Henry Bergh, the Unlikely Champion of Animals

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In April, 1866, 148 years ago last week, Henry Bergh founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York. He worked intensely for the next 20 years, throwing the full weight of his wealth and connections into campaign after campaign on behalf of farm animals, companion animals, cart horses, “soup turtles,” pigeons and rats (to name but a few!), as well as patrolling the city streets on a daily basis and directly intervening wherever he saw abuse. In his wake, SPCAs were founded across the U.S. and beyond. He reframed animal protection law to look beyond the property rights of animal guardians. He was even instrumental in founding the first child protective NGO, providing a model for community intervention where child protection law had no enforcement arm.


School children may not (yet) learn about Bergh in history classes, but online bios are not hard to find. The son of a well-to-do shipyard owner, Henry Berg was born around 1811. He attended college briefly, but abandoned it when he found his reading choices would be dictated. He and his brother ran the shipyard after their father retired, but sold out after his death, preferring to live on the substantial proceeds. With no need to work for a living, he traveled in Europe for years at a time, enjoying parties, plays and the high life of the social elite. He wrote several plays. More than 20 years passed before Bergh next took a job, a diplomatic post in a delegation to Russia, but he resigned after less than two years, disliking the minister he served under. He married, but he and his wife never had children.

So what prompted this son of wealth, with little history of persistent effort or particular accomplishments, to suddenly become a hands-on, full-time animal advocate when he was well into his 50s? A lot of people have wondered, including those who knew him at the time. The mystery is intensified when we read that he didn’t actually like animals!

Definitively answering that question, if indeed it can be answered at this late date, is beyond the scope of a blog post. However, here are a few facts about Henry Bergh’s life that are suggestive.

  1. Bergh’s parents were both highly principled. His father was known as the “honestest” man in the shipyard business, and employed freed slaves at the same wage he paid his white employees, probably not a common practice at the time. His mother once had him return a coin to the street where he found it so the owner could come back and retrieve it.

  2. The subject he entered college to study (against his father’s preference that he enter the family business) was law.

  3. The first recorded incident of Bergh taking an interest in animals was a bull fight he and his wife attended in Spain, not long after their marriage. He found the goring of horses by bulls, and bulls by men barbaric, but what bothered him most was the audience’s enjoyment of the horrendous spectacle.

  4. The second recorded incident occurred while he was serving in Russia, decades later. Even the briefest biographies describe how he leapt from his carriage to intervene between a peasant, and the horse he was beating. The peasant meekly complied because of Bergh’s ambassadorial status, which was reflected in certain articles of his dress. What most accounts don’t mention, however, was that this was Bergh’s second confrontation with the same abuser. The first time, he was ignored, not only by the farmer, but when he tried to enlist law enforcement in his cause. It was no accident that he wore rank-identifying clothing when he returned to the scene.

  5. The Berghs visited England after Henry resigned from his Russian post, while he lobbied the Lincoln administration for months for another European assignment, to no avail. Meanwhile, he consulted with the Earl of Harrowby, president of the Royal SPCA. Though there was not much of an animal protection movement in the U.S., anti-vivisectionists had been active in the UK and other European countries for decades. Bergh returned to New York and began to build support, speaking on the statistics of animal abuse, and gathering signatures to petition for the ASPCA charter. With the help of political friends, he made sure a corresponding animal protection statute was passed, granting him enforcement powers.
  6. The American Civil War, expressing the most rigorous imaginable national debate on rights and equality, ended just a year before Bergh founded the ASPCA. Bergh was a supporter of abolitionist political candidates.

  7. Although it was to be decades before women won the vote, the women’s suffrage movement was already well underway, with many suffrage activities centered in the Northeast. One biographer notes that Bergh made a point of recruiting women to participate in the ASPCA, realizing that it could not be an all-male organization.

  8. Bergh said of the question of animal protection that it was "… a matter purely of conscience; it has no perplexing side issues."

  9. An incident in which Bergh urged bus riders to debark from a packed bus to lighten the load for the horses is frequently recounted, perhaps because he had to use physical force to fend off a particularly resistant passenger. At that, the mood shifted and other passengers cheered him. Some even apologized as they exited the bus, promising to extend more consideration to the horses in the future. This change of attitude is what Bergh remembered best about the incident.

  10. Even Bergh’s admirers described him as cold and humorless – yet he had admirers. His society and political friends were by no means universal in their support of his cause, especially when it affected their “recreational” activities. Nevertheless, he was able to transform two famously acrimonious relationships (one with P.T. Barnum, and another with a critical columnist) into friendships over time.

To Bergh, treating animals fairly was a matter of honor and justice. Some 21st century advocates might find him wanting, since his primary concern was the moral erosion animal abuse caused in humans. As Bergh put it, “Mercy to animals means mercy to mankind,” which is not the focus on the animals themselves that we look for today. And yet, it would be hard to find another figure in animal protection history who worked as tirelessly (once he got started), campaigned as broadly, and had as daily and direct an effect on the animals around him as Henry Bergh.

More About Henry Bergh:

Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography

National Museum of Animals & Society

American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Riddle of the 19th Century: Mr. Henry Bergh

American Heritage – The Great Meddler

The Development of Anti-Cruelty Laws During the 1800s

And yet, he was an advocate par excellence

I didn't discuss the full range of his activities in detail, since that has been covered so thoroughly elsewhere, but he really was astonishingly active and broad, both in the range of animals he advocated on behalf of, and in his approaches to advocacy. He not only utilized legal, organizational, legislative and media interventions, he personally interceded on behalf of individual animals on a daily basis, and he initiated the invention and installation of equipment and devices to assist animals. We should all have such productive mid-life crises!


I certainly have heard of Henry Bergh, but I didn't know that he wasn't an animal lover. Very interesting, quite a twist!

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