Where Was America’s First Animal Shelter?

February 25, 2019

By Linda Cole

The origins of animal rights began in America in 1641 when Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted the first anti-cruelty law. Henry Bergh founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York State in 1867, but it would be two more years before the first animal shelter (still operating today) was established. It was founded in Pennsylvania by a woman who was ahead of her time in animal welfare and rights.

Caroline Earle White (1833-1916) was brought up in a wealthy Quaker family. Her attorney father devoted his time to abolishing slavery, and her mother advocated for women’s suffrage. Caroline’s parents also made sure she received a well rounded education, something most girls her age were denied.

Growing up, Caroline witnessed the inhumane treatment of working animals. Horses and mules were essential in the mid-1800s to deliver goods to city merchants. It wasn’t uncommon to see drivers beating the horses or mules pulling heavy wagons down city streets. This heartbreaking scene was hard for Caroline to watch, and she avoided walking down Philadelphia streets where the wagons went. It was something she never forgot.

In 1854, Caroline married Philadelphia attorney Richard White. He saw the passion she had for animals and was supportive of her growing animal activism. When Henry Bergh established the ASPCA, White thought Bergh might be able to help Caroline, so he pushed her to set up a meeting with him. Caroline took her husband’s advice and returned from New York with suggestions on what she needed to do to get her own organization up and running in Philadelphia.

In 1867, the board of the newly organized Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PSPCA) was all men. It was fine for women to be involved in causes, but it was up to men to run them. Caroline stayed with the PSPCA for 18 months, but wanted a more active role. So in 1869, she and 29 other women started their own PSPCA branch where women ran the organization. Their main focus was on the large number of stray dogs roaming the streets. After raising funds for a building, the first animal shelter in the country was opened in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, which became known as the “refuge” for lost and homeless dogs.

The inhumane treatment of dogs, cats and other animals that White witnessed hardened her resolve to do what she could to change the way society thought about animals. It was a different time back then, and most people were unconcerned about the working conditions of the horses and mules pulling trolley cars or wagons. Agents were hired to inspect horses to make sure they didn’t have harness sores and ensure they weren’t beaten, lame or exhausted. The organization was also concerned about abuse to dogs, cats and other animals, and expanded their focus in the first year to cases of animal abuse and cruelty.

Caroline White didn’t just take a stand on animal abuse, she also took on doctors from the University of Pennsylvania who insisted on taking animals from the shelter to use in scientific experiments. It was a battle she won, and she went on to establish the American Anti-Vivisection Society in 1883.

The women’s PSPCA and supporters of the organization had water fountains installed at busy intersections around the city and surrounding areas where horses, mules, stray animals and birds could get a drink of clean water. Before the fountains were installed, finding safe drinking water was difficult.

Under White’s leadership , the women’s PSPCA was instrumental in getting legislation enacted in 1907 for the humane treatment of cattle and other animals being transported by railroads from the west coast to the east. Called the 28 hour law, it mandated that animals in transit be fed and watered after 28 hours. The law also required rail lines to design cars that allowed the animals room to rest.

In 1909, the Caroline Earle White Dispensary was opened and was the first of its kind in the U.S. City residents unable to pay for private veterinary care for horses and other animals could get free care at the dispensary. The facility also had a horse ambulance to transport downed animals.

The women’s PSPCA steadily grew over the years in membership, funds and influence, becoming a model around the world for how to set up societies like the PSPCA. Caroline Earle White was a passionate animal advocate determined to change societal views on the treatment of animals at a time when dogs and cats were not considered part of the family in the way they are today, and work animals were needed to pull heavy loads.

Today the organization she founded is called Women’s Animal Center – the first animal shelter in America.

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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