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Henry Bergh was the founder of New York’s American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the first U.S. animal rights organization established in 1886. The title of Ernest Freeberg’s new book, A Traitor to His Species, refers to the public perception of Bergh as no friend to humanity. Those who Bergh did battle with, “teamsters and turtle dealers, circus managers and cockfighters, butchers and surgeons,” defensively asked “Why did Bergh hate humanity so?” Why was he such “a traitor to his own species”? (P. 5.) Freeberg does little to deflect the image of Bergh as “a fanatic who cared more for animals than he did for humans.” (P. 29.) To the extent that this is a stereotype of animal activists (i.e. as misanthropes), one might wish Freeberg had engaged with that view of Bergh a little more critically. However, Freeberg’s Bergh, declared by one newspaper to be a “public pest,” was “perhaps,” according to Freeberg, “a necessary one.” (P. 21.) Certainly, “[t]he vivid tales of his confrontation on the streets of New York made him one of the city’s celebrities.” (P. 22.) Many different animals were featured in Bergh’s campaigns; however one stood out, the one Bergh was most concerned about and which caused him to take up the animal cause in the first place: the horse.

A Traitor to His Species begins with the following line: “Few pictures of a late nineteenth-century American city street lack a horse.” (P. 1.) Relatively elderly (fifty-three) and wealthy when he came to start caring about the treatment of animals, Bergh was deeply moved by the abuse of carriage horses he witnessed in St. Petersburg during a brief time spent in Russia as a diplomat. Freeberg says that it “provoked in him [Bergh] something like a conversion experience.” (P. 8; see also Pp. 24-25.) Freeberg also tells us that a large bequest for the ASPCA later came from a wealthy fur trapper, Louis Bonard, who gave a deathbed donation motivated by the fear that “he would soon be reincarnated as a carriage horse.” (P. 116.)

Many of the chapters focus on dramatic stand-offs between Bergh and other prominent men in the city. These episodes include a show down with P.T. Barnum, who made a public spectacle of feeding snakes live rabbits which Bergh found to be unnecessary (Chapter 5), Kit Burns, whose dog fighting ring attracted Bergh’s ire (Chapter 6), and elite sportsmen, whose pigeon shoots created what many viewed as wanton and senseless carnage (Chapter 11). Chapter 4 is framed by the confrontation Bergh had with “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the wealthiest men of the Gilded age over the treatment of his trolley horses.

Freeberg explains that Vanderbilt was “a well-known lover of horses,” but he “reserved his affection for the very expensive and very fast ones.” (P. 55.) The horses who pulled trolley loads of commuters on the New York City streetcar lines owned by Vanderbilt were regularly overloaded. “Overloading” trolley horses killed “ten thousand animals every year, from exhaustion, broken legs, and accidents,” the ASPCA estimated. (P. 56.) Legislators refused to pass passenger limits. (P. 57.) ASPCA agents policed the lines, positioning themselves at the bottom of hills to force the adding of a third horse to help with the more difficult stretches of road. (P. 59.) Bergh himself would appear in snowstorms and order drivers to return horses to the stables. (P. 59.) This campaign, though controversial, was mostly a success in the sense that it embarrassed the companies into taking better care of the horses. (See Pp. 60-61.)

Chapter 7 recounts how what was then referred to as an “epizootic” disease broke out, wiping out the nation’s horses. (P. 93.) An outbreak of horse flu just outside Toronto in the fall of 1872 quickly spread to most of the horses and mules in North America, killing them or rendering them too sick to work. This disrupted coal supplies which shut down iron mills and brought many manufacturing industries to a standstill. “[C]onsumer prices soared […] Perishable goods rotted on the docks […] School was canceled in some places for want of firewood or coal … [Even] funeral processions [were] impossible.” (Pp. 99-100.) Animal activists hoped that the epidemic would force “Americans to notice that these engines of commerce were, in fact, suffering creatures.” (P. 104.)

Freeberg frames this (at least to me) little-known event as the first American “energy crisis.” However, had it been published just a little later, one suspects Freeberg might have drawn explicit parallels to the disease currently on everyone’s mind: COVID-19. Slaughterhouses got into difficult situations during the first wave of the pandemic with outbreaks among workers resulting in closures and pile ups of animals reminding people that food animals were sentient beings with a life cycle delicately timed to serve industry needs.1 Seeing that timing thrown off whack has led some to think twice before using an animal-based food product rather than a plant-based one.2 A disease that jumps from nonhuman animals to humans (as experts believe happened with Covid-19, as it was first recorded effecting those eating or coming into contact with wild animals at a seafood market in Wuhan, China), might lead people to doubt the safety of animal foods, including what comes out from factory farms where animals are also kept in crowded conditions ripe for disease outbreak.

