American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)

The ASPCA and the many organizations that it works with across the country have played a significant role in changing the American culture and the understanding that animals deserve humane treatment.


The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the first humane society formed in North America and, today, one of the largest humane societies in the world, was founded by Henry Bergh and incorporated in 1866 by a special act of the New York State legislature.  The mission of the ASPCA, as stated by Henry Bergh in 1866, is “to provide effective means for the prevention of cruelty to animals throughout the United States.”

Historic Roots

In the years following the Civil War, waves of reform swept across the United States.  Henry Bergh, a philanthropist and diplomat followed the model of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that he had observed in England, to form The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).  The early focus of the organization’s work was the many horses that labored in the New York City.  However, even from its earliest days, in addition to horses, the ASPCA intervened on behalf of animals of all sorts.  These included the many animals shipped into the city for the butcher markets, animals used in circuses and various exhibits and displays, and of course the many homeless dogs and cats that roamed the city. 

While laws to protect animals had been in place in America dating back to the Mayflower Compact, these laws were greatly limited in their effectiveness, and difficult to enforce.   Shortly after the ASPCA was formed in 1866, the New York State legislature also passed a new animal protection law, and granted the ASPCA the authority to enforce that law.  This became the first effective model for the protection of animals.  ASPCA agents, sometimes called “Bergh’s Men” carried the authority of law enforcement and were able to investigate and arrest people who were violating the animal cruelty law.  Eventually the Society expanded its programs to include hospitals and animal shelters for animals, along with education and advocacy programs to educate children and the public about the need to protect and care for animals.

Today the ASPCA is organized as a 501 (c) 3 non-profit charity, and has more than one million members throughout North America.  The ASPCA provides national and local leadership in animal assisted therapy, animal behavior, an animal poison control center, anti-cruelty, humane education, legislative services and shelter outreach.  Its New York City headquarters houses a full-service, accredited animal hospital, adoption center and mobile clinic outreach program.  The humane law enforcement department enforces the New York State animal cruelty laws and has been featured in an Animal Planet reality television series, Animal Precinct.

Shortly after its formation in 1866, the ASPCA inspired the formation of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCAs) in communities throughout the United States.  These included Buffalo, NY in 1867, and Philadelphia and Boston in 1868.  While organized as separate and independent organizations, these new SPCAs followed the original model presented by Henry Bergh and the ASPCA, including the use of the name.  Eventually thousands of organizations would be formed throughout the nation dedicated to the care and protection of animals. 


In addition to the million members of the ASPCA who support programs to protect and care for animals, many millions more support the thousands of other organizations that were formed and followed the ASPCA’s example working on behalf of animals.  Just about every major community in the United States has an organization to assist animals.  Every state has laws on the books that prevent the mistreatment of animals.  This is a dynamic field and many of these groups, including the ASPCA continue to evolve in their approach and programs to help animals.  At the same time they often advocate for continued refinement in the laws designed to protect animals. 

The ASPCA, and the many organizations that it works with across the country have played a significant role in changing the American culture and the understanding that animals deserve humane treatment.  Continued attention and enforcement of animal cruelty laws has revealed that cruel and abusive behavior towards animals is associated with the mistreatment of other people as well.  As a result, we now understand that a kind and caring community must include programs and efforts to protect animals, as well as other people.  Humane Education programs offered by the ASPCA and other humane groups emphasize that development of a caring and kind attitude among children includes the proper treatment of animals.  Kindness is a skill that is learned and honed with practice.  Children are encouraged to develop these skills by modeling the humane behavior of adults, and through their own service projects that they are able to accomplish on their own.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The ASPCA and the many humane organizations found around the country are organized as non-profit charitable organizations.  Many of these organizations also operate animal shelters and hospitals to care for animals.  Depending on the size of the community and the organization the staff working at the shelter may include a full time professional staff, an all volunteer staff or some combination.  In addition to these non-profit programs, animal shelters may be organized and run by local governments.  These municipal animal shelters may also have separate non-profit “Friends of the Animal Shelter” groups associated with them to provide additional volunteer and financial assistance.

Key Related Issues

  • Animal Welfare:  the compassion and respect due animals as living, responsive beings.  Animals are entitled to kind and respectful treatment at the hands of humans, and this is not to be left to the compassionate impulses of humans, but is an entitlement that must be protected under the law.
  • ASPCA Mission Orange:  ASPCA Mission: Orange is a focused effort to create a country of humane communities, one community at a time, where animals receive the compassion and respect they deserve—a nation where there is no more unnecessary euthanasia of adoptable animals simply because of a lack of resources and awareness.

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Henry Bergh (1813 – 1888).  Bergh was a New York philanthropist and diplomat who founded the ASPCA in 1866.
  • Ebridge Gerry (1837-1927).  Gerry was a member of a well-known family of American lawyers and politicians.  He served as the counsel for the ASPCA in its early years.

Related Web Sites

  • The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.   This website provides historical information about the ASPCA as well as information about the organizations current work.
  • Look for the website of your local shelter.  If you don’t know the shelters in your area, search on


Lane, M. and Zawistowski, S. Heritage of Care. Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT, 2007.  ISBN 978-0-275-99021-3.