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The Great Meddler
In Henry Bergh—a reformed dilettante who founded the A.S.P.C.A.—many saw a latter-day Saint Francis of Assisi. But others, especially the cruel or the thoughtless, regarded him as The Great Meddler.
December 1967 | Volume 19, Issue 1
“The day following,” Bergh told a lecture audience, “the Herald devoted six columns to an account of the trial … and to the funny fellow who wrote that account I have always felt grateful, for his ridicule awakened the public from its apathy. Next day one million people understood my purpose and in a week, twenty millions knew there was a society for the defense of inferior animals.”
Bergh tried on several subsequent occasions to come to the rescue of Florida turtles. It was one of his few failures. Even his best friends were embarrassed. Americans were not ready to extend their concern about animal welfare to a cold-blooded species. Nor, though they could get excited about cruelties practiced upon such domestic friends as dogs, cats, and horses, could people work up much sympathy for those forms of sentient life which they had decided were vermin—the woodchuck, the English sparrow, spiders and flies, the rattlesnake. The popular attitude was slightly different toward wild animals torn from their natural environment for human amusement.
Henry Bergh was a constant annoyance to Barnum in the latter’s zoological activities, although Barnum usually extracted valuable publicity out of their clashes. An incident occurred when the A.S.P.C.A. learned that the boa constrictors in the Broadway menagerie were being fed living animals in the presence of paying customers. The resulting pressure from Bergh was so heavy that at one time Barnum had to send his snakes to Hoboken to feed them, beyond the reach of the A.S.P.C.A., whose writ did not run in New Jersey.
Barnum found a way to punish Bergh. He obtained from Agassiz a letter saying that snakes required live food and expressing doubt that the active members of the A.S.P.C.A. “would object to eating lobster salad because the lobster was boiled alive, or refuse oysters because they were cooked alive, or raw oysters because they must be swallowed alive.” The president of Barnum & Van Amburgh’s Museum and Menagerie thereupon demanded an apology from the president of the A.S.P.C.A. and released to the newspapers the complete correspondence concerning the controversy.
Some years and several incidents later, Barnum embarrassed Bergh again when he announced that Salamander, the Fire Horse, would jump through fire as one of the main attractions of the Barnum, Bailey & Hutchinson show. Bergh rose to the bait and sent Superintendent T. W. Hartfield of the A.S.P.C.A. with five agents and twenty policemen to stop the act. Barnum entered the circus ring and gained the audience’s sympathy with a clever speech, predicting that, if he were arrested, “I shall place a hoop of fire around Henry Bergh that will make him warmer than he has been in the past and probably than he will ever experience in the future!” The fire hoops were ignited. The impresario himself leaped through the hoops, followed by ten clowns and Salamander. Finally, Superintendent Hartfield himself passed through the fire unsinged. The flames were artificial, produced by a harmless chemical.
Respect and even affection developed between the two extraordinary characters after Bergh defended Barnum on an occasion in 1885 when the latter was attacked for using elephant goads. The showman began contributing to both the New York and Connecticut anticruelty societies and announced from his home in Bridgeport that he was “the Bergh of Bridgeport.” In his will, Barnum bequeathed a thousand dollars to Bridgeport for the erection of a statue to Bergh. The memorial was unveiled October i, 1897; it had water troughs on two levels and was topped by a statue of a horse. In March of 1964 an automobile crashed into the base, toppling the horse and damaging it beyond repair. But the rest of the monument still stands at Main Street and University Avenue.
As the years passed, the A.S.P.C.A. kept a vigilant eye on the market for worn-out horses; on the city dog pound, where strays were executed with revolting cruelty; on the treatment of draft animals along the Erie Canal; on the condition of the stump-tailed cows of Brooklyn and Long Island (the tails dropped off milkers that were diseased). The cows, which were fed on garbage and distillery slops, produced milk that was sold as “Pure Orange County Milk.” In this instance, Bergh’s concern for animals resulted also in a severe arraignment of the dairy business, with beneficial side effects upon sanitation and public health. Bergh is also credited with devising derricks and slings for raising large animals that had fallen into excavations, and with the invention of the clay pigeon to save maimed birds from the guns of trap-shooters. He also put an ambulance wagon into service for New York’s animals two years before Bellevue Hospital introduced the idea for humans.