History of the ASPCA

150 Years of Saving Lives

Saving Lives Since 1866 

The ASPCA® is proud of our long, storied history of progress and innovation in the fight against animal cruelty. From medical developments to field rescues to pioneering partnerships, here's a look at some of the successes we—and our millions of supporters over the years—have achieved on behalf of abused, abandoned and neglected animals.

A History of Compassion

While on assignment in Russia as an American diplomat, a New Yorker named Henry Bergh stopped a carriage driver from beating his fallen horse. The year was 1863, and it was then and there that Bergh realized the effect he could have on the world. He soon resigned his post and returned to New York to devote his energy to the prevention of cruelty to animals. In 1866, he founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals®.

Henry Bergh, Founder of the ASPCA

Henry Bergh, Founder of the ASPCA

Bergh faced an uphill battle from the start. At the time, America was not a friendly place for animals: workhorses hauled overloaded carts through the streets, dogcatchers were known to kidnap pet dogs and hold them for ransom, and dog fighting and cockfighting were common forms of “entertainment.” But Bergh was determined, and he founded the ASPCA on the clear belief that all animals are entitled to kind and respectful treatment and must be protected under the law.

Looking back, we now know that that Russian carthorse was the “first” in what was soon to be a long line of firsts. When founded, the ASPCA was the first and only humane society in the Western Hemisphere, and its formation prompted the New York State Legislature to pass the country’s first effective anti-cruelty law. Thanks to Henry Bergh, the world was rapidly becoming a better place for animals.

The ASPCA’s official seal

The ASPCA’s official seal, drawn by Frank Leslie and unveiled in 1867.

To the Rescue

It should come as little surprise that the ASPCA’s official seal, drawn by Frank Leslie and unveiled in 1867, depicts an angel of mercy protecting a fallen carthorse from a spoke-wielding abuser. From the start, animal rescue has been at the heart of what we do—both in practice and on the ground. In 1867, the ASPCA operated the first ambulance for injured horses, a full two years before New York City’s Bellevue hospital put the first ambulance for humans into service. Eight years later, Henry Bergh invented a canvas sling to rescue horses; the sling would later be used on the battlefields of Europe during World War I.

The ASPCA operates the first ambulance for injured horses.

1867: The ASPCA operates the first ambulance for injured horses.

Over the ensuing years, progress in the field of animal rescue became as much a part of the ASPCA’s DNA as the compassionate roots on which we were founded. In fact, by the early 2000s, the ASPCA had become a common presence in the face of natural disasters, puppy mill busts, dog fighting raids and other forms of cruelty intervention. Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, we deployed staff to the Gulf Coast to assist in animal rescue and recovery, and in ’07, we played an instrumental role in the federal investigation of a brutal dog-fighting operation run in part by quarterback Michael Vick. Already a force to be reckoned with, our reach only grew in 2013 when we announced a groundbreaking partnership with the New York City Police Department (NYPD). In its first two years alone, that partnership increased the number of animal cruelty arrests in New York City by more than 200%.

the ASPCA deploys staff to the Gulf Coast to assist

2005: Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the ASPCA deploys staff to the Gulf Coast to assist in rescue and recovery, and grants over $13 million to shelters and organizations in the region.

The ASPCA assists in the Michael Vick  federal investigation

2007: The ASPCA assists in the federal investigation of quarterback Michael Vick and co-defendants for running a brutal dog-fighting operation. The work of our forensic, legal and behavior experts helps lead to convictions.

Innovations in Animal Placement

While animal rescue is a cornerstone of the ASPCA’s efforts, our job doesn’t end once an animal is safe. In fact, the rescue is often just the beginning of an animal’s journey, and our work to get potential pets off the streets and into permanent homes touches every corner of America: the ASPCA’s assistance, funding and expertise help facilitate tens of thousands of animal adoptions around the country every year. But those tens of thousands of animals—now happy, safe and loved—are the result of more than a century of hard, dedicated work.

It began with the opening of our first veterinary facility, a horse dispensary on Manhattan’s 24th Street, in 1912. From there, the advancements poured forth: ASPCA veterinarians were the first to operate on a horse with a broken kneecap (a procedure considered impossible at the time) and the first to use radium to treat cancer in animals. We advanced the use of anesthesia in animal surgery, and inaugurated dog obedience training classes in 1941. By 1961, we were poised to perform our first open-heart surgery on a dog.

The ASPCA begins spay/neuter for adopted animals.

