the cover of Davis' 'The History of Animal Protections in the United States' which is Red, Black, and White stripes with the title and author name.

Janet M. Davis

American animal protectionists from earlier centuries might seem unrecognizable today. Most ate meat. They believed in euthanasia as a humane end to creaturely suffering. They justified humanity’s kinship with animals through biblical ideas of gentle stewardship. They accepted animal labor as a compulsory burden of human need. Their sites of activism included urban streets, Sunday schools, church pulpits, classrooms, temperance meetings, and the transnational missionary field. Committed to animal welfare, they strove to prevent pain and suffering. Contemporary animal rights activists, by contrast, believe that animals possess the right to exist free from human use and consumption. Consequently, current activists and their scholarly associates often miss the historical significance of earlier eras of activism. A growing historiography, however, demonstrates the centrality of animal protection to major American transformations such as Protestant revivalism and reform, the growth of science and technology, the rise of modern liberalism, child protectionism, and the development of American ideologies of benevolence.

Animal protection entered the American colonial record in December 1641, when the Massachusetts General Court enacted its comprehensive legal code, the “Body of Liberties.” Sections 92–93 prohibited “any Tirranny or Crueltie towards any bruite Creature which are usuallie kept for man’s use” and mandated periodic rest and refreshment for any “Cattel” being driven or led.(1) Puritan animal advocates believed that cruel dominion was a consequence of Adam and Eve’s fall from the Garden of Eden; kindly stewardship, however, reflected their reformist ideals, thus illuminating a long historical relationship between religion, reform, and animal protection.

two children and two dogs outside
Beginning in the 1870s, animal protectionists saw the safeguarding of children and animals as equally important, as both were vulnerable creatures in need of protection. COURTESY OF THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

Transnational Protestant revivalism and social reform in the early nineteenth century fueled the expansion of animal protectionism. In Great Britain, evangelicals and abolitionists spearheaded the earliest animal protection laws (1822) and organized societies (1824), which became a blueprint for dozens of new anticruelty laws in America. Social reformers and ministers became attentive to the status of animals during the Second Great Awakening (1790–1840). Embracing a new theology of free moral agency and human perfectibility, American ministers such as Charles Grandison Finney included animal mercy in their exegeses on upright Christian conduct. New transportation networks and communications technologies broadcast animal protection to far-flung audiences through classroom readers, Sunday school pamphlets, and fiction.

Antebellum abolitionists and temperance activists treated animal welfare as a barometer for human morality. Antislavery newspapers and novels, most famously Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), stressed the incidence of animal abuse among slaveholders and animal kindness among abolitionists. Many future animal welfare leaders possessed abolitionist ties, such as George Thorndike Angell, founder and president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). Temperance advocates likewise believed that inebriates were cruel to their families and their horses. The Bands of Hope, a children’s group, stressed animal kindness as a moral complement to sobriety.

Antebellum activism and cultural thought created a foundation for a new social movement after the Civil War. The abolition of slavery and the horror of battle—documented in thousands of wartime photographs of dead soldiers and horses—brought suffering and human rights to a national audience, therefore catalyzing a national movement. Animal protectionists believed that creaturely kindness was a marker of advanced civilization, which could rectify a fractured nation and world. The penultimate moment for a new movement arrived on April 10, 1866, when the New York Legislature incorporated a groundbreaking state animal protection society vested with policing powers to prosecute abuse. Henry Bergh, a shipping heir, drafted the articles of incorporation of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) with the help of his influential allies, including historian George Bancroft and state senator Ezra Cornell. Days later, they spearheaded a powerful new state anticruelty law, which they amended in 1867 to prohibit additional forms of cruelty, including blood sports and abandonment. Bergh and his officers policed the streets wearing uniforms and badges to enforce the law.

By the 1870s SPCAs and anticruelty laws modeled after Bergh’s work in New York existed in most states. In the Gilded Age, activists directed their attention to the plight of domestic laboring animals in an urban, muscle-powered world—especially horses. Historians Clay McShane, Joel Tarr, and Ann Greene demonstrate the centrality of urban horses in building modern industrial America. Further, they treat horses as historical agents rather than passive conduits for a history of human ideas about animals.(2) As the nation’s primary urban movers of machines, food, and people, horses suffered abusive drivers and overloaded haulage conditions with visible regularity. Animal protectionists also addressed the bleak system of livestock railroad transport from western rangelands to urban stockyards and slaughterhouses, culminating with the nation’s first federal animal welfare legislation in 1873, which mandated food, water, and rest stops every twenty-eight hours. They raided animal fights; they tried to end vivisection in laboratories and classrooms; and they routinely shot decrepit workhorses as a merciful end to suffering.

