ASPCA Celebrates 140 Years of Animal Protection, Advocacy Efforts

On April 10, 2006, the Am5tion of Cruelty to Animals will celebrate its 140th anniversary with a variety of events to celebrate its past and publicize future goals. The group has grown significantly in size and power over the years but the original tenets of the group – to protect and advocate for the better treatment of animals – have survived an impressive history. The ASPCA was created in 1866 by Henry Bergh, an official assistant to the ambassador in St. Petersburg, Russia, who witnessed animal atrocities in his travels to Europe and throughout the United States. Nine days after the group was formed, an anti-cruelty law was passed in the United States.

The ASPCA has a strong tie with veterinarians in academia, private practice and humane organizations. Partnerships include the Coalition for Reuniting Pets and Families that focuses on microchip issues, the Alliance for the Contraception of Cats and Dogs, shelter medicine programs and many continuing education courses.

In a historical summary published on the website, ASPCA professionals describe a world in which hundreds of stray dogs were rounded up and drowned daily, working dogs and horses were starved, and cats were beaten. Although the focus was first on livestock and horses, the ASPCA shifted its focus to companion animals at the turn of the century though professionals say that the group has always worked with pets. “There has been a move from the treatment and protection of animals as property to their role as companions,” said Steve Zawistowski, DVM, a spokesperson for the ASPCA.

“In many ways, the horse issue became less urgent as the number of horses being used began to decline,” Zawistowski explained. In 1894, New York City government officials asked the ASPCA to manage the city pounds, which resulted in a great concentration on companion animal issues, he added.  The ASPCA instituted a salaried work force so the staff did not depend on redemption fees for compensation.  “The previous system had resulted in corruption with pound staff stealing dogs and holding them for redemption/ransom,” he said.

Today, the ASPCA gauges its success by the number of animal lives saved, whether through law enforcement action, veterinary care, animal adoptions or consultations through the Animal Poison Control Center, Zawistowski said. “We also look to make institutional changes where needed to provide better care and protection for animals.” The ASPCA created the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP), which includes animal protection groups and veterinary organizations including AAHA and the AVMA. NCPPSP has helped to set the standard for an empirical approach to pet population issues. It also created the Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital, which helps people provide quality care for their pets as well as the Animal Poison Control Center, which provides service to the entire veterinary community. The textbook, Animal Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians and Staff, published by the ASPCA, is used by several veterinary colleges and has helped to establish the critical role that veterinarians play in the structure and management of a humane animal shelter, Zawistowski said. “Veterinary staff [members] are a critical part of the professional team that sets ASPCA policy and positions,” he added.

International ties for the group date back to 1865, when Bergh left the U.S. embassy and stopped in England. He met with the Earl of Harrowsby, president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) that was founded in 1824. Bergh returned to the U.S. with the idea of starting an SPCA in America.

“The ASPCA does not support vandalism or other forms of illegal activities as part of the effort to protect animals.” Zawistowski said. “After all, we are a police force. We do support full expression of first amendment rights to speak out for animals. We also support "activism" by volunteers to help with adoptions, trap-neuter-release programs, education and letter writing campaigns.”