Book Review: Our Kindred Creatures: The birth of the American animal rights movement

Imagine it is 1866 and you are strolling the streets of New York City.

The first thing you might notice are the hundreds upon hundreds of horses pulling people in packed trolleys up and down the streets and avenues, the closest thing at the time to subway cars. You may find yourself suddenly surrounded not only by people, but by herds of cows and pigs and sheep as they are led to the slaughterhouses that dot Manhattan. If you head north to the affluent stretch of Fifth Avenue you may pass society’s elite as they parade their pure-bred dogs (the latest fashion statement at the time). If you look closely you will see birds, or the remnants of them, decorating women’s hats. Feathers from ostrich, heron, egrets, even the Carolina parakeet (a bird well on its way to extinction).

You may also witness a curious scene: A man standing on his stopped carriage in the middle of an avenue, holding up traffic, as he upbraids a passing carriage driver for whipping his horse. If you had seen this man, whose name was Henry Bergh, you would have witnessed the earliest manifestations of the American animal rights movement.

In Our Kindred Creatures: How Americans Came to Feel the Way They Do about Animals authors Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy take us back to the second half of the 19th century, when the animal rights movement sprung to life and quickly spread across the United States.

You’ll first meet Henry Bergh, a man born into wealth with a burning desire to attack “cruelism” wherever he saw it. He would not hesitate to confront anyone abusing a horse or any animal, stopping traffic in New York City if needed. But he was also a savvy tactician, working with politicians and other leaders to push through laws that his newfound organization, the Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, would eagerly enforce. The ASPCA, inspired by and modeled after England’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was soon replicated across other cities. By 1871 there were more than a dozen organizations, from Boston to St. Louis to San Francisco.

Up until this point in American history, animals had no rights, no protections and, as the book documents, no veterinarians. It was common to see carriage drivers abusing their horses. Dog fighting and bear baiting matches were popular forms of entertainment as well as bullfights. But standing up to them was Bergh and his growing army of animal protection soldiers.

Up north in Boston we meet George Angell, the founder of the Massachusetts SPCA and equally driven to bring about change though on a much larger scale. While Bergh was arresting animal abusers across New York City, Angell was looking for ways to build a nationwide movement of enlightened Americans.

What Angell wanted, what he believed was possible, was nothing less than a moral revolution in America, one carried along by human emotion in rebellion against suffering of all forms. “Some of our friends most deeply interested in animal-protection societies are frequently charged with being sentimental,” he wrote … “To protect the weak, bind up the broken-hearted, defend the defenseless, raise the downtrodden, give liberty to the enslaves, — these are all sentiments.”

While reading this book I was reminded of a Brigid Brophy quote from her essay published in The Sunday Times in 1965. She wrote: “Whenever people say, ‘We mustn’t be sentimental,’ you can take it they are about to do something cruel.”

But Angell embraced sentimentalism and smartly used it to his advantage.

He founded a magazine called Our Dumb Animals, which, despite the name, was one of the most progressive animal rights magazines one could read, expanding to a circulation of 75,000 in 1890. Angell worked with schools to inspire children into becoming animal protectors. And he published (stole, actually) the novel Black Beauty, which had been published years earlier in England to much success. Angell had been hoping to find the equivalent of an Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the animal rights movement. By pricing the book at just 20 cents a copy, he indeed created a bestseller — selling nearly 400,000 copies in its first year. Sadly, author Anna Sewell never lived to see her novel become so successful.

In Philadelphia, we meet Caroline White, who founded the American Anti-Vivisection Society, a group that fought against the doctors and surgeons who thought nothing of operating of non-sedated animals. The legacy of animal testing is with us today and is no less contentious.

We head east to Chicago where we witness the rise of animal industries — mass-production slaughterhouses that raised animal cruelty to a level we have yet to reckon with today. But back then, the mass production of killing was viewed with awe the way one might view the mass production of automobiles.

The Chicago historian Dominic Pacyga — whose notes that local schoolchildren were taken to the slaughterhouses for decades, as recently as the 1950s — has described the purpose of this spectacle as “the presentation of the modern,” reflecting the rising attitude that brought hundreds of thousands of people to witness the miracles of the World’s Fair and the savagery of the meat industry nearby: the knowledge of what so-called progress looked like, but also a desensitization to its less salubrious side, and to the idea that some level of violence might be necessary for its continuance.

The slaughterhouses that emerged during Industrial Revolution and were bigger and, in many ways, far crueler than anything that came before. And despite the efforts of so many activists over the past 150 years, it is frustrating to see so few changes for the better. The authors note that despite the amazing progress we have seen in protections for some animal species (dogs, cats, endangered species) there are some species deemed unworthy of protection even today:

As of this writing, America is home to roughly 99 million cattle and 74 million pigs: populations that exceed those of dogs and cats … It’s not that they’re less intelligent, or less capable of suffering. It’s not that we owe them any less; our patterns of consumption lead to their existence and their treatment. We simply don’t care enough about them — at least not yet.

To right a wrong, one must first see a wrong. In the 1860s, a handful of Americans awoke to the plight of animals and gave rise to the animal rights movement, a movement that has accomplished so much and still has so far to go. We are overdue for a second awakening.

This enlightening, engaging and occasionally shocking book is a must read and a testament to the empathetic and fearless Americans who did so much for “Our Dumb Animals.” You will finish this book inspired to pick up where our animal activist ancestors left off.


PS: Two other excellent books to consider include Entangled Encounters at the National Zoo and Animal City.

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