March 12th marks the 130th anniversary of the death of Henry Bergh — a diplomat, philanthropist, and co-founder of the child protection movement. At a time when children enjoyed few legal rights, in 1874, Bergh represented a ten-year-old girl named Mary Ellen who was starved, beaten, and confined by her adoptive mother. He and his colleagues won that case, launching a whole new era dedicated to advancing the rights of children. Mary Ellen eventually went on to join a caring family, get married, raise her own children, and live in relative obscurity. Bergh, on the other hand, did not.
Known as the “Great Meddler,” Bergh patrolled the streets of New York on a regular basis trying to save horses from neglect and abuse. He interfered in dogfighting rings and foxhunting excursions and brought to court a case on behalf of chickens whom he claimed had been boiled alive. When he was approached about Mary Ellen’s case, he had served for eight years as president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He founded the organization in 1866, soon after he witnessed a bullfight in Spain.
Henry Bergh was drawn to Mary Ellen’s case in the same way he was drawn to helping animals. He and other advocates of his time knew that there were links between violence against people and animals — connections that remain today.
As recent mass shootings have demonstrated, animal cruelty is a red flag for family violence, and it can be a gateway to homicide — associations that extend beyond violence against companion animals. In studies of children and adults, psychologists have exposed how widening the moral gap between people and animals and treating animals as inherently lesser beings, can lead to human prejudice and violence. Empirical analysis has shown that slaughterhouse location can be correlated with arrests for family violence, rape, and other forms of assault. Independently, historians Charles Patterson and Jim Mason have reasoned that the ancient domestication of animals became a model for subsequent human atrocities, including slavery and genocide.
Many of these connections can be explained by structural violence — an unjust, exploitive political and economic organization of society that trickles down to the individual through what sociologists call “the law of the conservation of violence.” For example, legal frameworks and cultural norms that contribute to misogyny, racism, child abuse, and even speciesism are structural forms of violence that prevent individuals from meeting their needs, thereby contributing to suffering. We cannot separate one of these problems from another.
Today, policymakers and many others attempt to address violence in all its forms, from that which occurs in the home or school to war zones. For decades, sociologists have focused on interrupting the cycle of violence, and more recently, public health professionals have turned their attention to disrupting the contagious nature of violence.
Yet, we still have so far to go. News headlines serve as a reminder: Gun violence in schools. The #MeToo movement. Ongoing attacks on Syrian civilians and the Rohingya people in Myanmar. Each week, the news cycles through numerous stories about violence, leaving little dispute that we live in a violent world. We need solutions that address violence at its roots — including the link between violence against people and animals. We must invest in prevention, specifically, inclusive principles that inoculate against the structure of violence.
As Bergh understood, violence against people and animals is bound by a violation of the same principles: respect for dignity, freedom, and sovereignty, a commitment to love and tolerance, and justice. Though often considered lofty ideas, these values are actually biological needs. Without them, many humans and animals develop learned helplessness, posttraumatic stress, depression, and other disorders that correspond with changes in brain chemistry. In contrast, attention to these principles can promote healing and resilience in survivors of violence.
Explained in part by neuroscience, compassion, and tolerance are among the most effective antidotes to violence. Similarly, as a biological need designed to encourage cooperation and sustain communities of people and animals, just actions activate areas of the brain associated with reward, pleasure, and positive reinforcement, making further acts of justice more likely. When values like empathy and justice are applied consistently, they also become powerful norms and protection against violence in human and non-human societies.
Today, we must now appreciate what Bergh did with an even greater sense of urgency: violence against people and animals require similar solutions. It is worth remembering that just as violence can trickle down, so too can nonviolent principles, and true progress will likely require a reconstruction of our socioeconomic and politico-legal systems. If we fail to take this opportunity, we will remain captive to a culture of violence.