New York City, April 1866: The driver of a cart laden with
coal is whipping his horse. Passersby on the New York City street stop to gawk not so much at the weak, emaciated equine, but at the tall man, elegant in top hat and spats, who is explaining to the driver that it is now against the law to beat one’s animal. Thus, America first encounters The Great Meddler.
Henry Bergh was born in 1813, the son of a prominent shipbuilder. His adult years found him to be a man of leisure, dabbling in the arts and touring Europe. As was befitting the life of an aristocrat, in 1863 he was appointed to a diplomatic post at the Russian court of Czar Alexander II. It was there he first took action against man’s inhumanity toward animals. Soon after, en route to America, he stopped in London to crib notes from the Earl of Harrowby, president of England’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, founded in 1840.
Back in New York, Bergh pleaded on behalf of “these mute servants of mankind” at a February 8, 1866, meeting at Clinton Hall. According to the next day’s edition of The Sun Bergh impressed attendees with his indignant recollection of a family watching a bullfight in Spain who “…seemed to receive their most ecstatic throb from the maddening stab of the horned animal.” Bergh then detailed practices in America, including cockfighting and the horrors of slaughterhouses.
Fortified by the success of his speech and the number of dignitaries to sign his “Declaration of the Rights of Animals,” Bergh brought a charter for a proposed society to protect animals to the New York State Legislature. With his flair for drama he convinced politicians and committees of his purpose, and the charter incorporating the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was passed on April 10, 1866. Nine days later, an anti-cruelty law was passed, and the ASPCA granted the right to enforce it.
The ASPCA Henry Bergh Children’s Book Award was established to honor books that promote the humane ethic of compassion and respect for all living things.
Publishers are able to submit nominations, and each year ASPCA staff and a panel of outside judges select the best books published that year for children and young adults. The awards are presented each year at the annual conference of the American Library Association.
The cover photo says it all—a distinctly canine face, half smiling golden retriever and half intense gray wolf. Once inside, young animal lovers will learn about the similarities and differences between the family pooch and one of the wild kingdom’s most fascinating creatures. Questions answered include “Why does my dog’s hair stand up?,” “Why does my dog chew my stuff?” and “Why does my dog love to lick my face?”; be forewarned, the answer to the latter may surprise you! (Ages 9 – 12)