A lot of progress in this country isn’t properly recognized and appreciated. Those that brought it to us are often far too anonymous. On his birthday, let me share with you the tale of Henry Bergh, the the champion of all living things.
Today, in many ways, animals are protected like humans. Sure, an animal rights advocate would tell you that there is still a long ways to go, but hopefully everyone would also recognize that we have come a long way. That improvement owes a great deal to a man named Henry Bergh, was born August 29, 1813. Bergh is one of the soldiers that fought from the inside to make this country better, and one who should be better remembered by history.
Up until the mid nineteenth century, animals were seen as property to be used and treated by their owner in whatever manner they so desired. Dog fighting was common, as was cruelty to them as a form of entertainment. To see an animal being beaten was so common it rarely garnered an extended look. There were no protections for how hard an animal was worked, let alone how they were treated in slaughterhouses. Very few seemed bothered by this, and even fewer rose up in defense of animals.
Henry Bergh was born into a wealthy shipping family in New York. After becoming President, Abraham Lincoln appointed him to be his diplomat to Russia. One day, while walking the streets of St. Petersburg, Bergh witnessed a carriage driver beating his horse without mercy. Bergh stopped him, and then had a revelation. He decided his calling in life was to be the defender of animals. He resigned his post and headed home.
In 1866 he and his wife founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. At the time, there was not a single law in any state or American territory for the protection of animals. Within thirteen years, all states and territories but one adopted laws to protect animals.
Bergh travelled the country speaking about animal rights. He often said, “Mercy to animals is Mercy to mankind.” He would dress up in a police like uniform along with “deputies” in New York City issuing citations to those who were broke the new laws protecting animals. He broke up cock and dog fighting rings, stopped a popular practice known as bull baiting, and went after people who were starving their animals. He was scorned and ridiculed during his time. He never let it slow him down in standing up for the creatures that needed someone to.
Later in life, he would extend his fight to the protection of children throughout the country.
When he died, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow delivered the eulogy and said:
“He was amongst the noblest in the land, and a friend to every friendless beast.”
Can you think of a nicer compliment?