Who Was Henry Bergh? And How Did He Change the Animal World?

Posted by TF Oren
Henry Bergh, founder of the ASPCA.
Image via ASPCA
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1863 was a pivotal year for Henry Bergh, because that was the year he realized he could change the world.

Bergh, a New Yorker and a diplomat appointed by President Abraham Lincoln, was on assignment in Russia that year. One fateful day, he stopped a carriage driver from savagely beating his fallen horse, and it was that heroic act that made Bergh realize the sort of impact he could have on the world.

While in England, Bergh made the acquaintance of Lord Harrowby, the president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Harrowby emphasized the importance of the mission and encouraged Bergh to take up the cause in America.

Shortly thereafter, Bergh resigned from civil service in Europe and returned to New York to refocus on a new objective: animal welfare. In 1866, Bergh founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and was granted an act of incorporation by the New York State legislature. Bergh assumed the role of president, and he and his wife funded the fledgling animal rights organization entirely out-of-pocket.


Bergh knew, from day one, that his efforts within the ASPCA would be an uphill battle. America in the mid-19th century was not a kind place for animals, especially beasts of burden. Overworked horses hauled excessively heavy carts through the streets, animals often died in transit due to dreadful conditions including lack of food and water, dogcatchers regularly kidnapped pet dogs to hold for ransom, and cockfighting and dogfighting were among the favorite forms of entertainment.

Bergh, however, was not daunted by the various animal abuse obstacles he faced. He was fiercely determined to make the world a better place for animals. He founded the ASPCA on the premise that all animals are entitled to not only kind and respectful treatment, but also protection under law. Under Bergh's leadership, the newly-formed ASPCA focused on a number of objectives including: reforming slaughterhouse practices, putting an end to vivisection, improving transportation conditions, educating the public about equine care, eliminating cock and dog fighting, and ending the use of live pigeons in shooting matches.

When Bergh first founded the ASPCA, it was the first and only humane society in the Western Hemisphere. Its inception spurred the New York State Legislature to pass the country's first anti-cruelty law. Things were finally looking up for animals. And in 1867, Frank Leslie designed the ASPCA's iconic official seal depicting an angel of mercy standing over a fallen carthorse, protecting it from a beating by its master, an homage to Bergh.

official seal of the ASPCA

It was also in 1867 that the ASPCA instituted the first ambulance service for injured horses. It wasn't until two years later that New York City's Bellevue hospital operated the first ambulance service for humans! Just eight years later, Bergh, still hard at work on behalf of the voiceless, invented a canvas sling designed to rescue horses. The sling would later be pressed into service on the battlefields during World War I.

Bergh worked tirelessly for the cause of animal welfare and also took up the fight for child welfare in 1874, forming the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. He died in 1888, but his legacy continued to thrive.

first horse ambulance

Over the years, the scope and resources of the ASPCA steadily expanded, and today, the organization is a major presence not just in various forms of cruelty intervention, but also in natural disaster scenarios, puppy mill raids, and dogfighting busts. In addition, the ASPCA operates veterinary facilities and the Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) while also sponsoring adoption campaigns and backing spay and neuter efforts across the country.

Disaster assistance ASPCA

In 2013, the ASPCA announced a historic partnership with the New York City Police Department. In just two years, the partnership led to a 200% increase in the number of animal cruelty arrests in New York City.

ASPCA and the NYPD

In addition to all of its rescue and placement efforts, the ASPCA has been instrumental in helping enact animal welfare legislation. Notable efforts include: The Animal Welfare Act of 1966, the 2003 development of the Humane Farm Animal Care organization, the Animal Fighting Prohibition Act in 2007, the Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act of 2010, the Veterinary Medicine Mobility Act of 2014, and the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act of 2014.

boy and adoption box

The ASPCA's mission is threefold: animal rescue, animal placement, and animal protection. It is a nonprofit organization with more than two million supporters from across the country...and it all started when one man intervened on behalf of a fallen horse.

If you're interested in learning more about this incredible organization and how you can get involved, click here.

What do you think of Henry Bergh's groundbreaking legacy? Tell us in the comments section!

All images via ASPCA.

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Who Was Henry Bergh? And How Did He Change the Animal World?