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‘A TRAITOR TO HIS SPECIES’: The Man Who Made Us Feel for the Animals

Bergh called animals 'our speechless slaves'. If people had learned to stop thinking of humans as property, couldn’t they be taught to stop thinking of animals as property, too?

VICTORIA JOHNSON: 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…

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… 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… Bergh attacked famous American, P. T. Barnum, for abusing wild animals to entertain humans… (It was only in 2017 that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus closed down, after a long campaign by animal rights activists)…

Bergh’s crusading compassion aligned him with the great reform movements of his age. All around him, men and women were creating institutions meant to improve child welfare, education, hospitals, prisons and the plight of the formerly enslaved. Bergh found allies as well as inspiration in these efforts. If people had learned to stop thinking of human beings as property, couldn’t they be taught to stop thinking of animals as property, too? Bergh pointedly called animals “our speechless slaves”…

But how to change minds and behavior? Animal advocates disagreed on the best strategy. Some of Bergh’s milder allies sought to encourage respect for animals not through the strong arm of the law but through sentimental education… Bergh’s own approach was fiercer; he had less faith in human nature. He thought the fear of arrest was a stronger deterrent than moral suasion. He strode like an avenging angel through the streets of Manhattan, on the hunt for suffering animals and harsh masters…

Today, when a desperate creature manages to break loose and run through New York City, it reminds us of the hidden cost of our tastes… Bergh rankled many Americans with his insistence that individual liberties must sometimes bow to the common good. But even some of Bergh’s targets came to respect him deeply for his convictions. When Bergh was buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in 1888, P. T. Barnum was in attendance. SOURCE…

“The insect in the plant, the moth which spends its brief hours of existence hovering about the candle’s flame – nay, the life which inhabits a drop of water, is as much an object of God’s special providence as the mightiest monarch on his throne.” (Henry Bergh)


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