Animal Protective Societies

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ANIMAL PROTECTIVE SOCIETIES. Animal protective societies date from the late 1860s, when the first three were formed in New York City, Philadelphia, and Massachusetts. Most were organized by special charter at the state level and strengthened by contemporaneous legislation granting enforcement powers. These societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals (SPCAs) sought to prevent abuse in public conveyances, their transportation and slaughter for food, municipal animal control, military service, entertainment, hunting, shooting, trapping, and research and education. Animal protection groups enjoyed close ties with temperance and child rescue, as those working in all of these areas were concerned about the consequences of violence. The humane society, a variant on the SPCA model, incorporated children and senior citizens within the scope of its work in communities where government services were limited and philanthropy could not support separate organizations.

Eventually, animal rescue groups, workhorse associations, antivivisection and vivisection reform societies, sanctuaries and rest havens, and single-issue organizations augmented the field. By the early twentieth century, there were several hundred animal protection entities operating throughout North America. Despite the incorporation of a national umbrella organization, the American Humane Association, animal protection remained largely decentralized, with most societies operating independently of one another until the 1950s. The Twenty-Eight Hour Law (1873) regulating cattle transportation was the movement's single federal legislative success until the passage of the Humane Slaughter Act (1958).

The humane movement lost ground after World War I. Its decline in influence coincided with a broad-scale "industrialization" of animals in such contexts as food production and research, testing, and education. Animal protectionists won widespread support for elements of their program that targeted private, individual acts of cruelty, and kindness to animals became a cherished attribute of the modern personality. However, pressing humane standards forward against the influence of powerful interests in meatpacking, agriculture, transportation, and industrial and medical research proved more difficult. In many cases, whole categories of animal use were accorded explicit exemptions from statutes designed to prevent cruelty. Also, the assumption of municipal animal control duties by humane societies throughout the country—a serious practical and financial burden—made it difficult to sustain broader programs addressing mistreatment of animals in other contexts. The far-reaching agenda of the early animal protection societies atrophied.

After World War II, a convergence of trends in demographics, animal utilization, science, technology, moral philosophy, and popular culture brought certain forms of animal use under greater scrutiny, and several rounds of new group formation revitalized the movement. The first, between 1950 and 1975, saw the emergence of national organizations that avoided direct management of shelters or municipal animal control. These groups resurrected campaigns for humane slaughter, regulation of laboratory animal use, and abolition of the steel leghold trap. Between 1975 and 1990, grassroots organizations driven by the ideologies of animal rights and animal liberation recast concern for animals as a justice-based movement, and appropriated strategic thinking and mobilization methods characteristic of civil rights era causes. Dynamic competition spurred innovation on the part of older anti-cruelty societies, which began to develop greater consistency and progressive positions. Animal protection has gained credibility through professionalization, increased political sophistication, and the emergence of a science of animal welfare that now underpins most campaigns against cruelty.


Bekoff, Marc, and Carron Meaney, ed. Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare. Westwood, Conn.: Greenwood, 1998.

Finsen, Lawrence, and Susan Finsen. The Animal Rights Movement in America: From Compassion to Respect. New York: Twayne, 1994.

Unti, Bernard, and Andrew Rowan. "A Social History of Animal Protection in the Post-World War Two Period." In State of the Animals 2001, edited by Deborah J. Salem and Andrew N. Rowan. Washington, D.C.: Humane Society of the United States, 2001.

Unti, Bernard. "The Quality of Mercy: Organized Animal Protection in the United States, 1866–1930." Ph.D. diss., American University, 2002.


See alsoAnimal Rights Movement ; Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals .

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Animal Protective Societies

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