Technology to Animals’ Rescue: A Book Review of “A Traitor to His Species”
By Paul Shapiro
In his riveting new book about the founder of America’s first animal welfare organization, historian Ernest Freeberg does a magnificent job detailing the problems animals faced in 19th- century America and the campaigns of those who crusaded on their behalf. Favorably reviewed already in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, A Traitor to His Species: Henry Bergh and the Birth of the Animal Rights Movement is a must-read for anyone interested in the roots of the modern animal advocacy movement.
In this biography, Freeberg doesn’t sugarcoat either the cruelty that ASPCA founder Henry Bergh fought against nor the pioneer’s contradictions and eccentricities that led his foes, including PT Barnum, to deride him as a misanthropic traitor to his own species.
From Anti-Slavery to Pro-Animal
The book is full of fascinating stories for anyone interested in the history of animal protection, such as the horse flu pandemic of 1872 that caused so much suffering for the equines that it sidelined them, forcing humans in some cases to temporarily pull trolleys through city streets. It also tells the tale of Bergh’s more bizarre views, such as his opposition to President Lincoln and universal suffrage, as well as his skepticism of germ theory and vaccines.
But to the extent that history remembers anyone, it has a tendency to boil people down to one event or attribute, and Bergh’s groundbreaking efforts to enact animal protection laws, along with his zeal for vigorous enforcement, is really all that anyone who’s aware of him will know.
Bergh founded the ASPCA in New York City just one year after slavery was abolished, in 1866, with large numbers of abolitionists joining the new movement’s ranks. Notably, Frederick Douglass spoke approvingly of the new animal welfare organizations. In fact, many of the early pioneers of the movement, including Bergh, routinely made comparisons between animal exploitation and slavery, such as famed author and abolitionist Lydia Marie Child as well as the first president of the American Humane Association.
“This brutality could only be stopped with police power, not poems”
Bergh aggressively moved to enforce the laws he passed, prosecuting animal abusers rich and poor alike when they treated their beasts in ways he felt were callous. To Bergh, many humans were simply irredeemably vicious and could only be stopped by the strong hand of the law. As Freeberg writes, Bergh “once observed that the only mistake he had made in this work was ever thinking that he could change the behavior of cruel men and women by showing them mercy and compassion.”
For years, in fact, Bergh attempted to erect public flogging stations where animal abusers and wife-beaters could be whipped for their sins. When this didn’t come to fruition, he offered a room at the ASPCA for such punishment to be rendered. Bergh even encouraged the creation of a steam-powered whipping machine that could flog such criminals without the risk of human mercy interfering with the prescribed strength of the whipping.
When other animal welfare groups pursued humane education of children in the hopes of preventing them from tormenting animals, Bergh didn’t oppose such efforts per se, but in his view, “this brutality could only be stopped with police power, not poems.”
Technology, Not Humane Sentiment, to the Rescue
Bergh didn’t invent concern about animal mistreatment (twenty states had already enacted anti-cruelty laws prior to the ASPCA’s founding), but he did formalize a movement and dramatize the woeful plight of animals before state courts for the first time. He prosecuted fishermen who transported turtles inhumanely, trolley drivers who beat horses too severely, circus owners who lit their animals on fire, and more. He didn’t always win in court, but the mere fact that he could make humans answer for the treatment of their living, feeling property was revolutionary.
One aspect of the book that stood out time and again though, which Freeberg explicitly addresses in the final chapter, is that nearly every cruelty that Bergh fought against 150 years ago is still a problem for animals in America and much of the world today.
With the exception of those abuses which were rendered obsolete by technological innovation, Bergh would surely be displeased to know that many of his campaigns remain still unresolved, and in fact animals are likely worse off today in many ways than they were in his era.
Wildlife were routinely killed en masse for perfectly legal entertainment in the 19th century, which is sadly still true today. Even pigeon shooting contests, which Bergh unsuccessfully fought, are still held in places like Pennsylvania. Animals were tormented in laboratories then, and even today, nearly all animals in labs are exempted from the federal law designed to protect them. Dogfighting was illegal in Bergh’s day (at least in New York) but still occurred underground, similar to today. (Though admirably dog fighting has been criminalized in all 50 states today, which was no small feat.) Animals were inhumanely slaughtered for food 150 years ago, and even today, nearly all animals slaughtered for food are exempted from the federal law intended to prevent such suffering in slaughterhouses. The list goes on and on.
