Henry Bergh, Friend of Animals

“Henry Bergh, Friend of Animals,” Friend, May 1987, 44

Heroes and Heroines:

Henry Bergh, Friend of Animals

It was beginning to get dark, and the softly falling snow was blanketing the busy New York streets. Tired office workers and shoppers rushed to the waiting horse-drawn streetcars. A driver viciously whipped the tired, thin horses forward, and the miserable animals, cold and hungry, struggled to pull the overfilled cars through the slippery streets.

Suddenly Henry Bergh, a tall, handsome gentleman in a black silk hat, stood on the tracks in front of the departing streetcar and ordered the driver to stop and unload the passengers. When the driver resisted, Bergh pulled him out of the car and threw him into a snowbank. Then Bergh unhitched the overworked, underfed horses. This action caused many streetcars to be stalled behind the first, now horseless, car. Bergh then stopped a car going in another direction.

The “man in the black hat” had been trying for many months to get the streetcar companies to treat their horses more humanely. He wanted them to assign more horses to each car and to not allow too many passengers on a car so that the horses wouldn’t have to work so hard. But no one at the companies would listen to him. Now, finally, after he had blocked traffic for two hours, at least one company listened! Henry Bergh had won a victory. A car was sent out with four horses pulling it, and the streetcar company agreed to treat its horses more kindly.

Henry Bergh was born in 1813, a time when life was extremely hard for many animals. Even when he was a child, and later, as a young man traveling through Europe, he felt sad to see the way many animals, particularly horses, were being treated. Then, while serving as an American diplomat in Russia, he began to speak out for the rights of horses. Whenever he noticed a peasant beating his horse, Bergh would order the peasant to stop beating it at once.

On his way home from Russia, this friend of animals stopped in England, where he observed the work of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. From that time on, Bergh was determined to form a similar organization in America to protect animals there. He began to talk to people about animals’ rights, he sought support for his views among his influential friends, he used his money as well as his diplomacy, and eventually he got some animal protection laws passed. In 1866 he and his supporters formed the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, generally known as the SPCA.

Although a lot of people did not take Bergh and the work of the SPCA seriously—they laughed at him, and the newspapers made fun of him—he and his friends continued to give speeches on street corners. They wanted people to know just how badly animals were being treated.

Finally the public started listening to Bergh and his supporters, who not only showed people how horses were being mistreated but also showed them the unsanitary barns where dairy cows lived. City people were upset when they saw the dirty dairy barns and the starving cows. As a result, Bergh and his followers got regulations passed that ensured that dairy cows were well fed and that barns were kept clean. Better conditions not only made the cows more comfortable but also helped make their milk safer to drink.

Bergh fought for the rights of not just horses and cows but also of dogs, sheep, and other animals. He believed that all animals were important, including those on their way to slaughterhouses. He later extended his care and concern to abused children, founding the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

When Bergh died in 1888, he was greatly respected. His life had been devoted to improved treatment of animals and children and to the SPCA, which he helped organize. Today the SPCA is still actively carrying on the work of its caring founder, Henry Bergh, friend of animals.