Regarding Henry

December 28, 2009 by  

Or, my family vacation to New York City

I just returned from our now annual family trip to New York City, my second favorite city in the United States. This is our third trip since we moved out of the state in 2004. It rained and gusted one day and one of the places on our “to do” list, a vegan ice cream shop named Lulu’s Sweet Apothecary was closed for the holidays, a disappointment. But I love New York City: Christmas in Central Park (except the heartbreaking spectacle of the cruel carriage horse industry), Rockefeller Center, walking among all the people, and most of all, the food. We ate at Candle 79, Hangawi (quite possibly the best meal I’ve ever had), Blossom, GOBO, and new vegan chocolatier, CocoaV.

For the second time, we found ourselves at a table next to Alicia Silverstone. The first time was at Real Food Daily in Los Angeles a couple of years ago. This time it was Candle 79. Both times I wanted to go over and speak to her. Not just because Clueless was a fun rendition of Jane Austen’s Emma or because I used to have a bit of a crush on her. Not just because Silverstone uses her fame to promote a vegan diet, including her new book on the topic: The Kind Diet. But because, aside from her veganism, her animal activism is misguided. I wanted to set her straight.

About a year or so ago, I developed a rapport with her mother. She read my first book Redemption and, like other animal lovers, it fundamentally changed her views about animal shelters, the needless and cruel killing of animals at their hands, as well as her views of PETA which defends the killing and kills thousands of animals every year themselves. As you can imagine, this was problematic in the Silverstone household because daughter Alicia is a spokesperson for PETA.

Her mother tried to get her to read my book, but apparently Ingrid Newkirk told her I was trying to destroy the animal rights movement and that was that. The idea is laughable: I’m vegan (and writing my own vegan cookbook), I used to volunteer for PETA before I learned the truth about them, and my goal is to make No Kill an animal rights issue.  As I write in Irreconcilable Differences:

The goals of the animal rights movement are in line with those of No Kill… Imagine what could be accomplished if [No Kill advocates and animal rights activists] came together around the goals they share. The voices championing No Kill would increase exponentially. Ultimately, we all seek to end the senseless killing of animals in shelters—especially those animals not suffering.

While I have never been one for being star struck, it did strike me that what the No Kill movement is missing is a big name promoter. If someone like Silverstone spoke about a passion for No Kill the way she does for veganism during media interviews and how groups like PETA and HSUS are thwarting it, the pressure to change would mount for the celebrity, media, and money hungry Wayne Pacelles of this movement.

And though some might be tempted to say that sitting next to her twice on two different coasts was “fate,” I don’t believe in supernatural forces of that ilk, or any kind for that matter, and because Alicia thinks I am trying to destroy the animal rights movement, rather than save the lives of four million animals, I passed on the opportunity for the second time. If her mother can’t get her to read my book or to see the light, what chance have I?

Then came the highlight of the trip. On December 26, during a rainy and blustery day, the kind that turns your umbrellas inside out and soaks you to the bone, we took a subway ride to and then a walk through Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.  There are a lot of big names interned at Green-Wood, but we came to visit only one: Henry Bergh.

To those who read Redemption or have heard me speak, Henry Bergh needs no introduction. To those who haven’t, Henry Bergh was a 19th Century animal advocate who launched the humane movement in North America. He gave the first speech on animal protection in the U.S., incorporated the nation’s first humane society (the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and succeeded in passing the nation’s first anti-cruelty law. Every night, as President of the ASPCA, Bergh would patrol the streets of his native New York City looking for animals in need of protection.

Upon his death, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote of him:

Among the noblest of the land; Though he may count himself the least; That man I honor and revere; Who, without favor, without fear; In the great city dares to stand; The friend of every friendless beast.

And he truly was: After he succeeded in passing an anti-cruelty law, he put a copy in his pocket, and took to the streets that very night—and every single night thereafter for the remainder of his life—to help animals and punish violators. The annals of the ASPCA describe the first such encounter:

The driver of a cart laden with coal is whipping his horse. Passersby on the New York City street stop to gawk not so much at the weak, emaciated equine, but at the tall man, elegant in top hat and spats, who is explaining to the driver that it is now against the law to beat one’s animal.

Aside from prosecuting animal cruelty cases, fighting city dogcatchers and protecting horses, among many other achievements, he even invented the clay pigeon to put an end to cruel pigeon shoots. Henry Bergh is my hero, the one person in history I would want to meet if I could.  If he were alive today, there is no doubt that Bergh would be the nation’s most vociferous No Kill advocate and a fierce critic of the ASPCA he founded, as well as a harsh opponent of all the other pretenders in our cause, such as HSUS, the American Humane Association, and the animal killers at PETA.

It was his resoluteness that made him the subject of condemnation and ridicule, the way No Kill advocates today are at the hands of groups like HSUS. The political cartoons of his day often mocked him, saying he was divisive and enemy seeking and actually hindered progress.