There are three cruelties Bergh campaigned against which, at least in America, have largely (though not entirely) been relegated to the dustbin of history: (1) the abuse of horses as our primary means of transportation, (2) the lethal war on urban dogs, and (3), the shipping of livestock for days or weeks on end without food or water.
As Freeberg points out, all three of these were ended not primarily because of humane sentiment or even fear of prosecution from Bergh or his deputies. Rather, technological innovations provided relief to oppressed horses, dogs, and farm animals.
The Horse’s Savior: Henry Ford, not Henry Bergh
Faced with the sorrowful treatment of horses, Bergh attempted to ameliorate their misery by erecting water fountains for them and trying to create mandatory resting hours and Sabbath days where they couldn’t be worked at all. In the end however, Freeberg observes, “unlike the horse, steam engines needed no rest, required fuel only when working, [and] took up little expensive urban real estate.” As a result, horses were by and large freed after centuries of laboring as our involuntary vehicles.
Many animal welfare groups cheered such an invention. The Pennsylvania SPCA, for example, proclaimed, “We hail with joy the advent of the steam passenger cars as being the only avenue open for the release of the overloaded horses.”
Even during the transition from horses to cars on city streets, the problem of slippery cobblestone roads was so severe that 1,500 hundred horses per month broke their legs in New York City alone. The ASPCA sponsored experiments with alternatives surfaces, though it wasn’t until the introduction of asphalt that they got a safer road surface, “an expensive innovation,” Freeberg writes, “that was spurred not by concern for horses but by the demands of the new drivers of automobiles.”
Ending the War on Dogs
Freeberg details the ruthless persecution of ownerless urban dogs during an era of dread about rabies (then called “hydrophobia.”) Cities even placed bounties on dogs’ heads, leading to roundups that ended in horror so severe that Bergh believed the best outcome was simply drowning homeless dogs en masse, which he and the ASPCA routinely did.
In the end, however, dogs weren’t saved by educational efforts, but rather by technology. New methods of cheap and effective sterilization are the primary reason America’s cities aren’t still overrun by homeless dogs. These sterilization methods have even helped change norms leading to a near a priori societal presumption that responsible pet-keeping requires spaying and neutering.
In the 19th century, farm animals shipped from the Midwest to Eastern cities endured prolonged agony, overcrowded and starved of food and water for days on end as they were carried to their doom. Bergh and others encouraged the development of new kinds of railcars that could provide less uncomfortable conditions; they even offered cash prizes for would-be inventors who could spare some of these animals’ discomfort during transport.
Just as with horse-drawn carriages and dog round-ups, it was ultimately a new technology that rendered the problem largely moot. In this case, the advent of refrigeration allowed animals to be slaughtered in Chicago and then shipped as meat to the Eastern cities, thereby averting the harrowing journey. Conditions in Chicago’s stockyards were far from humane, but at least the animals no longer endured further multiple days of misery.
Lessons for Today
Freeberg concludes his stellar biography by emphasizing this point:
“Today’s animal rights advocates quite rightly consider the many threats to animal welfare identified by these nineteenth-century reformers to be unresolved. With the exception of the abuse of trolley and canal horses, rescued by the electric engine more than the SPCA, they may be as urgent as ever….The great innovations [that spared animals were] developed by salesmen seeking efficiencies, not humanitarians promoting kindness.”
Today, after nearly a century since the rise of industrialized factory farms that subject billions of animals to conditions that would surely incense Bergh were he to resurrect, animal advocates must ask ourselves uncomfortable questions.
How much do we want to bet on our ability to persuade people to change their minds and actions? How long will animals wait for a remedy to their woes if we’re counting on people to do the kind thing for the right reason?
Alternatively, how many resources do we want to devote to developing technologies that simply render animal exploitation obsolete?
There are no easy answers, and surely we must both make the case for treating animals compassionately and passing laws to protect them while also advancing technologies that will make it easier to do so. From developing meats that are divorced from animal slaughter, to creating cheaper and faster methods of conducting medical research, to making new materials that keep us warm without taking animals’ lives, just as in Bergh’s day, technology can be animals’ friend.
Exactly how many resources today’s Henry Berghs should be putting into such technological innovations remains a pressing question.
Paul Shapiro is the author of the national bestseller Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, the CEO of The Better Meat Co., a four-time TEDx speaker, and the host of the Business for Good Podcast.