Animals were legally defined as property, but Bergh’s watershed legislation recognized cruelty as an offense to the animal itself—irrespective of ownership.(3) Historian Susan Pearson argues that these laws helped transform American liberalism—from a classical conception of rights in the negative—to augur the rise of the modern “interventionist” liberal state. Pearson contends that this positive conception of rights drew animal protectionists into child protection in the 1870s. Bergh’s chief counsel, Elbridge Gerry, founded the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1874 after he secured the arrest and conviction of an abusive foster mother for felonious assault. Animal protectionists across the nation subsequently instituted amalgamated “humane societies,” which safeguarded animals and children under a singular protective fold, positing that helpless “beasts and babes” had a right to protection because they could suffer. Viewed within an existing system of subordinate relations, the right to protection did not confer an automatic right to equality. Nonetheless, humane activists established a historical precedent for future generations of animal rights activists because they placed animals on a legal continuum with vulnerable human beings.

The majority of animal protectionists were affluent, nativeborn Euro-American Protestants. Men typically led SPCAs and patrolled the streets as officers, while women generally worked behind the scenes using moral suasion—raising funds, writing appeals, and coordinating educational activities. Keeping with prevailing ideologies of respectable white womanhood, Caroline Earle White secured a state charter for the founding of the Pennsylvania SPCA in 1867 but refused to seek election as the organization’s first president. She also founded the American Anti-vivisection Association in 1883 but delayed passage of its incorporation until she and her female colleagues could find a man willing to serve as president.(4)

Some women, however, readily assumed leadership positions when they founded their own organizations. In 1869 White co-created the Women’s Branch of the Pennsylvania SPCA and served as its first president. In 1890 Women’s Branch leader Mary Frances Lovell became national superintendent of the Department of Mercy, an animal welfare wing in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. The Women’s Branch pioneered municipal stray canine reform. In an era before vaccines and sterilization, local dogcatchers staged massive summertime roundups in which strays were shot or violently thrown into crowded wagons and killed at the pound. The Women’s Branch instituted new humane capture methods, and they transformed Philadelphia’s municipal pound into a humane “shelter,” where dogs received regular care. Euthanasia, when necessary, occurred in a separate room using gas, out of view from other dogs. Historian Bernard Unti observes that women sheltering leaders typically sought no powers of arrest in their state charters because their work with strays did not confront animal abusers directly.(5) Owing to pressure from members, mainstream SPCAs eventually incorporated stray management, sheltering, and adoption into their already stretched budgets.

With its affluent, urban, native-born Protestant base, the animal protection movement faced charges of exclusion and elitism—especially because teamsters and other targets of prosecution were often immigrants and people of color whose economic survival depended on animal muscle. In a pluralistic society, many humane activists viewed their own classed and culturally contingent ideals of kindness as universal when denouncing animal practices different than their own, such as kosher slaughter. They believed that animal kindness was a manifestation of higher civilization at home and in the overseas empire after the Spanish-American War. Interactions with animals, consequently, were often a flashpoint for conflict. Filipinos, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans flatly rejected U.S. anticockfighting laws as an oppressive colonial intrusion into indigenous leisure practices.(6)

Nonetheless, the animal protection movement was not a wholesale project of policing. Animal advocates preferred prevention over prosecution. Children’s pedagogy became an institutionalized arm of the movement in 1889 when George Angell founded the American Humane Education Society (AHES) as the centerpiece of his holistic “gospel of kindness.” In the South, several African American ministers, educators, and temperance activists served as AHES field secretaries. They staged meetings in black schools and churches to preach a conservative message of animal mercy, self-help, and racial uplift. They traveled widely by car, which represented a potentially dangerous show of black upward mobility in the rural Jim Crow South, especially when their lectures discussed exploitative practices such as debt peonage and sharecropping. The Massachusetts SPCA openly denounced human rights abuses, as well as American militarism overseas. Yet the organization embraced moral expansionism when sponsoring American missionaries, who integrated humane education curricula into their evangelical activities across the world.

With the growth of motor power during the 1910s, fewer laboring animals populated American cities. SPCAs staged nostalgic workhorse parades as a tribute to equine service and to raise funds for new comfortable retirement farms. In 1916 the American Humane Association founded the American Red Star Animal Relief to aid American warhorses, mules, and donkeys during World War I. The organization’s fundraising pleas reminded donors that equines performed invaluable labor in impenetrable terrain despite the ascendancy of motorization. After the armistice, global horse markets collapsed and American warhorses were auctioned off in Europe because trans-Atlantic transport was cost prohibitive in an age of impending obsolescence. While equines remained an important source of agricultural labor, the expanding dominance of motorization changed the scope and direction of American animal protectionism.

Animal advocates increasingly viewed animal performances, long a staple of popular entertainment, as unethical. In 1918 the Massachusetts SPCA founded the Jack London Club in memory of the late author, who condemned animal entertainments. People joined by walking out of an animal show and sending a postcard to the Massachusetts SPCA with the details. While the organization had no immediate legislative impact, it represented a harbinger of activism to come in a motorized world.

During the twentieth century, slaughterhouse reform and antivivisectionism remained important activist sites. Yet pets, especially dogs and cats, escalated as subjects of protection. Historian Katherine Grier contends that the growth of a consumer culture of pet keeping, alongside the development of sulfonamides, parasite control, and antibiotics in the 1930s and 1940s, enabled people and their pets to live longer, healthier lives together in closer proximity.(7) Attitudes towards cats, perhaps, changed the most. In the nineteenth century, some animal protectionists maligned the cat as a semiwild killer of cherished songbirds. Medical advances and new consumer products, such as cat litter in 1947, brought cats indoors. By the mid-twentieth century, dogs, cats, and sheltering dominated animal protectionism.

