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Henry Bergh

Adapted from "The Story of Henry Bergh and the First Humane Society" in the curriculum Holidays and Holy Days by Charlene Brotman and Barbara Marshfield (Brotman Marsh-Field Curriculums). Copyright 1983. Used by permission.

Sometimes, anger can be a good thing. Henry Bergh's anger was.

Bergh was a Unitarian who lived in the 1800s. He was also the man who founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and it was his anger about the way people often treated animals which got him started.

Bergh was a rich man who liked wearing silk hats and fancy vests. He loved the opera, and he traveled a lot in Europe. When he was 50, President Abraham Lincoln asked him to go to Russia as a diplomat. There, Bergh saw a man whipping a horse. He asked a policeman to stop the beating, but the policeman said the man owned the horse and could do anything he wanted to it. People who saw Bergh trying to interfere gathered around and shook their fists at him. Bergh had to leave, but he remembered what had happened.

He also remembered what he had seen at home in America—overworked and beaten horses, dog pits where people bet on which dogs would kill the others, fights to the death between roosters or between bulldogs and bears, and pigeon shoots where birds were blinded in one eye so they would fly around crazily while wealthy hunters tried to shoot them.

After leaving Russia, Bergh went to England, where he met the president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. This organization had the power to stop people from abusing animals. Bergh realized he could start a group like it in the United States. In 1866, he did just that—he created the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—the ASPCA.

Bergh helped New York State pass a law making abuse of animals illegal. But he did not stop there. As president of the ASPCA, the city and state of New York gave him power to arrest people and take them to court. Soon he seemed to be everywhere at once, investigating cruelty, closing down dog pits and rooster fights, making dairy farmers clean up their barns. His battle to stop cruelty to animals became known as "Bergh's War."

Bergh made a lot of people angry right back at him. They called him "The Great Meddler," drew nasty cartoons about him and sent threatening letters with skulls and crossbones. One man attacked Bergh with an iron bar, but swung and missed. Other men threw fish heads and chicken guts at him.

But Bergh did not stop. When people gathered around while he was making an arrest on the street, Bergh preached kindness. He felt it would be a greater triumph to plant kindness in people's hearts than to build a new railroad across America, as some other men were then doing.

The ASPCA was active, but it was poor. Then an old man sent for Bergh. When Bergh entered the shabby little home, the old man said, "I've been reading about you in the papers. I like what you are doing for animals. I am ill, and I know I am dying. I'm going to leave everything in my will to the ASPCA."

Bergh thanked the old man, without expecting his gift to be of much help. But after the man died, Bergh found out he had been a millionaire who had lived as a miser. Now the ASPCA could move out of a small rental room into a building of its own. Now it could grow.

Within five years, Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had sprung up in 19 states and Canada.

One day Henry Bergh learned about a case of cruelty involving a small girl instead of an animal. He rescued her, and then, with other leaders, helped start the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. This was the first time people in the United States had organized to protect children.

By the time Bergh died, the meddling his anger had driven him to do had accomplished great things. People wrote poems about him and built monuments to him. The best monuments to him are not statues. They are organizations and volunteers all over the world that protect children and animals—some right near here.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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