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The Great Meddler
Today is the birthday of the late Henry Bergh. To those who have seen Redemption, my documentary about the No Kill revolution in America, Bergh needs no introduction:
To those who haven’t, he was a 19th Century animal advocate who incorporated the nation’s first SPCA and helped launch the humane movement in North America.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote of him:
Among the noblest of the land;
Though he may count himself the least;
That man I honor and revere;
Who, without favor, without fear;
In the great city dares to stand;
The friend of every friendless beast.
And he was. After getting New York to pass an anti-cruelty law, he put a copy in his pocket and took to the streets that night and every night after that for the remainder of his life — to help animals and punish abusers.
The annals of the time describe what happened next:
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.’
And meddle he did. One winter evening during the evening rush hour, working people rushed for the horse-drawn railway cars, and the horses, with bleeding noses, began to strain with heavy loads through snow and slush. As one overloaded car reached the corner near where Bergh stood, the driver was ready to give the horses another lash when the call came to “Stop!” and “Unload!” It was Bergh. “Who the hell are you?” came the reply from the driver. “Unload!” called Bergh again. When the driver refused, Bergh pitched him into a snow bank and unhitched the horses. It would become a common sight.
“Day after day,” he wrote,
I am in slaughterhouses; or lying in wait at midnight with a squad of police near some dog pit; through the filthy markets and about the rotten docks; out into the crowded and dangerous streets; lifting a fallen horse to his feet, or perhaps sending the driver before a magistrate, penetrating dark and unwholesome buildings where I inspect collars and saddles for raw flesh; then lecturing in public schools to children, and again to adult Societies. Thus my whole life is spent.
Although he is not very well-known, we and the animals owe him a great deal. Every humane society that stands up for animals, every animal protection group that gives voice to the voiceless, and the millions of animals who have been saved thanks to the efforts of activists and rescuers are a legacy to his life. Bergh was one of the first Americans to weave the ideals of animal protection into our jurisprudence, the American psyche, and the fabric of American life.
Happy birthday, No. 210, to The Great Meddler!
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