A Traitor to His Species | Ernest Freeberg

Summary of: A Traitor to His Species: Henry Bergh and the Birth of the Animal Rights Movement
By: Ernest Freeberg


Embark on a journey through 19th-century America in ‘A Traitor to His Species: Henry Bergh and the Birth of the Animal Rights Movement.’ Author Ernest Freeberg reveals the harsh realities faced by animals during this time and highlights the transformative role of Henry Bergh in laying the groundwork for animal welfare advocacy. This brisk summary will illustrate Bergh’s lifelong dedication to protecting animals in an urban, industrial landscape, as well as his founding of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the impact of his work on today’s animal rights movement. Join us as we delve into Bergh’s triumphs and struggles in standing up for those without a voice.

Animal Cruelty in the 1800s

In the 1800s, domestic and farm animals were subject to harsh treatment and abuse in cities. In addition to horses and mules yoked to wagons, large herds of cattle and pigs were packed into city stockyards. Even residents in urban slums kept farm animals in makeshift sheds and let pigs roam the streets. The daily cruelties were often gruesome, including teamsters bashing horses’ skulls and people setting gas-soaked cats on fire. Fortunately, concerned individuals began to advocate for animal welfare during this time.

Henry Bergh, the Patron Saint of Animals

In the mid-1800s, Henry Bergh became the most significant advocate for animal welfare. A wealthy diplomat, Bergh saw teamsters brutally abuse horses and vowed to create a similar organization in the United States after visiting England’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He dressed elegantly, complete with a top hat and a cane, and dedicated his life to protecting helpless animals of all species. Bergh believed that animals were not just property for people to use however they wished. His opponents accused him of betraying his species, but his supporters regarded him as a visionary, moral leader. The urban industrial world that emerged in the 19th century changed the human relationship with animals in profound ways. Technological revolution provoked this transition, but women and men contributed by organizing to protect animals from the worst abuses of human exploitation. As Bergh became the animal-welfare movement’s most influential, best-known advocate, some referred to its members as “zoophilists” or “animaltarians.”

ASPCA Founder and Animal Rights Champion

In 1866, Henry Bergh established the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in New York, the US’s first animal anti-cruelty organization. The ASPCA’s mission to end cruelty to animals drew the support of the city’s mayor, police chief, and influential individuals. Bergh fought for the welfare of animals as a moral cause and earned recognition from those who had previously ridiculed him. His efforts inspired the creation of similar organizations nationwide, a testament to his lasting impact on the animal rights movement.

Protecting Animals with ASPCA

In the late 19th century, animal welfare legislation was on the rise in America, but authorities rarely enforced these laws until Henry Bergh championed the cause. The law he advocated empowered ASPCA agents to arrest violators of animal welfare laws, making it the most effective organization for preventing cruelty against animals. Bergh’s proclamation of emancipation against cruelty towards animals was a turning point in American history. Previously, only a few states and territories had passed laws to protect livestock, and the Puritans forbade animal cruelty in Massachusetts.

Henry Bergh: The Animal Rights Champion

Henry Bergh was a vocal advocate for animal rights in the 19th century. As the founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), Bergh recognized the importance of publicity in raising awareness for animal welfare. Despite criticism and mockery by the media, he remained dedicated to his cause. Bergh’s efforts contributed to a growing “tenderness for all breathing life” and paved the way for future animal rights activists.

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