by Ernest Freeberg
322 pages, hardcover. $30.00.
Hachette Book Group
1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Perhaps the first question to ask about a new biography of Henry Bergh, of whom more than 50 have reputedly been written already, with at least four close to hand here at ANIMALS 24-7, is why does anyone need yet another?
Anticipating that question, A Traitor To His Species author Ernest Freeberg answers it in his subtitle, Henry Bergh & The Birth Of The Animal Rights Movement.
Not just the familiar story
The Freeberg book is not just the familiar story of Henry Bergh, founder of the American SPCA, or of Henry Bergh who helped to launch both the animal protection movement and the child protection movement, linked for more than a century as simply “the humane movement.”
Freeberg of course recounts how Bergh helped to rescue the abused child Mary Ellen Wilson, declaring that if she could not be protected as a human being under the laws of New York state, she could at least be protected as an animal.
Freeberg also recites how Bergh led a raid on Kit Burns’ dogfighting arena that climaxed with Captain Aliare of the New York Police Department descending through a skylight into the middle of the ring, between two pit bulls, warrant in hand, to arrest Burns and the participants.
The great leap
While Freebergh, like most Bergh biographers, omits any mention of Aliare by name, he avoids the common misattribution of Aliare’s death-defying leap to Bergh himself.
Then 58 years old and a rather big man to do any such thing at any age, but always quick to take an active role in a bust, Bergh in truth waited with other police officers and ASPCA agents to grab dogfighters and spectators who fled out the front door.
Merely retelling those Bergh stories, perhaps in greater detail and with more accuracy than most of Freeberg’s legion of predecessors, is not what Freeberg is all about in A Traitor To His Species.
The light bulb overhead
Freeberg is a different sort of biographer, previously best known for The Age of Edison, Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America (2014) a comprehensive biography of electrical device inventor and popularizer Thomas Edison.
The life and times of Thomas Edison had also already been thoroughly covered by generations of others.
Freeberg, however, in The Age of Edison emphasized the context of Edison’s activity in transforming the animal-powered world of all preceding history into the electrically powered world of today, adding a century of additional perspective to the facts.
Freeberg in A Traitor To His Species addresses specifically Henry Bergh & The Birth Of The Animal Rights Movement.
The first animal rights activists
There was no “animal rights movement,” nor even any rumor of such a movement, in Bergh’s own time. British author and animal advocate Henry Salt would not coin the phrase “animal rights” until 1892, four years after Bergh died.
Bergh directly inspired Diana Belais, who cofounded the short-lived First Church of Animal Rights in 1921, 33 years after Bergh’s death, but Belais herself was more than half a century ahead of her time.
Henry Spira (1927-1998) did not found Animal Rights International, initiating the modern animal rights movement with a string of unprecedented campaign victories, until 1976.
From the humane movement to the AR movement
Nonetheless, among the triumvirate who form the pantheon of acknowledged founders of the humane movement––Bergh, Massachusetts SPCA founder George Angell, and Carolyn Earle White, founder of the Pennsylvania SPCA, Women’s Humane Society, and American Anti-Vivisection Society––Bergh more than any of the others directly presaged the animal rights movement as we have seen it evolve.
From Spira, a lone man with a bullhorn decrying cruel experiments on cats in 1976 at the American Museum of Natural History, adjacent to Central Park in New York City, the modern animal rights movement has grown in less than 50 years to a multi-national cause represented by hundreds of organizations, raising hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
Bergh, however, initiated campaigns anticipating practically every major focus of the animal rights movement.
Bergh might have booted ASPCA successors in the keister
Time and again Bergh also saw those campaigns coopted by institutional pragmatists, settling for short-term symbolic gains ahead of longterm change––just as the moral energy of the animal rights movement has time and again been coopted and subsumed to the realities of the intensive fundraising needed to support organizational infrastructure.
Under Bergh, the ASPCA was much more like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, founded in 1981, than like any incarnation of the ASPCA itself post-Bergh.
Indeed, though Freeberg imagines Bergh would be pleased with his institutional legacy, it is easier to imagine the often impetuous reformer booting many of his ASPCA successors and most ASPCA board members of the past 132 years squarely in the buttocks than to imagine him being the least bit happy with the compromises and timidity characterizing their alleged leadership.
Bergh clearly did not found the ASPCA to become anything like what it is today, with no role in humane law enforcement, his own focal concern, presenting no visible challenge to the modus operandi of any mainstream industry.
