Animal Protection


Moral doubt over the cruel usage of animals has a long history in Philadelphia. Public disapproval of such treatment surfaced by the late eighteenth century, but even with comprehensive laws designed to protect animals, and organizations devoted to enforcing those laws, the region has struggled to extend adequate protection to its nonhuman animals.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) once admitted that Philadelphians never found a better way to prevent hogs from trespassing than by blinding them, which was done by holding a red-hot knitting needle to their eyes. When encountering animals in early American history, it is far more common to uncover these stories of cruelty, rather than those of compassion. But during the eighteenth century, Philadelphia’s print culture and Quaker civic spirit made it particularly suited to begin advocating some forms of animal protection. Philadelphia had access to the transatlantic exchange of goods and ideas, and its residents were the heirs apparent to centuries’ worth of literature dedicated to the benevolent treatment of animals. Many of these European were available at the Library Company of Philadelphia for an annual membership fee of £10.

 Shown in an engraving from 1802, Benjamin Rush was a prominent animal protection advocate during the early years of the United States. (Library Company of Philadelphia)
Shown in an engraving from 1802, Benjamin Rush was a prominent animal protection advocate during the early years of the United States. (Library of Congress)

Due in large part to this literature, it became possible by the late eighteenth century to regard animals differently from the human-centered vision of earlier times. However, it was the American Revolution that transformed the treatment of animals into a moral issue deserving of attention from those who saw the Revolution as the first moment of their nation’s millennial destiny. It was in this context that many Americans attempted to reinvent their society to create a virtuous, Christianized national identity.

Animal Cruelty, Moral Sensibility

Philadelphia’s Benjamin Rush (1746-1813) was the dominant figure of this effort. Rush stressed the necessity of preparing the morals of American citizens by monitoring and correcting their behavior. Rush believed animal cruelty destroyed moral sensibility; he was so convinced of a connection between morals and humanity toward animals that he advocated laws to defend them from “outrage and oppression.”

Rush’s pleas were answered in 1788, when Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court rendered its decision in Republica v. Teischer. The defendant was accused of willfully and maliciously killing his horse. The court viewed this cruel act as destroying his moral sensibility and therefore making him unfit to be a virtuous citizen. The guilty verdict marked the first documented case of an American being convicted of animal cruelty.

This decision suggested a promising start for the institutionalized protection of animals, but it took an additional seventy-two years for the first legislation protecting animals to be passed into law in Pennsylvania in 1860. Seven years later, in 1867, Pennsylvania became the second state to charter a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. New Jersey established its own SPCA in 1868, and Delaware followed suit in 1873. The passage of new legislation and the creation of these animal welfare groups reflected the values of a growing middle class that was self-consciously kind and caring to animals.

Municipal Campaigns

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Philadelphia’s city officials attempted to turn the city into a healthier environment. This led to increased efforts to control stray dogs and cats, who were believed to carry diseases such as rabies and poliomyelitis. The city funded killing sprees, during which dogs and cats were bludgeoned on the streets or taken to the Delaware River and summarily drowned. In 1911 alone, Philadelphia destroyed over 50,000 cats. These horrendous measures were met with resistance. The Women’s Branch of the PSPCA, based in Philadelphia, campaigned for kinder methods of control, and even built one of the nation’s first animal “shelters.”

By midcentury, the modern pet industry was in place. Although this entailed the unfortunate commodification of animal lives, it also led to the proliferation of specialized services such as medical care facilities and municipal-run shelters. The last three decades have seen a further rise in pet keeping and animal welfare groups. Yet the foundation for animal protection was laid down by historical, cultural, and legal precedents formulated during unique historical moments such as the post-Revolutionary reform movement and the reforms of the last half of the nineteenth century.  Contemporary courtroom discussions often echo language from centuries ago. For instance, a bill currently pending in Pennsylvania seeking to make it a third degree felony to “willfully and maliciously” kill or harm an animal, mirrors the language used in the 1788 Teischer decision.

Organizations such as the PSPCA, NJSPCA, and DSPCA also have their roots in the late nineteenth century. Today, these animal welfare organizations are among the most active in the nation, providing care for animals who might otherwise never receive much needed attention.  In addition to state-sponsored entities, numerous local, volunteer-based organizations have emerged in recent years. These organizations use social media to report cruelty, communicate about lost or abandoned animals, and circulate petitions. Grassroots organizations, capable of mobilizing public opinion and reaching an ever-increasing audience, create new potential for working with state-sponsored organizations to secure protection for animals in greater Philadelphia.

