The Birth of a Movement

A movement born in the 1800s gathers steam

Two horses
Horses were the first animals to be legally protected. Bernardjaubert getty images

Peter Singer has been called “The Father of Animal Rights” and with good reason. In the 1970s, he rocked the fledgling animal rights movement with his book Animal Liberation (Harper Collins, 1975). It was Singer who first posited the idea that animals are entitled to the right to live, free from human intervention. Taking an idea born in the 1800s by a man named Henry Bergh, he expanded on the awareness Bergh had introduced to the States.

Peter Singer, a native of Australia, is dedicated to changing hearts and minds when it comes to rights for animals. He’s a modern day hero to activists all over the world and his legacy will continue to inspire people for years to come. It was Singer who said that withholding basic rights to animals is “speciesism.”

Bergh introduced ideas that would cause a paradigm shift in the way people saw animals.

To one looking back on the 1800s, one wonders if the people who lived during the time of the horse and buggy and the horse and plow were enlightened; or did they regard animals as nothing more than a means to an end. Most of what we have learned about that time in history comes from Hollywood and the number of horses employed by movie directors in period movies is staggering. The idea of animals having rights was considered vagary.

A socialite and politician, Bergh was a man of means and a world traveler.

While travelling in Spain, Bergh attended a bullfight and was traumatized by the event. In his diary, he wrote “I never experienced a similar degree of disgust, or such hearty contempt for people calling themselves civilized and Christian.” Destiny took him to Russia where Bergh did more than just write in his journal.

As he was riding down the street in his own carriage, he witnessed a man whipping a horse that had become bogged down in the mud. The man was angry, menacing and huge. If the genteel Bergh was intimidated, he didn’t show it. Instead, he stopped and challenged the man, demanding he stop whipping his horse. Surprisingly, the man became meek and ashamed, asking Bergh to forgive him.

Bergh then journeyed to England where he learned of the first Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the SPCA. He was finally among people who shared his compassion and sympathy for animals. He stayed and became erudite; infused with passion and conviction, and then returned to the states to found the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the ASPCA. He had a hunger, a mission, and a heart wish to bring English values home.

Bergh was relentless and aggressive. In fact, he was seen as a radical, and his former status as a socialite didn’t stop the rumors and mumblings that surely, he had lost his mind. But his persistence prevailed, and he managed to convince legislators to enact laws to protect animals. In April, 1866, a small contingent of Bergh’s followers went to Albany and pushed for legislation that easily passed.

It was decreed that “Every person who shall by his neglect, maliciously kill, maim, wound, injure, torture, or cruelly beat any horse, mule, cow, cattle sheep or other animal belonging to himself or another, shall, upon conviction, be adjudged guilty of a misdemeanor.”

Bergh was a man on a mission. Horses were routinely whipped and abused, regarded as nothing more than chattel; and he traveled the streets ensuring that perpetrators were arrested as he administered comfort to the exhausted and downtrodden horses. A new era of consciousness was being born, and in America, Bergh was the catalyst.

However, Bergh did have his detractors. Some in his circle of friends believed humans should be protected, not animals. It’s a cry we still hear today: “How can you care about animals when there are humans who need protection!”

The irony of this state of affairs is that when a human needed the state’s protection, it didn’t exist.

The story of Mary Ellen Wilson is etched in the minds of all animal advocates; it is one of sadness and shock, cruelty and justice.

She was a tiny child, given up by her mother due to extreme poverty. Those who saw her thought her to be five years old, but in fact, at the time of her rescue, she was nine. An angel, specifically Mrs. Etta Angell Wheeler, discovered Mary Ellen’s predicament. The state had given the child to a couple who beat her regularly and she had the whipping scars to prove it. She was pitiful, dressed in rags and, on the day Mrs. Wheeler looked in on her, struggling to wash dishes while standing on an overturned bucket. Mrs. Wheeler plotted for a rescue, but there was no law against abusing a child, and the police and state officials turned a blind eye. In desperation, she visited Henry Bergh at the SPCA who, though somewhat amused and intrigued by the story, decided to step in and use the law that he had created to protect animals. At the time, people believed that one should never interfere with a family and the taking away of a child was no easy feat.

An agent of Henry Bergh went to the house and gathered the child in a blanket. In addition to the whipping scars, she was bruised and shivering. She also had a fresh wound where her mother had stabbed her with a scissors near the left eyebrow and down her cheek. All those in the courtroom, including the judge, struggled to look at her, she was so beaten and bruised. Court officials, including the judge, were ashamed that while animals were protected, children were not. He meted down a meager sentence, but was hard-pressed to find a crime with which to charge the woman.

Her guardian, furious at this turn of events, rushed into the courtroom bearing a peppermint stick with which to lure Mary Ellen to her side. This was not an act of love. The state had been paying the guardian a monthly stipend, and it was the stipend for which she was fighting.

An investigation followed, and the woman was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison. Mary Ellen eventually went to live with Mrs. Angell Wheeler’s mother and sister, and was married at age 24 to a good and decent man.

Thus began the second chapter of the SPCA, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Some would say this is a story of animal welfare, not animal rights. And that’s partially true. But in 1874, when all of this was taking place, a new awareness was blossoming in the hearts and minds of people who, heretofore, thought little to nothing about animals.

This brings us back to Peter Singer, a man who, in our time, is a visionary who sees a world where animals are treated with respect. Vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, the sick and children, cannot speak for themselves, and so they find themselves marginalized and forgotten until someone takes on their cause.

Mary Ellen’s story is one that at once pulls us in and promotes wonder. Didn’t she have the right afforded to all people, to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?” And weren’t her rights taken away from her?

In a world where animals are at the mercy of people, Mary Ellen was at the mercy of a court who had only the animal cruelty statutes to render justice. And those statutes, the ones that protect animals, verifies that animals have rights.