Won over critics & alienated friends
Freeberg makes all of this evident, including in documenting the many self-defeating facets of Bergh’s character, each also with parallels in the modern animal rights movement.
Bergh, for instance, at once won many critics over with earnest sincerity, and alienated friends with an evident lack of any sense of humor.
Worse, Bergh appalled many people who generally endorsed his aims with misanthropic indifference toward human suffering in many contexts, though certainly not all.
Freeberg details, for instance, how Bergh campaigned for the return of public flogging as a punishment for cruelty to animals, seeking to undo one of the first achievements of the humane movement, before Bergh’s birth, before the movement even had a name.
Didn’t really know animals
Attentive readers will remember the multitude of cruel and bizarre punishments that animal advocates recommended circa 2007 for football player and convicted dogfighter Michael Vick, most of them abolished by humanitarians before the invention of football as Americans know it.
Finally, like all too many animal rights zealots, Bergh did not really know very much about animals, and indeed never even had a pet dog or cat.
Though Bergh certainly recognized cruelty to animals when he saw it, his lack of understanding of animal needs and behavior meant that time and again he lost in public debate to abusive animal-exploiting opponents he should easily have defeated, had he been able to explain with greater authority why their defensive excuses were just plain wrong.
From Genesis to the lives of the saints
A multitude of people have at various times prominently and enduringly championed the cause of animals, among whom it is difficult to say which remain most influential.
The very names of some, who espoused a vegan diet as a commandment from God in the Biblical Book of Genesis, are perhaps permanently lost to history.
Among those animal advocates who are still remembered, appearing in the earliest written traditions of their respective cultures, are of course the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, who lived circa 800 years BCE; the Jain teacher Mahavira, 599-527 BCE; his contemporary Siddhārtha Gautama, called the Buddha; and the Greek mathematician Pythagoras, a contemporary of both, but on what was then almost the far side of the settled world (570-495 BCE).
From the Middle Ages, a “Christian” era which in many ways was one long celebration of ghastly cruelty to both animals and humans that would have appalled Jesus Christ, came the pro-animal examples of St. John of Rila (876-946), St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), and Richard of Wych (1197-1253).
RSPCA inspired Bergh
A generation before Henry Bergh’s time, there were the parliamentarians William Wilburforce (1759-1833) and Richard “Humanity Dick” Martin (1754-1834), who in 1820 pushed to passage the first British law prohibiting cruelty to animals.
In 1824 Wilburforce and Martin participated in founding the organization called since 1840 the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals [RSPCA], whose primary role ever since has been to enforce British humane law.
By the time Henry Bergh (1814-1888) founded the American SPCA in 1866, in acknowledged emulation of the RSPCA, the RSPCA had already inspired other spinoffs throughout the British Empire. It subsequently inspired many more.
First humane societies
Indeed, at least a decade before the ASPCA existed, there were already several “humane societies,” as we know them today, scattered around the U.S. Northeast, operated mostly by young women working with budgets of next to nothing, enjoying little presence in the news media of the day, and no political influence.
These young women did, however, provide what would later be called humane education to school children, did some animal rescue work, and sometimes experimented with operating dog and cat shelters.
These proto-“do-gooder” societies tended to timidly co-exist in the shadows of the much larger, more militant, and at the time much more fashionable anti-slavery societies.
The ardent abolitionism of the anti-slavery societies conspicuously faded after the U.S. Civil War ended the enslavement of Americans of African descent in the secessionist South, and introduced racial integration as an often fractious reality in the North.
The Gilded Age
Amid that transition, other “do-gooder” causes flourished in what Bergh biographer Freeberg prefers to call the Gilded Age.
Culturally, the Gilded Age was the U.S. manifestation of what are often more broadly referenced as “Victorian” times, when Queen Victoria was on the British throne and the sun literally never set on her global empire.
But Victoria, influential though British culture remained in the U.S., more than 100 years after the American Revolution, was never Queen of the United States.
The fashion of gilding furniture to make “ordinary” wood appear to be precious metal is, as Freeberg observes, an appropriate metaphor for an era in which cruelty and injustice were both widely recognized, and generally addressed with cosmetic solutions, which moved the issues out of the sight and minds of middle and upper class Americans.
“The Great Meddler”
Henry Bergh, as Freeberg demonstrates through example after example, was very much a product of the gilded age. Bergh was at best a dynamic, charismatic, yet thoroughly impractical moralist.
Inheriting affluence, as the son of the successful New York shipbuilder Christian Bergh, Henry Bergh in his youth took no interest in the family business.
