When you think of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), your first thought is probably the organization’s extensive work on behalf of homeless dogs and cats—and for good reason. But did you know that when the ASPCA was created 150 years ago, it was horses that were at the heart of the founder Henry Bergh’s mission?
As the son of a successful shipyard owner, Henry Bergh gained early notoriety as a rebellious student at Columbia University. He dropped out but remained an unwilling heir to his father’s legacy, choosing instead to embark on a Grand Tour of Europe and Asia with his young wife, Catherine Matilda Taylor. While in Russia, Bergh’s family connections helped secure his appointed by Abraham Lincoln as secretary and acting vice-consul to the American legation in St. Petersburg. But this position, too, was short-lived, and Bergh relinquished the post in less than two years.
International travel did leave one, very lasting impression on Bergh, however: he and Catherine were struck to the core by the cruelty they witnessed in the bullfighting ring in Spain and toward carriage horses in Russia—including one incident perpetrated by the Berghs’ own driver. On their way home to the States in 1865, the Berghs stopped in England, where Henry was inspired by his friend, the Earl of Harrowby and the acting head of the British Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Back in New York City, Bergh took up the charge, himself, working as a speaker and lecturer on behalf of the city’s animals with the goal of establishing a similar society in America. Though he initially faced indifference and later ridicule and derision from his peers, Bergh’s public engagements and constant courtroom advocacy paid off on April 10, 1866. Less than a year after the close of the Civil War, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was established in New York, with Bergh as its first president.
The most pressing item on Bergh and the ASPCA’s agenda was the plight of Manhattan’s work and carriage horses, which were frequently overburdened and forced to toil under harsh and often dangerous conditions. Thanks to Bergh’s lobbying efforts, fountains were established around the city in order to provide horses with fresh drinking water, and in 1867, Bergh created an ambulance corps for those injured on city streets. Years later, Bergh also oversaw the creation of a sling that could be used to free horses who were injured at excavation and other worksites.
Though his day-to-day dealings often brought him into some of the city’s less savory neighborhoods, Bergh always sported the tall top hat, expensive suit, and walking cane of an Upper East Side gentleman, and was often mocked as a result. But despite appearances, Bergh was not above getting his hands dirty. Once incident recalls him dropping through a skylight into the middle of a dog fighting pit in order to put a stop to the proceedings. In another instance, the ASPCA founder insisted that a driver replace two thin and exhausted workhorses who were struggling for breath as they pulled an overloaded car up a steep slope. When the teamster refused and proceeded to whip the animals, Bergh grabbed him by the collar and tossed him into a snowbank before having his entire crew arrested and hauled off to court. Still, other stories recall Bergh’s compassion—remembering how he would kneel on the ground in order to offer soft words of comfort and some food and water to a downed horse.
Despite the ASPCA’s early victories on behalf of New York’s horses, Bergh faced a prodigious task. This was an era when societal values and a lack of oversight made it easy to turn a blind eye to the plight of the less fortunate, animal and human alike. Each day, for example, New York City dog catchers rounded up as many as 300 strays from city streets, then drowned them in cages in the East River. Since dog catchers at the time were paid by the number of animals they collected, it was not unusual for family dogs to go missing from fenced yards as well. In 1894, the ASPCA was finally given control over the city’s stray and injured animal populations, which began to be housed in shelters.
Bergh would continue to work tirelessly on behalf of the country’s voiceless for the rest of his life.
He supported the ASPCA financially with property donations from his own holdings and inspired other wealthy New Yorkers to do the same. In 1874, Bergh expanded the scope of his work by helping to rescue eight-year-old Mary Ellen Wilson, victim of the country’s first recorded child abuse case. When he was importuned with more complaints of child abuse after the proceedings, Bergh, Elbridge T. Gerry, and John D. Wright founded the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC), the first agency of its kind in the world.
Throughout the 1870s, Bergh continued to tour the United States and speak publicly. His work alongside the Evangelical Alliance and Episcopal convention resulted in the creation of a new canon that required Protestant Episcopal clergyman to preach against cruelty to animals in at least one sermon a year. When Henry Bergh began his organization, not a single U.S. state or territory listed an animal cruelty statute on its books. By 1886, a total of 39 states had substantially adopted the animal cruelty laws that Bergh had first procured from the New York State legislature.
After more than two decades as the leader of ASPCA, Henry Bergh died at home at the age of 72 during the Great Blizzard of 1888. Throughout his career, he was often referred to as, “The Great Meddler,” a moniker perpetuated by his many newspaper critics. But it was the poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in the eulogy for his friend who perhaps best encapsulated Henry Bergh’s likeness:
“Among the noblest in the land,/ Though he may count himself the least,/ That man I honor and revere/ Who without favor, without fear,/ In the great city dares to stand/ The friend of every friendless beast…”
Henry Bergh’s Equine Legacy
A century and a half later, the ASPCA continues Henry Bergh’s work with a variety of programs supported by its Equine Fund. To date, the organization has donated more than $9.25 million to equine welfare organizations caring for horses, ponies, donkeys and mules in all 50 states. The organization continues to fight for equine protection at the legislative level, advocating against horse slaughter in the U.S. and the exportation of horses for slaughter abroad. And along with its A-list roster of Equine Ambassadors—including Georgina Bloomberg, Jessica Springsteen, and Brianne Goutal—the ASPCA is helping to raise public awareness surrounding equine welfare issues and horse adoption.
To learn more about the many ways you can support the ASPCA’s Equine Fund, click here!