1973: The ASPCA begins spay/neuter for adopted animals.  

Pet population control, along with effective measures to keep animals from being surrendered, were also a critical key to our success in the field of animal placement. In 1973, the ASPCA Adoptions department began spay/neuter for all adopted animals, and in 1995, we acquired the Animal Poison Control Center (APCC), which is still known as the preeminent animal poison control center in North America. What’s more, we pioneered the use of state-of-the-art microchips for animal identification.

The ASPCA is the first organization to use microchips for animal identification

1993: The ASPCA is the first national animal-protection organization to begin using state-of-the-art microchips for animal identification.

Never content to rest on our laurels, our innovations have continued to the present day. In 2007, we launched the ASPCA Partnerships program to support at-risk animals in communities around the country through grants, training and many other resources. In 2013, we opened the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center—the first and only facility dedicated to providing behavioral help for canine victims of cruelty—and just last year we completed the expansion of our Canine Annex for Recovery & Enrichment (CARE) ward, which treats victims of cruelty rescued through our partnership with the NYPD. In 2015, we also acquired Humane Alliance, a national pioneer in high-quality, high-volume spay/neuter services and training.

The ASPCA launches a groundbreaking partnership with the New York City Police Department

2013: The ASPCA launches a groundbreaking partnership with the New York City Police Department, helping save more animals’ lives and becoming a model for municipalities nationwide.

The ASPCA acquires Humane Alliance

2015: The ASPCA acquires Humane Alliance, a national pioneer in high-quality, high-volume spay/neuter services and training.

Pioneers of Protection

Field rescues, medical operations and behavioral treatment are all methods we use to save the life of an animal, but at the ASPCA, we are also focused on the bigger picture—that is, saving the lives of many animals at once. Henry Bergh set the tone in the 1870s when he became a prosecutor of animal abuse cases outside of New York City, and from then on, we have made it a top priority to work closely with all levels of government to pass stronger anti-cruelty laws, and to defeat harmful bills.

In 1873, the ASPCA played a role in enacting a federal law requiring that all shipped animals be allowed food, water and exercise during extensive transit. We also promoted the use of the mechanical “gyro-pigeon” as an alternative to live pigeon shoots. Numerous victories followed. The Animal Welfare Act of 1966 was passed with support from the ASPCA; it is the only federal law that regulates the treatment of animals in research and exhibition. In 1998, we successfully petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to declare meat from downed animals adulterated, and in 2003, we supported the development of Humane Farm Animal Care—the first organization to establish standards accepted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the International Organization for Standardization for the humane treatment of farm animals, from birth to slaughter.

As the decades flew by, our legal efforts gained focus and strength. Millions of people joined the ASPCA Advocacy Brigade to help us fight for better laws in states across the nation, and we continued to see victories in Congress in the form of the Animal Fighting Prohibition Act (2007), the Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act (2010), the Veterinary Medicine Mobility Act (2014) and the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act (2014)—just to name a few.

The ASPCA makes a five-year, $25 million commitment to Los Angeles to help tackle its homeless animal crisis

2014: The ASPCA makes a five-year, $25 million commitment to Los Angeles to help tackle its homeless animal crisis.

In recent years, our work has taken on new life with the formation of animal protection initiatives on both coasts. In 2013, we announced a $25 million, multi-year commitment to Los Angeles to help tackle the city’s homeless animal crisis, and we launched Safety Net programs to assist pet owners where help is needed most.

Looking Ahead

These three areas of expertise—animal rescue, animal placement, and animal protection—are the bedrock on which the ASPCA stands. They represent the full circle of our work, impacting animal victims of cruelty at every stage, and they comprise the foundation on which we will continue to build for years to come.

We are proud of all that we have achieved since 1866, but we know that there is no time to rest. In fact, we just recently announced the relocation of the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center to a permanent new facility in Weaverville, North Carolina. What’s more, we published an ASPCA-sponsored study in early 2017 showing dramatic decreases in shelter intake and euthanasia of homeless dogs and cats, and an 18.5% increase in adoptions—proof that progress is occurring on a national scale. We look forward to continuing to use the strength of our experience to become more effective than ever before—from permanently banning horse slaughter to further reducing the number of at-risk animals in shelters and communities nationwide, we have set our sights on a very bright future, indeed.  With millions of supporters all around the country, we know that we are closer than ever to achieving our ultimate goal: a nation free from cruelty to animals.