Instead, as a dropout law student, and an enthusiastically incompetent poet and playwright, Bergh drifted for decades, with his equally affluent British wife Catherine, amid European high society.
Bergh might have been a candidate for “Upper Class Twit of the Year,” had Monte Python’s Flying Circus existed then to lampoon him, except that, Freeberg says, “Along with a fortune and a high position in New York society,” once he and his wife settled in New York, “he inherited a strict code of moral responsibility.”
This led eventually to Bergh’s nickname, “The Great Meddler,” reputedly conferred by showman P.T. Barnum.
Exiled to St. Petersburg
Taking up abolitionism, Freeberg recounts, Bergh “joined a committee to raise money to purchase cannons for the [Union] army. Like many other Northern Republicans, he dearly hoped the [Civil] war would soon deliver a sound thrashing to the slaveholding secessionists. But privately he went much further, longing for a military coup in Washington to overthrow the incoming Lincoln administration,” which Bergh believed was entirely too conciliatory toward the South.
Whether Abraham Lincoln was ever aware of that is unclear. Perhaps Lincoln sent Bergh to St. Petersburg as U.S. ambassador to Russia as an honor, as it appeared to be, or perhaps just to be rid of him.
Either way, though, it was in St. Petersburg that Bergh famously intervened on behalf of a whipped horse. Becoming aware of the existence of the RSPCA, Bergh stopped in London on his way back to the U.S. to learn everything he could about how it operated.
Then, upon his return to New York, Bergh––after writing several letters to public officials and newspapers deploring the treatment of impounded stray dogs––in 1866 convened the first public meeting of the ASPCA.
Rather than tracing Bergh’s subsequent career in chronological progression, Freeberg focuses on a dozen of his most storied campaigns, following each one by itself from where it began to where Bergh left it, and then succinctly summarizing where the issue stands today.
Chapter headings include:
“A Radical Gospel of Kindness,” describing Bergh’s unsuccessful early campaign on behalf of sea turtles and terrapins who were cruelly captured and shipped alive to New York City for slaughter;
“Horse Trolley,” recounting how Bergh challenged transport magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt and the entire New York City transportation infrastructure on behalf of abused and overworked horses;
Barnum & Bergh
“Barnum & Bergh,” detailing Bergh’s many conflicts with showman P.T. Barnum, who nonetheless professed himself to be Bergh’s greatest admirer;
“Henry Bergh & Kit Burns,” the Irish-American gangster and animal fighting entrepreneur whose career partially inspired the 2002 Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York;
“America’s First Energy Crisis,” about the equine influenza epidemic of 1872, which had impact comparable to the COVID-19 pandemic of today;
“Market Murder” and “Civilized Slaughter,” detailing how Bergh’s efforts against cruelty to animals in the meat industry contributed inadvertently to the rise of factory farming;
“Genteel Ruffians,” describing Bergh’s losing battle against pigeon shooting;
“War on Dogs,” which demonstrates that Bergh was more deeply involved in the evolution of high-volume killing in animal shelters than previous Bergh biographies have indicated, partly because of his poor understanding of germ theory, rabies, and anti-rabies vaccination, then just being developed;
“Bergh’s Perverted Philanthropy Challenged”; “What About Cruelty to Humans?”;
Animals as Spectacle
and finally, “Animals as Spectacle,” recounting Bergh’s later clashes with P.T. Barnum, along with his unsuccessful attempt to close the Central Park Zoo, which was founded in 1864 and became notorious as a haphazard menagerie several decades before the 1899 opening of the Bronx Zoo.
Evolving into the New York Zoological Society, and then becoming the Wildlife Conservation Society of today, the Bronx Zoo in 1983 subsumed and reformed the Central Park Zoo, but that was almost a century after Bergh’s time.
Indeed, the Central Park Zoo was reopened in 1988, after five years of renovation, exactly 100 years after Bergh died.
Vowed to protect all animals
“In his improbable career as America’s first crusader for animal rights,” Freeberg sums up, Bergh “shocked his peers when he vowed to protect all animals, not just those considered useful or loveable…Often denounced as a traitor to his species, he forced his fellow citizens to reckon with aspects of our treatment of animals that most would rather ignore.
“Bergh was among the first to raise many of the uncomfortable questions we are still trying to answer,” Freeberg continues. “More than anyone, Bergh forced his fellow citizens to reckon with what one journalist called ‘a new form of goodness,’ a call to our conscience that we continue to struggle with today.”