The coalition of movements dedicated to moral uplift that had given animal protection its interconnected human and animal agenda eventually fractured, portending an almost singular focus on animals. The professionalization of social work during the Progressive Era cleaved the earlier union of child and animal protectionists into separate fields. The repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933 dissolved the temperance movement—a longstanding stalwart ally. Gradual secularization also transformed animal protection. Earlier generations of activists forged alliances with religious leaders, but mid-century humane periodicals focused on celebrity animal lovers in media and politics. While the movement’s mainline Protestant founders believed in biblical stewardship, their descendants embraced Darwinism.

Energized by the social justice movements of the 1960s and 1970s, animal protection evolved into two distinct but overlapping movements. Animal welfare groups, such as the ASPCA, remained focused on sheltering, adoption, and the prevention of suffering. In 1975 utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer published Animal Liberation, which was immediately hailed as a “bible” for an emergent animal rights movement. Singer argued that sentient creatures have a right to “equal consideration” because they can suffer and considered “speciesism” to be a form of discrimination akin to racism and sexism.(8) This claim, however, was rejected by many civil rights groups, who argued that it trivialized their social justice struggles. Singer, like most animal rights writers, supported veganism in an age when factory-like Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations have replaced pasture farming. Yet some activists, such as philosopher Tom Regan, concluded that Animal Liberation‘s utilitarian call to minimize suffering was ultimately too conservative or “welfarist.” In 1983 Regan applied deontology—a branch of philosophy that explores moral duty—to animals. His book, The Case for Animal Rights, contended that animals possess intrinsic moral rights as individual “subjects of a life” with complex feelings and experiences that extend beyond their ability to suffer.(9)

A close up of a monkey
Some scholars, most notably Steven Wise, argue that certain animals (such as this lowland gorilla pictured here) possess legal personhood, owing to their superior cognitive abilities. PHOTO BY RYAN VAARSI ( under Creative Commons 2.0 license (

Paradoxically, vivisection has unwittingly validated the newest frontier in animal protection in the twenty-first century: legal personhood. In 2000 legal scholar Steven Wise used recent research in neuroscience and genetics in his book, Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals, to argue that great apes, cetaceans, elephants, and African gray parrots possess the legal right to “bodily liberty,” owing to their superior cognitive abilities.(10) Wise founded the Nonhuman Rights Project in 2007 to take the principles of legal personhood to court. Armed with the writ of habeas corpus in state courts, Wise and his associates contend that captivity constitutes unlawful imprisonment. Suing on behalf of captive chimpanzees since 2013, Wise’s team have served as proxies for their plaintiffs to achieve legal standing in court, a strategy based on centuries of human precedent involving children, slaves, prisoners, and mentally incapacitated plaintiffs. While Wise and his colleagues have yet to prevail in court, they have received a hearing, a critical first step in a long appeals process.(11)

The claims of the Nonhuman Rights Project for legal standing rest upon the inseparable histories of human rights and animal protection. Embedded in the history of religion, social reform, and war, early generations of American humane advocates argued that animal kindness was a form of human sanctification. They believed that the status of animals was a conduit for human moral uplift. Yet with the rise of biological explanations for animal-human kinship, animal rights advocates have used the status of vulnerable people to argue that animals, as moral “subjects of a life,” possess the right to legal personhood. Ultimately, this shared history is simultaneously liberatory, conflictual, and entangled.

JANET M. DAVIS is an associate professor of American studies and history at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top (2002) and editor of Circus Queen and Tinker Bell: The Life of Tiny Kline (2008). Her book, The Gospel of Kindness: Animal Welfare and the Making of Modern America, will be published in 2016.

(1) “The Liberties of the Massachusets Collonie in New England, 1641,” from Hanover Historical Texts Project,

(2) Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr, The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century (2007); Ann Norton Greene, Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in
Industrial America (2008).

(3) Susan J. Pearson, The Rights of the Defenseless: Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age America (2011), 78.

(4) Bernard Oreste Unti, “‘The Quality of Mercy’: Organized Animal Protection in the United States, 1866–1930” (2002), 153, 155.

(5) Unti, 478–86.

(6) Janet M. Davis, “Cockfight Nationalism: Blood Sport and the Moral Politics of Empire and Nation Building,” in “Species/Race/Sex,” ed. Claire Jean Kim and Carla
Freccero, special issue, American Quarterly, 65 (Sept. 2013), 549–74.

(7) Katherine Grier, Pets in America: A History (2006).

(8) Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (1990), 6.

(9) Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (2004); Gary Francione, Rain without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement (1996).

(10) Steven Wise, Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals (2000).

(11) Charles Siebert, “Should a Chimp Be Able to Sue Its Owner?” New York Times, April 27, 2014, p. MM28.