four takes

On the 150th anniversary of the ASPCA, books on animal rights

Anna Reed/Statesman-Journal/AP

In the early Hollywood westerns, there was scant time for character development. So directors learned tricks. In the first scene, for instance, they’d sit a dog outside a saloon. The guy who pets the dog? He’s the hero. And the villain? He kicks it. In fact, western bad guys were “dog kickers” in movie shorthand. It was that simple — no good person treats an animal badly.

I thought about this as I read “Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy” (St. Martin’s, 2002). As author Matthew Scully writes: “Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct.” This is a test worth pondering now, since Sunday marks the 150th anniversary of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

I’ll get to that history, but first I want to consider our lord-like “dominion” over beasts. Because “Dominion” is unlike anything I’ve ever read, a heady combination of investigative journalism, polemic, and especially theology. Indeed, God chooses Moses because he rescues a stray: “You who have compassion for a lamb shall now be the shepherd of my people Israel” (Exodus Rabbah 2:2). Then again, God also demanded animal sacrifices, and activists know there is no avoiding the complex question of farm animals in their efforts, writes Scully.


This conservative vegetarian and former National Review literary editor, asks us to think hard about why we recoil at animal slaughter. After all, he writes, “no one has ever cringed at the sight of a soybean factory.” Moreover, there’s a reason why systematic animal activism began in the wake of great human slaughter, with the ASPCA launched in 1866, the year after the Civil War ended, to fight “the blood-red hand of cruelty,” as founder Henry Bergh put it. His first big campaign focused on the mistreatment of streetcar-pulling workhorses. In the late 19th century, 25,000 died annually from overwork.

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I learned all this from “For the Prevention of Cruelty: The History and Legacy of Animal Rights Activism in the United States” (Swallow, 2006). Diane L. Beers, a history professor at Holyoke Community College, has set out to correct the “historical amnesia” that the movement only began in recent decades. Beers goes back to Puritan laws from 1641 that banned “Tirranny or Crueltie” toward domesticated animals. She then quotes English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s famous justification for legally protecting non-humans: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?’’ The British began the SPCA in 1824, which became the Royal SPCA in 1840, when (the dog-adoring) Queen Victoria gave her blessing.

In both the UK and the USA, animal rights were entwined with abolitionism, since slaves and creatures each suffered under the “lash and branding iron.” There are uncomfortable parallels here, comparing African Americans to animals, especially when “Black Beauty,” the 1890 novel of a victimized horse, is called the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” of the movement. But Beers also shepherds us through present-day victories and controversies, from veal crates to seal hunts to raids on labs that experiment on animals.

“Ethics Into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement” (Rowman & Littlefield, 1998) goes for a closer focus. This is a fascinating story, but I was unnerved by it, partly because the author is Peter Singer, the Princeton bioethics professor famous for his incendiary views about euthanasia and the disabled, and partly because I believe science can’t progress without some animal experimentation. Whatever I think, though, Spira — an assembly-line worker turned socialist turned journalist — was a creative proselytizer.

He’s the guy who launched the groundbreaking 1980 ad campaign against animal testing for cosmetics, i.e. “How many rabbits does Revlon blind for beauty’s sake?” Other targets shockingly include Amnesty International, for testing out human torture methods on pigs.


Ads are one thing, though, hands-on salvation another. Which drives me to “Rescue Road: One Man, Thirty Thousand Dogs, and a Million Miles on the Last Hope Highway” (Sourcebooks, 2015) by journalist Peter Zheutlin of Dover. He covers those “who get addicted to that feeling” of rescue, as Greg Mahle says. Mahle’s the gruff Ohio man of the title who brings a big trailer down South to pick up “Dixie dogs,” which proliferate because of the South’s no-spay culture: In Houston alone, there are (this is not a typo) 1.2 million strays.

If the book were a movie, the dog-petting Mahle would be the hero. But he estimates it takes about 100 people per rescue, when you tote up those who dumpster dive for abandoned animals, those who vaccinate, fund-raise, find adoptive families, disinfect the trailers, and many more. When Mahle brings the dogs to a northeastern drop-off spot, for waiting families, “I’ve never seen so many happy people in one place.” That’s my kind of kick.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at