The evolution of animal rights


Before New York state adopted a landmark anti-cruelty law in 1866, animals only had rights insofar as they concerned the property interests of livestock owners. In short, animals could be treated any way an owner saw fit. Stray cats and dogs were routinely rounded up and killed by dogcatchers. Many men spent their leisure hours at 273 Water St. in Manhattan to enjoy an urban pastime of the era: betting on how many rats a dog could kill in a given amount of time.

However, abolitionists and temperance activists in the post-Civil War period were beginning to view animal welfare as a new front in the battle to make American society a more moral place. One of them, shipping heir Henry Bergh, took up the cause and founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which the state Legislature tasked with enforcing the anti-cruelty law. With the help of supporters like Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Bergh and the ASPCA set to expand animal rights nationwide – starting in New York.