The formidable woman stood tall in front of the slight man behind the desk. She crossed her hands in front of her, and unsmiling, and questioned him.
“Mr. Waln, where are the watering stations?”
The man sighed, taking off his spectacles and placing them on the desk. The sound of horses’ hooves on cobblestone streets could be heard outside the window.
“Mrs. White, I have told you those watering stations have not been approved by the board yet. I believe your husband has already informed you of that.”
“He has, Mr. Waln, which is what brings me here today. Clearly my husband’s voice is not clear enough to speak my mind, so I will use my own words. You had the same goals as I before the charter of this organization and yet since you’ve been appointed here, nothing we talked about has been accomplished.”
“These things take time. Women are not allowed on the board. You do not understand how business runs.”
Mrs. White held her stone cold expression, but a flicker of flame could be seen in her eye.
“I am very well aware of how a business is run, Mr. Waln.”
Mr. Waln stood. “Well then, Mrs. White, why don’t you start your own humane society then.”
Mrs. White sniffs. “Maybe I shall.”
Mrs. White turned and took three long strides to the door. As she opened the door, she turned back to Mr. Waln: “Good day, sir.”
“Good day,” she repeated to get the final word and then closed the door behind her.
That scene probably didn’t happen. But I wish it had. It was what I imagined when I read that “Mr. Waln suggested to Mrs. Caroline Earle White that she start her own organization, the Women’s Branch of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (WPSPCA.)” After reading about Caroline Earle White, I cannot believe any man had to “suggest” anything to her at all. She was a force to be reckoned with, a woman who knew how to make change in a man’s world. It was she who went to Henry Bergh, who had just started the ASPCA in New York, seeking advice on how to set up a version of it in Philadelphia. Unbeknownst to her, two businessmen were simultaneously considering the same thing, and being the late 1800’s, you can easily guess who got it off the ground. She had joined forces with them, but being female meant she wasn’t allowed to be on the board. Within a year, she admitted this simply wasn’t working for her. She needed a new strategy.
Caroline Earle White and twenty-nine other women came together in 1869 to form what was first called the “Women’s Branch” of PSPCA but soon proved it was more than a branch—it was an entire tree. Although associated with PSPCA due to Caroline being a founding member, the Women’s PSPCA was its own organization from the very beginning. During a time when society dictated that women had to use their husband’s voices to be heard, these women spoke out on their own, to be the voice for the other voiceless in America: the children, the work horses, and the stray dogs.
In the 1800’s, as people migrated from their rural farms to urban centers and the industrial revolution hit a high, the dogs and cats that once had miles of open farmland now wandered the streets, unsheltered, eating garbage, and were believed to spread disease as easily as rats. Cities had “animal control” which was the equivalent of what we call “pest control” today. They rounded up the stray dogs, placing them in pounds (think “car impound”) until execution day. While some communities shot or clubbed them to death, others held public executions such as drowning in the Hudson River in which the strays were placed in steel cages and dumped into the river while people cheered them on.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Look at your dog who is right now snoozing at the other end of the couch, who you adopted from a rescue who had taken him from the local shelter after they found him wandering the streets. If this was 150 years ago, that little (or big) life would have been placed in a steel cage and dropped into the river without a second thought.
This is how animals were treated.
Caroline Earle White and her women knew this was wrong. Although there was a problem of stray animals, there had to be a better way to handle this. In 1870, the WPSPCA took over the Philadelphia Dog Pound which had been a warehouse until the next round of mass killings. Instead of warehousing and “disposing” of the strays, they cared for the dogs. They treated their wounds, gave them food, water, and a safe place to sleep, and showed them kindness. While the building was still crude, the purpose had changed. Dogs were held for a specific time for owners to reclaim them. And while there’s no record of the very first adoption, people did come and adopt some of these homeless animals. While society’s perspective on strays evolved from one of execution to adoption, there were still animals that could not be cared for. Caroline White instituted using the gas chamber for euthanization. Although a cruel and inhumane method of death in today’s terms, it was far kinder than the alternatives of clubbing, shooting, and drowning.
Mrs. White was the mother of the modern animal shelter. She is why your dog is now at the end of your couch and not at the bottom of a river. She led the evolution from animal control to animal welfare. Her shelter employed officers to check up on work and carriage horses in the city and respond to tips of animal cruelty. Through donations and community support, she added a veterinary clinic to the shelter. In 1874, she started American Bands of Mercy, a predecessor to Bark Avenue Foundation itself: an organization focusing on educating children about compassion and kindness toward all animals.
When the medical community came to Caroline’s shelter asking for the stray dogs to be used in medical research she demanded no such thing would happen under her watch. She made sure no shelter animal would ever be tortured or used for experimentation. Learning that pounds were a common place for scientists to get research animals, she started the American Anti-Vivisection Society (AVVS) in 1883, and a whole new crusade began. While some women remained back at basecamp running the shelter, clinic, and education campaigns, she teamed up with the Massachusetts SPCA to end vivisection in elementary and secondary schools. She went to the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 and handed out leaflets about the cruelty of experimenting on live animals.
Never underestimate the power you have to the change the world. In a time when a woman’s thoughts could only be heard through the megaphone of a man’s vocal chords, Caroline Earle White stepped up to the microphone herself and let the voices of all those behind her be heard. She did not speak for herself. She spoke for the carriage horses. She spoke for the stray dogs doused with gasoline and lit on fire. She spoke for the cats killed by the rat poison people had left in the alleyways.
And she did finally get those watering stations. By 1911, WPSPCA had built and installed thirty-five water fountains around the city for the working horses. From city halls to classrooms, from alleys to apartment buildings, Caroline Earle White made her mark on Philadelphia and in the world of animal welfare. She, and the women of WPSPCA, changed how animals were treated in America forever more.
Last month, the Women’s Animal Shelter celebrated its 150 year anniversary. The women (and now also men) who work and volunteer there are still sheltering and caring for the strays and surrenders of Philadelphia, offering low cost veterinary care, and educating the community about how to be compassionate.
Never underestimate the power you have to make change this world. If one woman living in a man’s world at the turn of the century can change the way a nation treats their animals, with the consequences of her actions still rippling through time a century and a half later, then your potential is unfathomable. Dream big, speak up, and act out. The animals–including us–need you.
Stephanie Wescott is a freelance writer whose mission is to save animals’ lives through story. Although she hails from New England and resides in Southern California, you’ll mostly likely find her somewhere in between on the open road with her canine companion Tucker, searching for trails to hike and stories to tell. You can follow their tracks and read their tales at www.alltuckeredout.org.