The evolution of animal rights

A dog and cat sitting on a couch.
A dog and cat sitting on a couch.
New Africa/Shutterstock

The evolution of animal rights

How dog fighting became ancient history.
August 1, 2019

Before New York state adopted a landmark anti-cruelty law in 1866, animals only had rights insofar as they concerned the property interests of livestock owners. In short, animals could be treated any way an owner saw fit. Stray cats and dogs were routinely rounded up and killed by dogcatchers. Many men spent their leisure hours at 273 Water St. in Manhattan to enjoy an urban pastime of the era: betting on how many rats a dog could kill in a given amount of time.

However, abolitionists and temperance activists in the post-Civil War period were beginning to view animal welfare as a new front in the battle to make American society a more moral place. One of them, shipping heir Henry Bergh, took up the cause and founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which the state Legislature tasked with enforcing the anti-cruelty law. With the help of supporters like Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Bergh and the ASPCA set to expand animal rights nationwide – starting in New York.

Animal rights have come a long way since then. Here are some of the biggest breakthroughs from the past 153 years.

1866 – The state Legislature passes the first anti-animal cruelty law in the United States and years later tasks the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals with enforcing the law. A German butcher becomes the first person to be punished for animal cruelty under the new law: A $10 fine for tying up calves and stacking them like wood in a cart.

1867 – Animal blood sports, such as rat fighting, are banned in New York.

1883 – New York declines to follow the lead of the New Hampshire Legislature, which begins investigating the wisdom of placing a financial bounty on the slaughter of wild woodchucks.

1894 – New York becomes the first state to require licensure for dogs and for cats to wear collars – though only in New York City. The law also gives the ASPCA the authority to seize stray animals instead of professional dogcatchers, who were previously paid in proportion to the number of dogs they delivered to dog pounds.

1895 – The New York Times writes in amazement about the “novel institution” of animal shelters. For the first time, New Yorkers have a go-to place to search for a lost pet.

1941 – The ASPCA successfully lobbies the state Legislature to kill a bill that would have allowed operations on horses’ tails to reshape them for the sake of equestrian fashion.

1952 – The state Legislature authorizes approved laboratories to use stray dogs and cats in medical experiments.

1965 – A package of new state laws dramatically expands animal rights. This includes strengthening rules against abandoning animals and denying them food and water. Other new rules include a prohibition on poisoning animals and painting baby rabbits, chicks and fowl with artificial colors. Horses were also banned from highways and bestiality was made illegal.

1975 – Elected leaders and sports enthusiasts launched what would become an unsuccessful effort to legalize greyhound racing in New York as a way to improve the state’s finances.

1978 – A new law requires residents of New York City and Buffalo to clean their dogs’ poop off of city streets, granting New York City Mayor Ed Koch one of his best-smelling legislative wins. 

1979 – The state Legislature repeals a law allowing the use of stray dogs and cats in medical experiments.

1986 – The state Legislature bans the use of livestock as prizes.

1991 – Animal welfare activists suffer a setback when the state Legislature bans them from “unlawful tampering with animal research,” which becomes a class E felony.

2001 – The state Legislature passes a law requiring the spaying and neutering of dogs and cats before they can be adopted from an animal shelter.

2002 – Canines and felines alike get legal protection from the likes of Cruella de Vil when the Legislature votes to ban the selling of fur, hair, skin or flesh of dogs and cats.

2008 – Kings County Criminal Court upholds the constitutionality of a state law that requires pet owners to provide medical care to suffering animals.

2014 – The Legislature bans the tattooing of animals, denying millennials a generation-specific way of bonding.

2017 – The state Court of Appeals denies a writ of habeas corpus to chimpanzees Tommy and Kiko, whose lawyers argued the pair should be released from their cages to an outdoor sanctuary in Florida. 

2017 – A ban on circus elephants in New York becomes law. Dumbo becomes even more unrealistic.

2019 – A New York City judge rules that a cat – either namedMarshmallow or Sylvester – “voted with his feet” when he left one home and was adopted by another. The case, Finn v. Anderson, marks the first time that pets are found to not be personal property like inanimate objects. A “best interests of all” legal standard thus dismissed the property claims of the cat’s original owners. New York also becomes first state to ban cat declawing.

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.