"A Traitor to His Species is revelatory social history, awash with colorful characters. Cheered on by thousands of men and women who joined his cause, Bergh fought with robber barons, Five Points gangs, and legendary impresario P. T. Barnum, as they pushed for new laws to protect trolley horses, livestock, stray dogs, and other animals. Raucous and entertaining, A Traitor to His Species tells the story of a remarkable man who gave voice to the voiceless and shaped our modern relationship with animals."
I'm pleased to offer this guest essay by Dr. Ernest Freeberg, a distinguished professor of humanities and head of the history department at the University of Tennessee, about his outstanding new book A Traitor to His Species: Henry Bergh and the Birth of the Animal Rights Movement. This comprehensive work centers on Bergh's unrelenting efforts to grant nonhuman animals the protection he and others thought they fully deserved. It also provides valuable historical perspectives and debates about animal protection and well-being including sentience, consciousness, the cognitive and emotional lives of other animals, human exceptionalism, speciesism and line-drawing, personhood, and animal law. A Traitor to His Species turned out to be an easy-to-read page-turner for me, and I highly recommend it to a broad audience.1
As a historian, I have spent my career exploring ways that our own values and social practices evolved out of profound changes that affected Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, years when the country experienced an industrial revolution and rapid growth of what became the modern city. So, I have written about the origin of our ideas about disability rights and free speech rights, and our love and dread of new technologies. In A Traitor to His Species, I am using Henry Bergh’s important and colorful crusade against cruelty to show that these years also mark a turning point in how Americans live with and think about animals.
Looking at images of American urban life in those years, you can’t help but notice that, along with men in bowler hats and women in puffy sleeves, the streets are full of horses. Dig further and you find that American cities were dense with animals—packs of stray dogs, milk cows in back alleys, pigs rooting in the abundant garbage that clogged the gutters, herds of sheep and cattle goaded into the city’s many butcher shops and slaughterhouses.
Today, our cities are mostly sanitized of animals. Our beloved pets are leashed and licensed, strays are quickly rounded up, most meat comes wrapped in plastic, a few chickens in the backyard are more a novelty than a commonplace. While some animals persist with great vigor on the margins of the modern city, we have cleared most of them away in the name of efficiency and hygiene. And yet we yearn for some connection with other species, as we can see in our perpetual fascination with animal documentaries, and media reports on the enormous sums we spend to indulge our pets.
What I want to share with readers is the story of how that change began in the late 19th century, when an ancient relationship between humans and animals evolved in profound ways. In the midst of that change, many of the moral quandaries we face today about our treatment of animals were first raised and debated. Many thousands of Americans decided that cruelty to animals was not an inevitable part of living with them, but a problem that could be solved through organized reform.
In the United States, the person most responsible for leading the movement and provoking those fundamental questions was Henry Bergh, a wealthy and eccentric failed playwright who founded New York’s ASPCA in 1866. When he declared that it was time to end humanity’s “gross ignorance, thoughtlessness, indifference, and wanton cruelty to brute creation,” he launched one of the important and often forgotten reform movements of the Gilded Age. Bergh turned to the work late in life, at age 53, but devoted the rest of his days to waging lively battles, on the streets and in the courts, against thoughtless teamsters and butchers, promoters of dog and cockfights, and circus managers like his friend and rival, P.T. Barnum.
Reporters loved to follow Bergh as he made his rounds of the city’s streets and back alleys. Always impeccably dressed, often donning a top hat and silver-headed cane, he pursued cruel New Yorkers in some dreadful places that few members of his class had ever dared to visit. He raided saloons to stop dogfights and rat-baiting contests, where men bet on how quickly a terrier could dispatch dozens of frantic rodents. He arrested turtle dealers for shipping these animals, bound for the soup pot, in obviously painful ways—and even brought some turtles to court as evidence. And he took on the wealthy as well as the poor, scolding the elite for their fox hunts and pigeon shooting tournaments, and disrupting the daily commute of New Yorkers when he found trolley horses being worked too hard.
Some ridiculed Bergh mercilessly for what they considered his obsessive and too-tender concern for the feelings of mindless beasts; others resented his attempts to interfere with animals they considered their own personal property, to dispose of as they wished. But others praised Bergh as a moral pioneer, a prophet whose crusade was forcing the rest of society to think more carefully about their obligations to our fellow species. On the streets of New York and in the pages of newspapers across the country, he became one of the era’s most famous and notorious figures, “the man who is kind to animals.” As it turned out, Bergh was not alone in his desire to end the cruel abuse of animals that was part of daily life in American cities. Across the country, thousands of men and women joined forces, founding state and local SPCAs and other organizations to punish the cruel and protect animals from abuse. Together they created the first dog and cat shelters, passed laws to reduce the suffering of animals on the way to slaughter, launched the first salvos in a continuing battle against the use of animals in laboratory experiments, and worked tirelessly to make kindness to animals part of every American child’s education.
We still struggle with many of the issues that Bergh and his allies raised. But I hope this book helps us to appreciate where these questions about our moral obligations to animals came from, where the conversation started, and what the movement accomplished, as well as what it failed to change. Thanks to new laws pushed by Bergh and his allies, obvious cruelty to animals became illegal, and the SPCA sent agents into the streets to make sure that these were enforced. By the time Bergh died in 1888, many more accepted that animal cruelty was not just a problem but also a crime, and praised him for forcing a conversation that improved life for animals and humans alike.
The limits of Bergh’s accomplishments are also instructive, reminding us of the work yet to do. The animal welfare movement he led was essentially an urban one, and the SPCAs that were soon founded in most states across the nation focused on stopping the cruel abuses that were visible on the city streets. Their tools for arresting cruelty and encouraging kindness were ill-suited to take on some of the wider problems we still struggle with today, most notably the vast structural cruelties of our factory farming system, and the destruction of animal habitat that threatens to wipe out entire species.
Even in the Gilded Age, Bergh could see some of these great challenges, but felt helpless to address problems so vast and removed from the city streets he prowled, looking to arrest cruel men. He left that work for later generations of animal rights and environmental activists. I hope they see themselves as following in the footsteps of Henry Bergh, and the thousands of other Americans in the Gilded Age who decided to stand up for our fellow species.
1) A review in the Wall Street Journal By Christoph Irmscher called 'A Traitor to His Species’ Review: Angel of Mercy' is available to subscribers.