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A Traitor to His Species

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A Traitor to His Species

Henry Bergh and the Birth of the Animal Rights Movement

Basic Books,

15 min read
9 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

An eccentric fanatic, ASPCA founder Henry Bergh was the 1800’s most vocal animal-rights champion.

Editorial Rating



  • Eye Opening
  • Engaging
  • Inspiring


In 1866, Henry Bergh – a middle-aged, aristocratic failed author and heir to a business fortune​​​​​​ – founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in New York City. Bergh became the United States’ most effective advocate for the then-burgeoning – now prominent – animal-rights cause, and its most famous lightning rod. In this fascinating biography, history professor Ernest Freeberg provides an inspirational report on Bergh’s trailblazing work and landmark success in the nonprofit world.


In the 19th century, people began to take action against animal cruelty and those responsible for it.

In the 1800s, domestic and farm animals suffered cruel treatment and painful drudgery. Vintage engravings of big city streets depict an animal dystopia: horses and mules yoked to wagons jammed as tightly together as taxis during today’s rush hour.

The antique images don’t show other scenes: huge herds of cattle, pigs and other distressed animals packed in city stockyards. In those days, residents on the outskirts of cities – and sometimes in urban slums – raised farm animals in makeshift sheds. People kept cows in garbage-strewn alleys and let pigs roam the streets. Packs of stray dogs chased frantic poultry in urban backyards and grimy roadways.

The daily cruelties toward animals were often painful to witness: angry teamsters bashing the skulls of recalcitrant horses with rocks; young boys setting gas-soaked cats on fire; people leaving elderly, sick and hurt animals – often house pets – on the street to die. People kept mules and horses in reeking underground ...

About the Author

Ernest Freeberg, Distinguished Professor of Humanities and head of the History Department at the University of Tennessee, also wrote Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, The Great War, and the Right to Dissent.  

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