Henry Bergh did not find the climate of Russia agreeable. Vice Consul at the American legation in Saint Petersburg from 1862-1864, he resigned rather than face another Russian winter. Independently wealthy, Bergh did not need his diplomat’s salary and could have retired, he was 51 in 1864, to a life of leisure if he wished. Instead he embarked on a new career that in its own way was more trying even than a Russian winter.
After a world tour he returned to New York and embarked upon an uphill crusade on behalf of, using his phrase, the “mute servants of mankind”, the animals. In the 19th century it was not uncommon to see animals being treated in the most barbaric fashion: horses literally dying of overwork, their corpses being left in the streets; packs of wild dogs, living off offal and trash, roaming about cities and towns; cats hunted for sport, etc. To combat this inhumanity, on April 10, 1866 he founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
His efforts were initially met with widespread scorn and derision, but he persevered:
“Day after day I am in slaughterhouses, or lying in wait at midnight with a squad of police near some dog pit. Lifting a fallen horse to his feet, penetrating buildings where I inspect collars and saddles for raw flesh, then lecturing in public schools to children, and again to adult societies. Thus my whole life is spent.”
In 1867 the ASPCA brought into operation the first ambulance for horses. Public fountains were set aside in Manhattan so that horses could have fresh drinking water every day. Bergh invented an artificial pigeon to substitute for living pigeons at target ranges. Bergh’s tireless efforts on behalf of animals, and his exposure of the savage brutalities to which so many of them were exposed, gradually enlisted the sentiments of most of the public. Branches of the ASPCA sprang up throughout the Union, and by the time of Bergh’s death in 1888, 37 of 38 states had passed anti-cruelty statutes.
Bergh did not limit his humanitarian concern to animals. In 1874 he became involved in efforts to rescue an abused 8-year-old child Mary Ellen Wilson from her cruel foster parents. Stirred by this case, he helped found the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
The care extended to those who are helpless says much about a society. Henry Bergh helped make America a better country by speaking up for those who could not speak for themselves.