Henry Bergh wasn’t particularly interested in animals. But Bergh, who later went on to found the ASPCA, became involved with their protection because it was “simply the right thing to do.”
Heritage of Care, by Dr. Stephen L. Zawistowski and Marion S. Lane (Praeger Publishers, $39.95) is more than a history of the ASPCA. The book covers the beginning of any organized concern for animal welfare in this country.
There is a well-known story of Bergh interrupting a man who was beating his injured horse. That event actually took place in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Bergh, because of his status as a wealthy gentlemen and Secretary of the American Legation, was able to intervene and stop the abusive owner.
The sense that he might be able to “compel others to behave as he believed they should” caused him to resign his appointment and move back to New York. But back home he found that people abusing animals, particularly horses, didn’t care what he said or who he was. He decided that the only way to change human behavior was through legislation and enforcement. That crusade, which became his life’s work, led to the creation of the ASPCA in New York City.
This is not a book for a reader who wants a simple mind rinse, or a way to take Valium through the eyes. But if you’re at all interested in animal welfare and animal rights, this is a book for you. It’s an intelligent, interesting story about a major organization in New York (and America) whose history is intimately involved with the history of New York City. But it’s never pedantic or preachy. It’s surprising how much the ASPCA is involved in humane issues that go far beyond the Hudson River.
Zawistowski, who is executive vice president and science advisor for the ASPCA, recently sat down to talk about the book. The following transcript has been edited.
Q. Why did you think this book should be written?
A. I think most people, people in New York City especially, don’t understand what the ASPCA is or does. They think it only does animal control work and is a branch of the city government. I wanted people to know that the ASPCA is really a cultural institution, like the Metropolitan Museum, in terms of its impact on our culture and how we treat animals. Caring about animals didn’t just start in 1960. Our history goes back to 1860.
Q. What do you think readers would find most surprising about your book?
A. That the ASPCA wasn’t founded to run shelters, but for a much broader mission: concern for humane slaughter and the transportation of livestock. In its earliest day, the ASPCA was primarily concerned with the treatment of horses. But Henry Bergh also created the child protection movement. He was concerned with the mistreatment of all of those who couldn’t defend themselves.
Also, the ASPCA was the first to call for professional standards for veterinary care and to operate a hospital to care for the animals of rich and poor alike. During the Depression, when many people couldn’t afford to get medical care for themselves, the ASPCA made it possible for them to care for their pets.
Q. Are you surprised that the ASPCA is still fighting some of the same animal abuse problems and having some of the same problems getting anti-cruelty legislation passed?
A. No. People haven’t changed much in hundreds of years in terms of human behavior. It wasn’t until the 17th century that philosophers began to believe that animals could suffer. Before that, they were thought of as no more than machines. But the success of Animal Planet and Animal Precinct shows that people have a great interest in animal welfare.
Most states have anti-cruelty legislation—classifying such crimes as felonies—but they were initially on the books to protect livestock and other animals of value. There is still a segment of society that believes that caring about animals demeans caring about humans, as if there were a limited amount of caring in the world.
Q. The public has been very aware of the Michael Vick case. But do they know about the role of the ASPCA in that case?
A. We were intimately involved in the prosecution of the case. But until it was settled, we couldn’t talk about it. The bottom line is that of the 50 dogs rescued, 49 were moved to sanctuaries where many were retrained to make them adoptable.
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