Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty (1877) to improve the treatment of horses. Mary Tealby founded the Battersea Dogs’ Home in 1860. Some of the major anti-vivisection leagues in the UK were founded by women. In fact, Queen Victoria herself was the patron of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).
In the U.S., Henry Bergh may have started the ASPCA, blogger Claire Sterling writes, but “women have been animal advocacy pioneers and leaders since the 19th century.”
These women identified with animals — they, too, knew what it was like to be without a voice. So many got right into the fray and fought for their 4-footed kindred spirits, often starting their own animal welfare organizations. It’s a battle that many, such as the women below, have continued to take up eagerly.
1. Caroline Earle White
In 1869, White (1833–1916) started the Women’s Humane Society in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. The daughter of a suffragist, White took the “Women’s Branch” of the state’s SPCA and made it a strong organization in its own right.
Under her guidance, the Women’s Humane Society took over the local pound and turned it into the City Refuge for Lost and Suffering Animals. White marched humane education into Pennsylvania’s public and parochial schools. She helped start the American Anti-Vivisection Society (AAVS) in 1883 and founded the Journal of Zoophily, an animal publication whose motto was “He who is not actively kind is cruel.”
In 2013, the Society rededicated its veterinary hospital in her memory.
2. Ruth Spoor
Artist Ruth Spoor (1896–1964) is probably best known for her tender watercolor of a mother cat nursing her kittens. But she took her love of animals beyond her canvas.
Shortly before her death, Spoor and some like-minded friends created the Cape Ann Animal Aid (CAAA) in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in response to the all-too-frequent abandonment of cats and dogs by summer visitors.
Today, the CAAA is a no-kill shelter that “continue[s] to make the rescue of local cats and dogs our first priority.” Its programs include Food for Pets, Spay Mama (which pays for spaying of cats and dogs who have just given birth) and a community education and outreach program.
3. Emily Jo Beard
Beard (1923–1989) was an activist with a poet’s soul, a visionary who, in the words of her colleague Sunderland W. Everstill, “believed that unicorns were real and limitations were unreal.” A chance encounter with an abandoned dog led to her found Living Free, a haven for cats and dogs in Mountain Center, California, in 1980.
The organization was one of the first privately funded no-kill sanctuaries. “We Save What We Value” was its motto, one that Beard lived by, too. Most of the cats and dogs who have found their way to the sanctuary have been 11th-hour rescues from various pounds.
“She made it happen,” Everstill recalls. “Anybody can get a good idea. But carrying out the idea — therein lies the courage.”
4. Pegeen Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald (1904–1989) and her husband, Edward, were popular radio personalities. In 1982, they purchased 35 acres in Falls Village, Connecticut, and turned it into a haven for cats whose caretakers had died or were no longer able to care for them. Other animals — dogs, sheep, goats and even a pot-bellied pig — joined them over the years, but The Last Post has essentially remained a feline retirement community.
After Fitzgerald’s death, journalist Jeanne Toomey (1921–2009) became the first director of the cat shelter and lived on the grounds with her husband. “I really feel that this is a paradise for animals,” she once told me as she watched the cats eating “al fresco” on the deck. “It’s the way it should be everywhere.”
Learn more about Caroline Earle White’s work in this video:
5. Judy Levy
Levy started Animal Friends of Connecticut (AFOC) back in 1986. The organization has a strict no-kill policy. “The reason I got out of other animal-welfare organizations was because I can’t kill animals,” she explains. “I don’t believe in it. People don’t think about what the alternatives may be.”
The AFOC only takes in stray or feral cats, not “extras” from somebody’s litter or suddenly “inconvenient” pets. The majority of the felines live at the shelter, a 3-story Victorian in New Britain; some area vets have, however, let Levy keep some of the overflow at their clinics.
In her late 70s, the director is as feisty and blunt as ever. “If people put themselves in the position they put their animals in, they probably wouldn’t abandon or abuse them,” Levy says.
Let’s all remember these amazing trailblazers who have revolutionized the way we care for animals and continue to fight for the well-being of animals everywhere.