This is the month we note the birth, on August 29, 1813, of Unitarian Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The hallmark of Bergh’s advocacy for animals was its hands-on practicality. Whenever he witnessed a driver beating a horse, he intervened, vocally and physically, stepping between the driver’s whip and the horse while explaining to the driver that such cruelty was illegal. Because horses suffered so terribly in the summer heat, Bergh’s ASPCA erected water fountains in the streets from which the horses could drink; some of these fountains remain in use. When Bergh noticed the difficulty of helping a horse who had fallen or broken a leg, he arranged for the design and production of ambulances powerful enough to aid the injured animals. He even employed specialized derricks to pull horses who had fallen into ditches and excavations.
Bergh’s concern was not limited to horses. Disturbed by the use of pigeons for target shooting, Bergh helped develop and popularize the use of clay pigeons. He worked tirelessly against cock fighting and dog fighting. Bergh once received a tip that a dog fight was planned at Sportsmen’s Hall on Water Street in lower Manhattan. Well in advance of the fight’s starting time, Bergh and one of his humane officers stealthily climbed onto the roof of the Hall. Just as the fight was about to begin, Bergh descended through a skylight into the middle of the fighting ring, rescuing both dogs and arresting the fight promoters.
In our Seventh Principle, we Unitarian Universalists affirm respect for the interdependent web of all life. Although this principle was not adopted until 1985, Unitarian Henry Bergh foreshadowed its use by founding not only the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but also the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Bergh’s courageous and practical fight against cruelty to animals serves as an example as we endeavor to embody the Seventh Principle in our own lives. We can take a moment on August 29 to remember his work.