Ernest Freeberg

Ernest Freeberg at the virtual UT Humanities Center's Conversations and Cocktails series entitled "Breaking Boundaries" on Jan. 28

On the evening of Jan. 28, Professor Ernest Freeberg spoke to students over Zoom about his research and work on the ASPCA, as well as its history.

Hosted by the UT Humanities Center as part of their “Conversations and Cocktails” series, this event featured Ernest Freeberg, a history professor, departmental chair and the head of the history department at UT.

Amy Elias, director of the UT Humanities Center, introduced the purpose of this event series.

“The original research (was) done by UT arts and humanities faculty. … This year our theme is ‘breaking boundaries;’ it features new and groundbreaking work that’s being done here,” Elias said.

This talk focused on sharing Freeberg’s current research and most recent book, “A Traitor to His Species: Henry Bergh and the Birth of the Animal Rights Movement.” As the title suggests, this book explores the history of man’s relationship with animals, culminating in the Animal Rights Movement.

Freeberg began by discussing the history of animals in relation to humans, and then turned to telling the story of Henry Bergh as a person, the subject of his book.

“Henry Bergh was considered the most visible champion of animals in the United States. … He thought that cruelty to animals was barbaric,” Freeberg said.

Bergh helped lobby for animal cruelty laws in New York City, and was responsible for creating the 1866 law that outlawed animal cruelty, the first modern law against cruelty to animals, which shaped the laws we have today.

One of the major advantages of the ASPCA was its ability to hire its own special agents to make surprise inspections and even arrests against those practicing cruelty to animals.

“This gave real teeth to the law … the justice system, for the first time, defending the rights of animals over the convenience of human beings,” Freeberg said.

Bergh’s fortitude in his movement spawned more SPCAs across the country in the 1870’s, who supported Bergh and his message, especially in the Midwest but eventually all the way across the country.

Bergh also made the argument that his laws and ethics applied to all animals, including stray dogs, which were viewed as a nuisance and even a public health hazard for fear of rabies.

The SPCA women of Philadelphia invented the first humane society in order to combat the stray dog problem, and were recognized as major contributors and supporters of Bergh’s movement.

Bergh also used his law to defend the rights of green sea turtles being shipped without food or water from Florida to New York City to be sold at fish markets. Though he tried for 20 years to prosecute ship captains for this reason, he was never successful.

Bergh was also against vivisection, dog fights, cock fights, pigeon shooters, rat baiting and especially against P.T. Barnum and his museums and traveling circuses.

“Bergh was convinced, well ahead of his time, that this was horrific abuse. … He insisted that it was wrong to be using elephants for circus entertainments,” Freeberg said.

“We take the ASPCA for granted now, but Bergh’s story reminds us how controversial these ideas were … but there was an optimism to these movements … that cruelty was not hardwired into human nature,” Freeberg said.

The event ended with a question and answer portion, in which participants were able to ask Freeberg questions and open a larger discussion.

The next event in this series will be on Thursday, Feb. 25, led by Erin and Robert Darby, titled “Baptizing Soldiers on the Roman Frontier: An Archeological Dig and the Early Christian Church in Jordan.”

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