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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

America's First Animal Shelter

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of America’s first animal shelter in 1869 in Philadelphia by the Women’s Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The center took in abused or stray dogs and cats, in addition to helping animals find their owners or new homes. But the group of 30 women activists, led by Caroline Earl White, had joined together first to fight cruelty against carriage horses on the streets of Philadelphia. “Animals have certain rights,” wrote White, “as inalienable as those of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The women were horrified by the blatant and pervasive mistreatment of horses pulling trolleys, coal carts, and all kinds of wagons, being whipped and beaten, forced to work 16 hour days with no water, food or rest, and left to die, then rot, on the streets when they collapsed from exhaustion, injury, acute laminitis (lameness), thirst or starvation.

One of the women’s first initiatives was to provide water for carriage horses with water wagons and watering stations, as well as building watering troughs. Through fundraisers and hard work, the group built 35 drinking fountains throughout Philadelphia for horses.

They also launched an education program, believing that education was the “best weapon against animal abuse.” Called “The Band of Mercy”, the program taught children to be kind to animals and report abuse. The shelter still exists today as the Women’s Animal Center, as do many of the 1860s & 1870s water troughs throughout the city.

Although the animal protection movement first gained momentum in Britain, America’s earliest recorded law against animal cruelty was in 1641. The Puritan minister, Nathan Ward in Agawam (later Ipswich), Massachusetts, drafted a ”Body of Liberties,” that included protections for animals. The law read: “No man shall exercise any Tirranny or Crueltie towards any bruite Creature which are usuallie kept for man’s use” and that cattle could not be driven over long distances without foot and rest.

But, sadly, the Puritan ethic was not prevalent throughout much of American society and animal cruelty, mistreatment, and endangerment were commonplace and often accepted. Animals were regarded as property, to do with as an owner pleased. It was not until the mid-1800s, when labor and social reforms began sweeping the nation that animal welfare also entered the national consciousness.

The 1860s and 1870s saw a huge surge in animal welfare reform when the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) was founded in 1866 by Henry Bergh. As the pioneer in the humane movement, the ASPCA became the model for more than 25 other humane organizations in the United States and Canada. Two years later, the Massachusetts chapter of ASPCA was founded by a group of civic leaders including John Quincy Adams II and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Several years after that the American Humane Association was founded in 1877.

ASPCA founder Henry Bergh was an American diplomat on assignment in Russia when he stopped a carriage driver from beating his collapsed horse. The year was 1863, and the incident affected Bergh profoundly. On his way back to America in 1865, he visited the Royal Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in London and vowed to launch a similar movement in the United States. He soon resigned his post and returned to New York and founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

He and other animal welfare activists had an uphill battle because abuse and mistreatment of animals was pervasive in American culture. Bergh was able to convince the New York State Legislature to pass the country’s first effective anti-cruelty law in 1866. New York had an 1829 law on the books which named cruelty to a horse or mule a misdemeanor, but it was not enforced. Bergh’s revisions put teeth in the law and prohibited a wide number of cruel activities including bull, bear, dog, and cock fighting; animal abandonment (which was common when horses were too weak to be of value anymore); starving, beating, depriving of water, inadequate care, and torture. The legislation also brought into sharp focus the definition of what “cruelty” meant in the legal system and many horrific, but common business practices were brought under the scrutiny of the law as a result.

Not only were the laws passed but police began to vigorously enforce them. The first case that landed a successful prosecution involved slaughterhouse wagons in which cows, calves or sheep had their four feet tightly bound together, then stacked live on top of each other, filling a high-topped wagon. The animals on the bottom suffocated or were crushed to death. The ASPCA and other animal welfare organizations began dramatic street rescues of mistreated horses, dogs and livestock.

Another landmark case that brought the ASPCA to public attention and wide press coverage involved a boatload of turtles shipped from Florida to New York that were packed tightly on their backs with holes cut through their flippers and strung together with string. Although Bergh lost the case and the judge told him to go home and mind his own business, the case succeeded in bringing a groundswell of supporters to the Society and the cause of protecting animals.

Ironically, animal welfare organizations became the inspiration for founding organizations to prevent cruelty to children. In 1874, when 9-year-old Mary Ellen McCormack was found chained to her bed and brutally beaten by her foster parents, activists founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Bergh served as one of the group’s first vice presidents. (The movements to fight cruelty to both children and animals have always been closely linked. Even today, the psychiatric community draws strong correlations between animal cruelty and domestic abuse. And many Humane Societies participate in programs in which they report animal abuse to municipal police because there is a 75% likelihood that where there is animal abuse, there is also domestic or child abuse.)

Within a few years of Bergh’s New York legislative work, many states followed suit and anti-cruelty laws were passed in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Michigan, California, Nebraska, and other states. Twenty years after Bergh started his efforts in New York, states in the South and West were passing animal welfare laws too. By the time Bergh died in 1888, 37 of the 38 states in the Union had passed anti-cruelty laws. Mississippi Judge Arnold wrote an eloquent judgment commenting on how differently the legal system had come to view animals after a century of dramatic change:

“Law, and the enforcement of laws for the protection of animals from cruelty, are, in my judgment, among the best evidences of the justice and benevolence of men. To disregard the rights and feelings of equals, is unjust and ungenerous, but to willfully or wantonly injure or oppress the weak and helpless is mean and cowardly. Cruelty to animals manifests a vicious and degraded nature, and it tends inevitably to cruelty to men. Animals capable, perhaps, of feeling as great physical pain or pleasure as ourselves deserve kindly treatment. Often their beauty, gentleness and fidelity suggest that their creation [was] to expand the sympathies of our race. Human beings should be kind and just to animals, if for no other reason than to learn how to be kind and just to each other."

PHOTOS: (1) Children play in the street in 1903 New York City next to a dead horse at 527 West 125th Street. Trolley horses, carriage horses and horses used to pull freight and coal wagons were often overworked and poorly cared for. There were no federal animal protection laws until—shockingly—the 1966 Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act of 1970! Photographer: Joseph Byron. Library of Congress. (2) Collapsed horse pulling a potato wagon. Date, city unknown. (3) Two horses pulling an overloaded, double-decker trolley around 1900. Horses could work 12 - 16-hour days with little rest in cities. This double-decker trolley appears to be carrying 50 people or more and weighs 4-5 tons for just two horses. (4) The American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals established and operated the nation’s first ambulance for horses in 1867. (5) The Women’s Humane Society picketed beginning in 1867 against cruelty to carriage horses and worked to provide watering stations for horses. Horses collapsing on streets from thirst or overwork was a common occurrence. If the horse was too sickly to rise, or died, it was simply abandoned on the street. (6) New Yorker and former U.S. diplomat to Russia, Henry Bergh, founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866. It would become the model for many animal welfare and children welfare organizations founded in the United States and Canada. (7, 8 & 9) Caroline Earl White founded the Philadelphia by the Women’s Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the first animal shelter in 1869 in Philadelphia. She led the fight against cruelty to carriage horses on the streets of Philadelphia and a movement to establish free water wagons and troughs for horses. (10 & 11) Beginning in the 1860s, animal protectionists saw the safeguarding of children and animals as equally important, as both were vulnerable creatures in need of protection. Dogs and cats were of special concern because they were the most common pets and horses because they were ubiquitous in 1800s life and their abuse was so commonplace. But farm stock and animals in zoos also came under scrutiny. Photo on left, little girl with dog. About 1880. Tulare County Library, Annie R. Mitchell History Room, California. (12) America’s first animal shelter, founded in 1869 in Philadelphia by the Women’s Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, took in abused and stray dogs and cats.


Posted October 3, 2019

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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