Bill Leon Smith is pursuing his PhD in Early American History at the College of William and Mary. He is also an Associate Fellow with the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. His research focuses on the development of animal ethics and other forms of humanitarianism during the eighteenth century. Prior to William and Mary, he served as a World History teacher at Burlington Township High School, in Burlington, New Jersey. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2013, Rutgers University.


Benjamin Rush

Library of Congress

Shown in an engraving from 1802, Benjamin Rush was a prominent animal protection advocate during the early years of the United States. An attendee of the Continental Congress, Benjamin Rush was thirty-one years old when he signed the Declaration of Independence. Later, as a supporter of the Federal Constitution, he was elected to the Pennsylvania convention that adopted it. Born in Byberry, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, he spent much of his life in the Mid-Atlantic working with and serving the residents of Philadelphia.

He graduated from the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania) with a bachelor's degree in 1759. After receiving his medical degree in Scotland, Rush returned to Philadelphia and opened a private practice. He was soon appointed Professor of Chemistry at the College of Philadelphia. Rush worked extensively with the poor, was well liked by his students, and published the first American textbook on chemistry. He was a well-loved member of his community.

Active in the Sons of Liberty, he was appointed to attend the provincial conference to send delegates to the Continental Congress, representing Philadelphia in 1776. A year later he was appointed to the Continental Army as surgeon general of the middle department, however, after criticizing the army and General Washington he resigned and stayed away from war-related activities.

He also acted as treasurer of the U.S. Mint from 1797 until his death in 1813, and as professor of medical theory and clinical practice at the newly formed University of Pennsylvania. His writings and activism on behalf of animal welfare, which he viewed as central to human morality, helped begin the movement for institutionalized protection of animals in Philadelphia.

- Text by Mikaela Maria

Horse Ambulance

Through the work of Colonel M. Richards Mucklé, a Philadelphia businessman, the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or the PSPCA, was chartered on April 4, 1868. Upon creation the PSCPA was the first humane animal society in the state of Pennsylvania and only the second in the United States.

Mucklé was outraged at the animal abuse he witnessed in Philadelphia, particularly towards work horses, and was angry when the few anti-cruelty laws that did exist were not enforced. He followed in the footsteps of New Yorker Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and took out an ad in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin to announce his intentions. Charter donations began to roll in from wealthy supporters. This photograph is of a horse ambulance, invented for transport of injured large animals.

As the PSCPA gained ground, it was able to shift focus from solely helping horses to broader animal welfare issues. Working with the Pennsylvania railroad, the PSCPA created humane transport cars for livestock. Today, as horse labor has tapered off, the society works primarily with companion animals, such as dogs and cats, providing shelter, adoption services, owner education about spaying and neutering, and low cost veterinary care.

- Text by Mikaela Maria

The American Red Star Animal Relief

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

In 1916, during the first World War, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker wrote the American Humane Association seeking aid for horses injured during battle. Similar to the Red Cross, which aided wounded soldiers, Red Star Animal Relief sought to provide care to more than 240,000 horses and mules used for transport of supplies as well as in direct combat. Currently, the Red Star Animal Emergency Services attends to the animal victims of natural and man made disasters such as floods, chemical spills, and hurricanes. The organization is equipped with emergency response vehicles, specialized rescue equipment, and a fleet of emergency volunteers stationed across the country.

- Text by Mikaela Maria

Morris Animal Refuge

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Here, in a photograph dated 1970, a woman brings a dog to the Morris Animal Refuge, located in Center City Philadelphia. The organization has been operating since 1874, when Elizabeth Morris, an animal welfare pioneer in the U.S., opened the doors to homeless animals. The refuge, the first to accept homeless cats, boasts that in more than 135 years no animal has ever been turned away from its doors. Dogs, cats, and other small animals are taken in and given a second chance at finding a loving home free from abuse and neglect. The refuge is a private, non-profit organization and reflects a commitment on behalf of some Philadelphians to protect and provide for the city's animal population.

- Text by Mikaela Maria

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Related Reading

Abzug, Robert H. Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Ascione, Frank & Lockwood, Randall, eds. Cruelty to Animals and Interpersonal Violence: Readings in Research and Application. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1998.

Francione, Gary. Animals, Property and the Law. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 1995.

Grier, Katherine C. Pets in America: A History. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Smith, Bill Leon. “Animals Made Americans Human: Sentient Creatures and the Creation of Early America’s Moral Sensibility.” Journal of Animal Ethics, Vol. 2, No. 2, (October 2012).

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