine and Knoxville, Tennessee. After spending time with leaders of an organization protecting animals from cruelty in England, Bergh returned to the United States with an intense focus: he would “devote his life to the eradication of cruelty to animals.”

Bergh’s efforts produced results almost immediately. He successfully petitioned the New York legislature to create a new entity, the ASPCA, and the legislature enacted a law, drafted by Bergh, that made it a crime to “maliciously kill, maim, wound, torture or cruelly beat” an animal. These established the powerful foundation that propelled Bergh’s mission.

One of the most important provisions in the statute granted the ASPCA the ability to appoint its own badge-wearing agents who were authorized to intervene in incidents of animal cruelty and to arrest the perpetrators. Bergh and his followers vigorously pursued these options, although Bergh made clear that “the anticruelty law never questioned people’s rights to use animals, only their right to abuse them.”

Bergh was “disgusted” by so-called sporting tournaments in which participants shot at pigeons in enclosed shooting clubs, events that “harmed the character of the (human) participants as much as they hurt the animal victims.” Over 16,000 pigeons were killed at a single tournament and many thousands more birds died en route from the Midwest to this “wholesale slaughter.” Bird shooting tournaments killed off entire flocks of passenger pigeons (by 1914, the birds were extinct), which led shooting clubs to substitute other birds such as house sparrows and purple martins. Bergh advocated for an inanimate substitute for birds, and his calls were answered with the invention of the “clay pigeon.”

Bergh employed an array of tactics to reduce animal cruelty: in the legislature, the courts, on the streets and in the sphere of public opinion. He faced ruffians who threatened him with violence and titans of industry who tried to steamroll him with their economic and political might. He was frequently ridiculed, mocked for his “sickly sentimentalism,” his “fanatical tomfoolery” and his “benevolent balderdash.” He was also accused of infringing on the property rights of animal owners and putting the interests of animals ahead of those of humans.

He never relented, drawing public attention to anti-cruelty issues by pursuing provocative cases likely to seize public attention – even if he had a low probability of succeeding. Bergh would “press the bounds of animal rights in ways that surprised supporters and critics alike,” Freeberg writes, and “he provoked a searching national conversation about the relative value of human and non-human life.”

The work of the anti-cruelty movement continues to this day. It’s evolved, to some extent, into philosophical issues such as: How expansive are animal rights? Is it immoral to spend too much money on pets when people are suffering? Is it immoral to test new drugs on animals before beginning clinical trials on humans?

Freeberg, who heads the history department at the University of Tennessee, illuminates Bergh’s anti-cruelty activities in the context of an America that was emerging from the Civil War and into the industrial revolution. The book is a marvel of historical research and engaging storytelling. One eerily familiar chapter recounts a pandemic afflicting horses and mules in the early 1870s that shut down a nascent public transportation system powered by these animals. After the pandemic abated, new technology emerged to replace the animals: the steam locomotive, known as the iron horse.

Recognizing that his movement was about animals and humans, Bergh sought to end animal cruelty and to promote “a great change in the character of people.” Freeberg observes that the movement was “a mechanism for creating something that the world sorely needed – kind men.”

Dave Canarie is an attorney who lives in South Portland and is an adjunct faculty member at USM.

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