ASPCA Births the Animal Welfare Movement

  • Nature, Animals & Parks
  • 1866

Henry Bergh operated the shipbuilding business founded in New York City by his father, and retired early with a substantial fortune. An abolitionist, his friendship with William Seward won him an appointment as part of the American delegation to Russia during the Civil War. While in St. Petersburg Bergh came upon a Russian mercilessly beating his fallen cart horse; disturbed, he tried to intervene. Later, on his way back to the U.S., Bergh stopped in London to meet with the president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Shortly after his return to New York he began to solicit friends with a plan to found a U.S. counterpart. He won a public charter in 1866, put a good deal of his own money into launching the organization, and became the first president of the first animal-welfare organization in the country: the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Bergh engaged public opinion, and frequently put himself in harm’s way to stop acts of cruelty himself. His debates with P. T. Barnum on humane conditions for show animals led to a friendship; Barnum helped form an SPCA branch in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and was eventually a pallbearer at Bergh’s funeral. The success of the New York City group spurred the formation of local SPCA chapters in Buffalo, Philadelphia, Boston, and then many other cities. In 1874 Bergh became involved in a case of abuse of a foster child that resulted in creation of a parallel Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. A broad “humane” movement, nudged further by horror at the violence of the Civil War, spread across the U.S., with Henry Bergh’s loyal financial support and steady enlistment of friends helping it along the way.