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ASPCA Founder Henry Bergh: Ahead of His Time

By Amanda Crow, Guest Contributor

“This is a matter purely of conscience, it has no perplexing side issues. It is a moral question in all its aspects.” -Henry Bergh

On this day in 1866 – one hundred forty-seven years ago – Henry Bergh ignited a revolution of compassion by founding the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

Bergh was more than a remarkable person.  His activism should inspire everyone as he was one person taking a stand for the voiceless, which during his time were animals and children.

It’s said that the simple of act of bearing witness is the powerful first step.  No longer is the cruelty – normally unseen by those wanting to remain ignorant – ignored.  That is what Bergh did.  While in Russia on duty for the U.S. government, he saw horrible mistreatment of animals in the streets daily.  Only a few years later he consulted with England’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals about this common problem.

The following year, Bergh gave a “Declaration of the Rights of Animals,” where he gained enough support to start the ASPCA. Only a week later, an anti-cruelty law was passed giving authority of enforcement to the new group.  Bergh is legendary, and much can be found on him.

His contribution to our relationship with animals in this country cannot be ignored.  He wasn’t just a leader – he was a doer, an activist, a humble person never too important to defend an abused animal.  Bergh was the president of the ASPCA from its founding to his death in 1888, and every single day he took an active role, literally going to the streets to stop cruelty himself.  It’s hard to imagine the courage he held.

What I find most fascinating about Henry Bergh is his understanding of the “bigger picture.”  He knew that the ASPCA could not be a male-only organization.  It strikes me that he must have had a progressive belief system that was truly about equality for all…even if it’s not necessarily the way we define “equality” for women today. His compassion didn’t stop there.

Most notably he said: “Mercy to animals is mercy to mankind.” Wow!  His revolutionary thinking seems almost ahead of our time, let alone 150-200 years ago.  While it’s more commonly accepted today, we are still trying to connect the dots between cruelty to animals and cruelty to humans.  Bergh didn’t just say those words.  In 1874, he co-founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC).  During his lifetime, both children and animals were seen as property with no rights.  Of course, that cultural attitude towards children has changed. Yet abuse to children is still prevalent, so much so that April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month… a topic I will be writing on later this month.

Henry Bergh is truly a hero and inspiration to those fighting cruelty of any kind.  His actions rattled the paradigm of human’s domination over children and animals.  While there has been a serious shift since Bergh was alive, more needs to be done about the cruelty against all life.  Today is a time to celebrate what he believed in and to honor his life and legacy of compassion for all.

Photo credit: Tony Fischer Photography