Wayne Pacelle’s recent blog post where he wrote about what he called “the shrill efforts of a few no-kill advocates whose work has retarded the progress of that cause by alienating so many people, especially within the sheltering community,” may be little more than a temper tantrum—without our voices and the pressure we have caused, HSUS would still be opposing TNR, transfers to rescue groups, foster care programs, offsite adoptions, holiday adoptions, indeed, the concept of No Kill itself—but it is not unique. Aside from rewriting his and HSUS’ sordid histories promoting killing, those were the very criticisms—if not the very words—defenders of the status quo—the Wayne Pacelles, dog catchers, and others of Bergh’s day—wrote about Bergh himself. To those who opposed Bergh, he was simply known as the “Great Meddler.” And meddle he did. I write about one such incident in Redemption:

One evening in February of 1871 during the evening rush hour, working people rushed for the cars, and the horses began to strain with heavy loads through snow and slush. As one overloaded car reached the corner near where Bergh stood, the driver was ready to give the horses another lash when the call came to “Stop!” and “Unload!” It was Bergh. “Who the hell are you?” came the reply from the driver. “Unload!” called the order again. When the driver refused, Bergh reportedly pitched him into a snow bank and unhitched the horses. Often, Bergh would completely stop traffic on the lines, causing traffic jams that would leave thousands of people stranded and cursing to no avail—because one man had stopped all the traffic to protect a single horse.

During these incidents, Bergh literally brought an entire City to a halt in order to protect animals from being abused: a 19th Century version of the man standing in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square. And as much as the Wayne Pacelles of the time attacked him for doing so, he never failed to do what he knew was right, what he knew was necessary to stop cruel practices, in spite of the people he made angry as a result. And it was that tenacity that resulted in ridicule and condemnation from his detractors, but made him very effective and earned him the tremendous respect and regard evidenced by the gushing obituary from the very newspaper that was—more than once—one of his fiercest critics in the early days of his work.

Holding the doorknob to his mausoleum, I could imagine them closing it in 1888 forever. Some might call it creepy or macabre, but it was very profound. The animals lost a great friend that morning. But they lost so much more as his work remained unfinished. And while I was cold and wet and tired (it is a long, long walk from the 25th Street subway exit to the actual site of his mausoleum high on a hill on “Dawn Lane” as Green-Wood is nothing short of colossal), it was fitting. Standing in front of the site, I pictured Bergh out on the streets, in the cold, wet, sleet, and snow, seeking out animals to protect, day after day, night after night. And it made me respect him all the more.

The next day we visited 429 Fifth Avenue at 38th Street, the site of his home, where he died:

On March 12, 1888, as a storm whipped the city and gales tore the roofs off of houses, New York’s overworked horses struggled to pull carloads of people through the snow. But for once, after two decades of policing the streets on their behalf, Bergh was not there to protect them. In the early hours of the morning, Henry Bergh had died.

At the time, the area was the heart of New York’s high society, home to New York’s most prominent families including the Astors, and provided the backdrop for Edith Wharton’s 1920 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Age of Innocence. Today, Bergh’s Brownstone is gone, replaced by a Sleepy’s mattress store in what is now New York’s premier shopping district. We were sad to see his house gone, long ago demolished to make room for a storefront, with no marker of any kind. But, oddly, that it should be a mattress store seemed tragically fitting. Since his death, the ASPCA he founded has been asleep. As I write in Redemption,

The New York Post, in a prophetic statement, noted that: “His society was distinctly a one man power. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was Henry Bergh and Henry Bergh was the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.”

Indeed, Bergh himself had often lamented, “I hate to think what will become of this society when I am gone.” It did not take long for the fears Bergh harbored about the future of his ASPCA to come to pass. Following his death—and contrary to Bergh’s wishes—the ASPCA capitulated and accepted a contract from New York City to run the dog pound. It was a tragic mistake. In little more than a decade, animal sheltering became the ASPCA’s primary role. By 1910, the ASPCA was doing little more than impounding dogs and cats on behalf of the city, with all but a small percentage put to death…

When the ASPCA took over the pound contract in New York City following Henry Bergh’s death, it began a century of squandering not only his life work, but more significantly the ASPCA’s vast potential. Bergh’s ideal of a humane agency founded to save animals was replaced with shelters across the country whose primary purpose was—and remains—killing animals, whether or not they are suffering. And for most of the animals “rescued” by these agencies, death remains a totally unnecessary, but virtual certainty.

It was a great betrayal and would have hurt Henry deeply. Even today, the ASPCA remains mired in regressive practices and failed philosophies Bergh would have fought against. Moreover, true animal activists—who should find a ready and willing ally—are forced to spend their time fighting the ASPCA. Ryan Clinton of Fix Austin just received the No Kill Advocacy Center’s Henry Bergh Leadership Award for his work to reform the shelter in Austin, Texas. Clinton was given an award named for Bergh and intended to honor those in our own day and age who exemplify the dedication to animals which Bergh exemplified. Ironically, Clinton was given an award for courage in fighting the very agency Bergh founded. Clinton’s efforts included not only challenging the regressive director of Austin’s pound, but challenging the ASPCA which continues to back the pound. That, too, would have hurt Bergh deeply. And it should go without saying that the very idea of current ASPCA President Ed Sayres—Oreo’s killer, a man who once said killing is the moral equivalent of not killing, who opposes the types of laws Bergh would have championed, who destroyed what was once the crown jewel of the No Kill movement when he was the San Francisco SPCA President and then fought the efforts of reformers who tried to reclaim it—sitting in the chair once occupied by the great Henry Bergh is so obscene, it is simply beyond words.

There was so much more we wanted to see and do while in New York City. Because we ran out of time, this was our first trip to New York City where we were not able to visit a single museum. But visiting sights related to Bergh’s life and death left us more inspired by greatness and possibility than any museum ever could.

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