Americans love pets – but animal welfare wasn’t always in vogue. Here’s how we learned to love animals

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CNN —
More than 100 years before Morrissey declared that “meat is murder,” before PETA supporters disrupted runway shows featuring leather fashions, before documentaries like “Food, Inc.” galvanized viewers to reconsider their relationship to animal products, there was Henry Bergh, shouting about animal rights on street corners to anyone who would listen.
In 1866, Bergh, who founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), would regularly station himself on a New York street, waiting for a carriage driver to lash their horse. When he witnessed abuse, he often arrested the perpetrator himself and launched into a polemic against animal cruelty. If his theatrics didn’t move the people he arrested, they did attract a good deal of media attention — and set the standard for the punishment convicted animal abusers can face today.
An engraved portrait of American philanthropist Henry Bergh from the 1850s. Kean Collection/Getty Images
Bergh was a more militant crusader of animal welfare, but his and his fellow advocates’ work revolutionized the way we think about animals and coexist with them. And by 1896, dogs and cats were considered such beloved family members that they had earned their own burial plots at Hartsdale Pet Cemetery, the oldest animal burial grounds in the US, in the New York suburbs.
In the 30 years between the founding of the ASPCA and the creation of the first pet cemetery, American attitudes toward animals — as pets, as laborers, as food sources and fellow occupants of planet Earth — tipped toward respect. The sea change came courtesy of activists like Bergh, George Angell and Caroline Earle White, as well as veterinarians like Alexandre Liautard, who all helped legitimize the plight of American animals and their inherent value.
In their new book “Our Kindred Creatures: How Americans Came to Feel the Way They Do About Animals,” journalist Bill Wasik and veterinarian Monica Murphy document those 30 years — 1866 to 1896 — starting with a case brought against a sea captain accused of harming sea turtles in transit and ending with Hartsdale’s founding. During that time, organizations like the ASPCA were founded, laws were enacted that expanded the definitions of animal abuse and animals of all kinds were increasingly considered worthy of compassion.
Their book begins soon after the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery (though it illegally continued in parts of the South for years). Abolitionists who’d campaigned for years to end enslavement were inspired by their “ultimate triumph,” Wasik told CNN, and channeled their activist energies into other causes. Some of them took up the wellbeing of animals.
A compassionate, sweeping history of the transformation in American attitudes toward animals by the best-selling authors of Rabid. Penguin Random House
“Animal welfare is often not thought of in the same breath as some of those other movements, like women’s suffrage, like the labor movement,” he said. “But we think (it) deserves to be up there in the annals of American activism as a pretty successful campaign to change laws and change norms.”
Though dogs are now considered treasured family members and the meatpacking industry is far removed from everyday urban life, animal cruelty was commonplace in Northern US cities in the 19th century. Early dog pounds in New York killed the canines in their care by the end of each day. Scores of men, rich and poor, would gather in a rowdy bar in downtown Manhattan to watch dogs kill dozens, even hundreds, of rats — or each other. Free-roaming cattle and pigs spread waste along city streets and, when they were slain, blood and entrails.
And when a fire struck P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, an attraction that more closely resembled his circus than the Smithsonian, nearly all the wild animals in Barnum’s building died — monkeys, alligators, a kangaroo. The lone animal survivor was Ned the Learned Seal, a charismatic sea creature who could hoist a gun over his blubbery shoulder like a soldier, who was saved by a firefighter.
The ruins of Barnum’s Museum encrusted with ice, at the intersection of Broadway and Ann Street, seen shortly after the fire that destroyed it had been extinguished in 1868. The American Museum was previously destroyed by a fire in 1865. Graphic House/Getty Images
Witnessing violence against animals galvanized Bergh, Angell and White, whose campaigns are charted in vivid and loving detail by Wasik and Murphy. They were often met with resistance by those who’d become inured to violence against animals or who had little interest in changing their ways of life. So they set out to “train people’s minds” to consider animals differently — not as unfeeling things with whom humans share little in common, but as fellow living creatures deserving of respect.
“To contemplate the question of animals’ thoughts at all is to confront the plain truth that they experience joy and suffering, that they have interests that diverge from our wishes and whims,” Murphy and Wasik write.
Bergh took an active, antagonistic approach to animal welfare that didn’t always jibe well with the working-class people he arrested. (Bergh and his compatriots came from wealthy, educated backgrounds and often “weren’t as sympathetic as they should’ve been” to low-income citizens whose demanding jobs, especially those that relied on the labor of horses or cattle for meat, put immense pressure on them — and their animals — to deliver.)
Regardless, Murphy told CNN, Bergh “embraced the arrests and so forth with a real fervor.”
Angell, true to his last name, preferred to appeal to people’s hearts. He founded the Massachusetts SPCA and published Our Dumb Animals, a pro-animal welfare newspaper to which he contributed impassioned pleas for reform, anonymous letters and affecting pieces of fiction written from the perspectives of animals themselves. His most notable, “The Story of a Good and Faithful Horse,” was written almost 10 years before “Black Beauty” made a horse its protagonist. The son of preachers, he wrote that he believed God “established laws for the protection of animals as well as men.”
Angell’s writings “forced (us) to consider the interior lives of animals, and in so doing identify with them more,” Murphy said.
And White, an abolitionist from Philadelphia, helped create the first animal shelter and fought vivisection in animal testing, which involved performing surgery on living animals for research — as Murphy and Wasik write, “when animals are asked to suffer in the name of progress.” Though men often took over leadership positions in the organizations she co-founded, it was White who created the blueprint for the humane shelters from which many people adopt dogs and cats today.
With the gradual support of police, lawmakers and religious groups, the trio and their supporters argued that supporting the rights of animals was a moral obligation: what the editors of Scribner, writing about Bergh in 1879, coined “a new type of goodness.”
In an afterword, Murphy and Wasik invite readers to consider contemporary dilemmas about animal welfare. In the early 20th century, food animals who once soiled city streets were being dispatched far away, so they weren’t at the forefront of people’s minds anymore. This freed meat eaters from fretting about where their beef came from or how the cow from which it came was treated, they write — and that “selective benevolence” continues today.
In this 2012 photo, rescued dog Tessa awaits adoption during a memorial service for military working dogs at the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in New York. John Moore/Getty Images
So while there’s been significant improvements in the treatment of animals since Angell, Bergh and White hung up their capes, the “problem of 1896 is still the problem of 2024,” Wasik said: “Animals that most need a revolution in how we think about them and how we treat them are the ones that are kept sort of furthest away from our consciousness.”
But Murphy and Wasik are ultimately optimistic that animal lovers will extend the love they feel for their pets to creatures raised for consumption or dwindling species facing habitat loss, debilitating climate change or hunting to the brink of extinction. We know these animals as “abstractions,” but if we apply the same moral code to those animals that Bergh, Angell and White did to dogs, cats, cows and even rats, the revolution may come for those faraway animals before it’s too late.

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