From defending horses to protecting orcas: animal-rights historian Diane Beers on today's SeaWorld debate

Animal-rights historian and author of 'For the Prevention of Cruelty' author Diane Beers discusses everything from the evolution of the animal rights movement to today's SeaWorld debate.

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    The debate over SeaWorld's use of animals to entertain crowds is nothing new, says animal rights historian Diane Beers. In the 19th century ASPCA founder Henry Bergh campaigned actively against P.T. Barnum for his treatment of in his circuses.
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Drop by the stunning Victorian-era Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn and you'll find a moving memorial to Henry Bergh, the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

In front of his tomb sits a beautiful golden bas-relief sculpture of several animals and a horse being tended by a boy. Fans of the ASPCA unveiled the sculpture in 2006, more than a century after Bergh's death, on a day when pets were allowed into the cemetery to commemorate his legacy.

But it's the ASPCA's seal, pictured on the crypt itself, that best reflects Bergh's work. It shows an angel rushing to defend a horse that's being beaten by its master. The world's creatures, the 19th-century-era seal declares, deserve better.

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For some 200 years, the animal-rights movement has evolved and expanded its mission, developing a radical wing – PETA – and gaining major victories.

Last week, however, it faced a major defeat when California legislators punted a much-watched measure that would force San Diego's SeaWorld to halt its controversial killer whale shows.

What's different about today's animal-rights movement compared to the one that pushed against the abuse of pets and horses in the 19th century? And what binds the activists of the past to those of today?

For answers, I turned to Diane Beers, a history professor at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts. She explored the history of the movement in her 2006 book For the Prevention of Cruelty: The History and Legacy of Animal Rights Activism in the United States.

We talked about what she calls "a big, diverse movement with a deep, rich history that includes many people with a spectrum of beliefs."
 
 Q: How did the animal rights-movement begin in the US?
 
 A: From its beginning, animal advocates see pervasive cruelty in society and go after pervasive cruelty in all forms using many strategies.

There certainly is evidence of concern regarding issues of cruelty before the Civil War, but an organized movement for animal advocacy only emerges just after the war.

The first official organization was the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York City, which started in 1866, but other groups were brewing around the same time in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

There were many forces behind this, including industrialization. As people became more removed from nature, there's a growing nostalgia for connections with animals. And having pets becomes more common with the rise of the middle class.
 
 Q: The theory of evolution and the abolition movement were both major players in the 19th century. Did they affect people's interest in animal rights?
 
 A: Darwin knocks people off the proverbial pedestal of superior and separate. He shows humans as part of the tree of life, not separate from it, and shows we're not as removed from non-humans as we think.

As for slavery, many of the animal rights movement's founding advocates were involved in social justices issues generally including opposition to slavery, women's rights, penal reform, child welfare, and urban reform.

One of the most common myths about animal advocates – past and present–  is that they are not concerned with human issues and are even anti-human. My research found this to be overwhelmingly false regardless of what time period of animal advocacy you are discussing.
 
 Q: How has the animal-rights movement evolved over time?
 
 A: Some campaigns were very successful but relevant to a specific time period.

An example would be one of the very first campaigns waged which was workhorse abuse in cities such as New York. Eventually, of course, workhorses were replaced by automobiles. But that does not diminish the victory.

Overall, the movement has an ability to evolve when cruelty evolves – such as when animals are used in film – as well an ability and determination to address a wide-range of cruelty issues.
 
 Q: We all know about the in-your-face activism of PETA. Did early activists adopt that kind of protest?
 
 A: ASPCA founder Henry Bergh argued that activists should not wait for the media’s attention but rather hijack it through provocative direct actions that highlighted their agenda.

He fast became famous (and infamous) for instigating daylong traffic jams on New York City's busiest thoroughfares as he ordered freight drivers to unhitch weary horses and passengers to dismount from overloaded omnibuses.

In another part of town, he arrested an entire ship's crew for the cruel transport of a shipment of sea turtles destined for New York restaurants.

The judge threw the case out on the grounds that turtles were fish, not animals, but Bergh never expected to win the case. Instead, he wanted to incite the media.

His plan worked. Nearly every city newspaper carried the story, and the New York Herald featured such an amusing satire of the case, complete with testimonials for the turtles from supportive animals, that it was reprinted throughout the country within days, reaching an estimated half million people.
ASPCA membership and donations soared.
 
 Q: Do you see links between the SeaWorld debate and the earlier history of the animal rights movement?
 
A: Using multiple strategies on campaigns and going after a diverse agenda are hallmarks of this movement past and present.

What is different is that cruelty evolves too. But the public generally is more aware of cruelty issues and more inclined to be outraged by them today.

Animal advocacy has contributed significantly to shifting attitudes that favor ethical consideration of animals. For many people today, animals, at least many animals, are more than just property.
 
Q: Much of the SeaWorld debate centers on whether it's appropriate to use animals for our own entertainment. Has this been an issue before?
 
A: Henry Bergh campaigned actively against P.T. Barnum for both his treatment generally of animals and the methods of training those animals.

For example, circuses would get bears to dance by burning the pads of their feet and lions to sit on stools by whipping and pitchforking them.

Later on, in the early 20th century, author Jack London became equally outraged about making wild animals perform tricks for humans. According to London, animal acts represented “cold-blooded, conscious, deliberate cruelty.... Cruelty as a fine art has attained its perfect flower in the trained animal world.”

London wrote a couple of novels about this toward the end of his life. As a result, animal-rights groups organized the Jack London Clubs which achieved a notable membership of 750,000 and a notable victory in 1925 when major circuses ended animal acts.

The victory did not last, however, as circuses mounted their own public relations campaign, and the onset of the Great Depression generated an opportunity for circuses as the public wanted cheap, escapist entertainment.
 
Q: What's next for the animal-rights movement? Where do you see the entire animal rights movement going?
 
A: Over recent years, animal advocacy and other social movements generally seem to be trying to find ways to work together – different social justice movements forming alliances on issues where they find connection.

An example might be environmentalists, workers' rights groups, and animal advocates combining forces to address issues in slaughterhouses.

Oppression and exploitation of all kinds do share links. Can social justice movements effectively expose those links and undermine them together? We shall see.

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