The Man Who Made Us Feel for the Animals (review)Historians in the News
tags: urban history, animal welfare, animal rights, ASPCA
A TRAITOR TO HIS SPECIES
Henry Bergh and the Birth of the Animal Rights Movement
By Ernest Freeberg
In March 2019, drivers near Yankee Stadium were startled to find themselves sharing the expressway with a reddish-brown calf. Police officers trussed and tranquilized the terrified animal in front of rolling cameras, and the scene went viral on social media. The calf had escaped from a nearby slaughterhouse. Its bid for freedom reminded city dwellers that tens of thousands of animals die in New York each year.
It was once utterly impossible to ignore this fact. In 19th-century New York, cattle were driven through the streets to the stockyard on 40th Street, stray dogs were drowned by the hundreds in wire cages in the East River and trolley horses fell dead in their tracks. P. T. Barnum’s menagerie on Broadway burned to the ground three times, killing hyenas, big cats and hundreds of other animals. The trapped creatures screamed in a “horrible chorus” of “mortal agony,” The Times reported.
One man did more than any other to change the way New Yorkers — and Americans overall — treated their animals. In his vivid and often wrenching new book, “A Traitor to His Species,” the historian Ernest Freeberg tells the story of Henry Bergh, a wealthy New Yorker who braved ridicule, assault and death threats for over two decades as he sounded the alarm about animal suffering. Among Bergh’s many achievements, the most consequential was the founding in 1866 of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
“A Traitor to His Species” is not a conventional biography, intriguing as its central figure is. The book is above all a compassionate, highly readable account of the 19th-century plight of animals, especially urban animals — and of those who tried to come to their rescue.
Bergh began his crusade late in life. In his 50s, he was posted as a diplomat by the Lincoln administration to Russia, where he was horrified by the cruelty he saw carriage drivers inflicting on their horses. One day he chided a violent driver, who ceased his abuse. Heartened by this episode, Bergh began to cast about for a way to draw attention to the suffering of animals in an age when many people thought that they couldn’t feel emotion or even pain. Back in New York, Bergh assembled a group of fellow elites and secured a charter from the State of New York to create the A.S.P.C.A. Remarkably, Bergh and his A.S.P.C.A. agents were empowered to make arrests when they witnessed animal cruelty.
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