In 1641, just 20 years after the landing at Plymouth Rock, the Pilgrims included in their Body of Liberties safeguards to protect all living creatures. Sadly, their good intentions created few real protective benefits for the nation’s domestic, wild and labor animals. In early America, as in the rest of the world, animals thrived — or suffered — according to the whims of the people who came into their lives. These creatures had no voice, no one to speak for them. Then one extraordinary day in 1868, that powerlessness ended with George Thorndike Angell.
George Thorndike Angell was born in 1823, the son of a schoolteacher and a Baptist minister. Young Angell’s father died at an early age, leaving George and his family penniless and throwing the boy on the mercy of relatives, among whom he was shuffled for shelter and care.
Despite these adversities, Angell excelled throughout his schooling and entered the legal profession. He quickly became known as a man of integrity and social commitment, as demonstrated in his 14-year partnership with the antislavery activist Samuel E. Sewall. Before long, financial success gave Angell the time, freedom and power to put his convictions to work as tools for social change. A brutal event soon convinced him of exactly where he would direct his very considerable reformist energy.
In February 1868, two horses — each pulling two riders over 40 miles of rough roads — were raced until they both dropped dead. Angell was appalled and took immediate action. His letter of protest appeared in the Boston Daily Advertiser, where it caught the attention of Emily Appleton, a prominent Bostonian who deeply loved animals and who was already nurturing the first stirrings of an American anticruelty movement. Within a month, with Appleton’s backing, Angell incorporated the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA).
A mere 12 weeks after the deadly race, Angell achieved passage of the state’s first general anticruelty laws. The very next month, the MSPCA produced the first issue of Our Dumb Animals, the first periodical dedicated to animal welfare. Over 200,000 copies were distributed — 25,000 by Boston policemen — helping raise public awareness of animal cruelty. The periodical’s mission: “To speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.”
Creatures of every species in America now had an advocate determined to fight for their right to protection, kindness and care.
Word of the MSPCA and its vision spread quickly. High-profile supporters such as John Quincy Adams and Ralph Waldo Emerson helped the young organization bring valuable publicity to the cause and win rapid legislative successes. Soon, animal-protection societies took root in 24 cities across America. By 1871 — only three years after the MSPCA’s founding — anticruelty statutes had been enacted from Connecticut to California.
Apart from to his devotion to animals, nothing moved Angell more than the need for humane education: teaching people the principles of kindness, compassion and respect for all life. The young were especially important to him, and in 1881 he launched the “Bands of Mercy,” a nationwide network of humane-education clubs. In just two years, the Bands recruited close to one-quarter million girls and boys. In 1889, Angell incorporated the American Humane Education Society, an organization designed to offer instruction to all age groups.
Thanks to the commitment of MSPCA staff and supporters, George T. Angell’s principles have endured for more than 145 years. Dedicated, passionate and forward-thinking leadership has also greatly helped. Dr. Francis H. Rowley, who succeeded Angell as MSPCA president in 1910, was a veterinarian and Baptist minister who brought to the job all the fervor he’d shown in the pulpit. He obtained the MSPCA’s first ambulance and, in 1915, provided it with a very special destination: Angell Memorial Animal Hospital. In its first year, the hospital treated 4,382 animals, a number that more than doubled — to 10,813 — the very next year.
During Rowley’s term, MSPCA law-enforcement officers were given full legal powers. The organization’s first animal shelter was opened — a refuge at Nevins Farm, in Methuen, Mass., providing comfort for retired police horses and other working animals.
From the 1920s through the ’40s, with Dr. Rowley at the helm, both the local and global influence of the MSPCA grew. In Massachusetts, the first small-animal shelter was opened, again at Nevins Farm, and in Springfield patients began receiving care at a new animal hospital. Reaching across the oceans, MSPCA opened a humane-care facility in Fez, Morocco. In 1945, Dr. Eric Hansen became President and served for 20 years. Dr. Hansen became the first president of the International Society for the Protection of Animals, now the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), the MSPCA’s international arm.
Under David S. Claflin in the 1960s and ’70s, the MSPCA helped enact major federal and international legislation such as the Animal Welfare Act and the Endangered Species Act. During the ’80s, Frederick Davis’s presidency saw the launch of a major pet-overpopulation, public-awareness campaign. Under Dr. Gus Thornton’s leadership from 1989 to 2003, the MSPCA intensified its effort to deal with the increasingly complex needs of animals in a rapidly changing society, establishing programs such as Living With Wildlife, a free spay-neuter clinic for low-income families, the Animal Disaster Relief Fund, the Center for Animal Laboratory Welfare, and Phinney’s Friends, which helps people wtih HIV/AIDS take care of their pets. New state-of-the-art adoption and veterinary centers were built in Brockton, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Springfield.
Dr. Larry M. Hawk became president of the MSPCA in 2003. Under the new name MSPCA-Angell, Dr. Hawk realigned the organization to better coordinate and showcase its extraordinary humane and veterinary services. The MSPCA-Angell’s animal shelters were renamed Animal Care and Adoption Centers, and the veterinary center — in Boston — is now called Angell Animal Medical Center.
The MSPCA-Angell has created a Web site to communicate the latest information about its world-renowned services (http://www.mspca.org/). It has transformed George T. Angell’s groundbreaking publication, Our Dumb Animals, into Companion — a full-color newsletter that features humane and veterinary news from around the state, region and world.
In May of 2006, Carter Luke was appointed President of the MSPCA-Angell.
The expansion of the Boston facility, which includes the Helen Schmidt Stanton Clinical Care Center and the Copeland Animal Care and Adoption Center, opened its doors in June of 2006.
As the 21st century unfolds, the voice that George T. Angell gave to animals 145 years ago is speaking more forcefully, clearly and effectively than ever before.
“I am sometimes asked ‘Why do you spend so much of your time and money talking about kindness to animals when there is so much cruelty to men?’ I answer: ‘I am working at the roots.”