“[T]he horse disease,” as it was referred to, “remained confined to the equine population.” (P. 101 and P. 96.) Thankfully, it did not jump to humans. Freeberg tells us that the effect of making people think twice did take place to some extent with the horses. He writes of the 1872 flu: “At its darkest moments, the epidemic left many Americans wondering whether the world as they knew it would ever recover […] The shock of this, America’s first great “energy crisis,” made the anticruelty movement front-page news for many weeks.” (P. 107.) However, “[p]ublic resolve to relieve the suffering of the city’s overburdened horses seemed to fade as quickly as the animals’ fevers.” (P. 107.)

Overall horse suffering was decreased not so much by a sensitized public as the move to the steam engine and “machines that would be able to carry more weight, faster, and for less money.” (P. 109.) Freeberg explains that “[u]p until 1872 all experiments to replace horses with machines on city streets had mixed success. When they worked, the steam dummies seemed more menace than amenity. They moved too fast, clanked too loudly, billowed smoke, steam, and sparks, terrified horses, and produced horrific accidents.” (P. 110.) Car line managers, who “made heavy dividends out of a brutal abuse of horse-flesh” were “not convinced that steam will yield the same amount of money.” (P. 111.) Pandemics are capable of literally shoving people away from reliance on one form of technology towards another. Think Zoom. The shift Freeberg describes is ironic. We wouldn’t today applaud the shift to steam and the surer and more reliable movement of coal to industry as a net benefit, at least not to the environment and in terms of coal’s contribution to the current climate crisis we are in.

A similar irony is explored in Chapter 10, “Civilized Slaughter,” which describes how Chicago meatpacking plants developed the process of creating “dressed meat” shipped by rail in ice, which “saved” animals from the tortures of live transport to New York City and other eastern markets demanding cheap beef. This did not, of course, eliminate suffering; it changed the forms of suffering and made them invisible. “As every anticruelty crusader well knew, the surest path to rousing the public’s sympathy for the plight of animals was to have them see the suffering for themselves.” (P. 159.) Also consider Chapter 12, which discusses the “humane” methods of killing unwanted dogs and a shelter system, which also removed dog-killing from public view. Really Freeberg writes “the movement sheltered the public from the harsh reality” of the thousands of dogs who were being put to death. (P. 211.)

Freeberg does not problematize the electric steam engine saving the trolley and canal horses. (See, e.g. P. 274.) However, he does throw skepticism on the claim that “meat on ice” was “a moral gain for society.” (P. 274.) In the last chapter of the book, he writes about the modern factory farming system “calm[ing] the public conscience less by removing animal suffering than by removing it from view.” (P. 274.) Freeberg describes those who work today to “expose the profound cruelties” of the factory farming system as people who “struggle to make us once again see this suffering, far removed from the experience of consumers and carefully guarded by the meat processors and the state legislators who have passed ‘ag gag’’ laws that make sure we do not witness what we could not stand to watch.” (P. 274.) I found the discussion of that irony satisfying after Chapter 10 itself dealt with the development in an agnostic way.

Bergh was not a lawyer. And while a lot of his battles made their way into courtrooms (e.g.the battle against New York City turtle dealers) or took the form of calling for legislation (e.g. for Congress to regulate live animal rail transit across state lines), the primary weapon he used was notoriety and publicity. As he put it himself, “when building a movement, ‘Notoriety is wanted.’” (P. 19.) Being “intentionally provocative” was often effective, even if some of the changes (e.g. the switch to the steam engine or refrigerated rail cars) were going to happen anyway. (P. 275.) Bergh also was prepared to fight for the “all animals, not just those considered useful or lovable.” (P. 275.) While there is ample material in the book to focus on the horse, it also is only one slice of the wider and very informative history of Bergh and his campaigns provided by A Traitor to His Species. For those of you who love or are otherwise interested in horses (there are so many), it might work effectively to draw you into reading this fine book.

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  1. See Camille Labchuk, “Brutality of the meat industry is on display during COVID-19 pandemic,” Toronto Star (May 21, 2020).
  2. See, e.g.The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way people think about plant-based eating and its role in protecting personal and planetary health,” Food & Beverage Insider (February 24, 2021).
Cite as: Angela Fernandez, Henry Bergh, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Horse, JOTWELL (February 21, 2022) (reviewing Ernest Freeberg, A Traitor to His Species: Henry Bergh and the Birth of the Animal Rights Movement (2020)),