Caroline Earle White (1833-1916), founder of the American Anti-Vivisection Society, was one of the three pioneering figures of American animal protection. In both her personal evolution and her insights about the future course of humane work, however, she exceeded her esteemed colleagues Henry Bergh and George Angell. Indeed, in key respects, White seems the least anachronistic of the three, and her legacy is a highly useable one for SPCAs, humane groups, animal rights organizations, and anti-vivisection societies alike.
The daughter of a well-known Quaker abolitionist who represented free and fugitive blacks in his legal practice, White contributed both money and time to antislavery causes during her early youth. In a late-life reminiscence, she recalled that she had always loved animals, and that the frequency of animal abuse on certain streets near her home caused her so much distress that she avoided them altogether. Years before, White helped to launch the humane movement in America, the Irishman who would become her husband suggested that with such affinities she should support the British SPCA movement.
In the summer of 1866, after reading about his American SPCA, White visited Henry Bergh in New York, and decided to organize a similar effort in Philadelphia. She and her husband began to secure signatures for a petition supporting the formation of a society to prevent cruelty to animals. Soon, she found that another Philadelphian, M. Richards Muckle, was pursuing the same course, and they began working together. With the assistance of White’s husband, an attorney, they drafted a charter with laws, and gained the approval and support of the state legislature.
Although she was the principal force behind the organization of the PSPCA, it was her husband, not White herself, who was elected to serve on the board. Much has been made of this exclusion, but Jane Campbell, who knew and wrote about White for a women’s journal, believed that White “did not expect to be an active participant in the administration of its affairs” once the Society was established.
Instead, White threw herself into the work of the Women’s Branch of the PSPCA, which lost little time in placing the control of animals running wild and potentially rabid in the streets at the heart of its agenda. In June 1869, at their third meeting, branch members approved the motion that “one of the objects of this Society shall be, to provide as soon as possible, a Refuge for lost and homeless dogs, where they could be kept until homes could be found them, or they be otherwise disposed of.” The proposal carried unanimously, and the women began to campaign for control over the taking up and disposal of stray dogs, and for the management of the city pound.
This guaranteed their authority to supervise the manner of killing the animals, for so long as city employees managed the site, they believed, there could be no certainty in providing for humane death. The institution that emerged from this campaign was America’s first animal shelter and the inspiration for virtually all innovation in the field of municipal animal control during the formative decades of organized animal protection.
A few years into its work, the Women’s Branch declared its independence from the Pennsylvania SPCA and charted its own course, decidedly more assertive and hardnosed than its parent institution, and it was amongst the first to struggle with vivisectionists over the use of shelter animals in research. Later, in 1883, after meeting the British feminist and antivivisectionist Frances Power Cobbe, White became convinced that a separate organization was needed to address the use and abuse of animals in research, testing, and education. White founded the American Anti-Vivisection Society, the first of its kind in the U.S.
Although White is remembered today primarily for her anti-vivisection activism and her role in the history of animal sheltering, she herself was most proud of the work she and her agents did in securing compliance with the laws pertaining to the treatment of cattle in transit. Under her leadership, the Women’s PSPCA stationed agents at specified locations along the major railroad routes to observe the cattle traffic. They used telegraph communications to alert both their colleagues and federal officials to violations of the 28-Hour Law, which mandated that animals be fed and watered after 28 house in transit, and secured a number of important convictions.
White also took an aggressive tack against captive bird shoots and other blood enthusiasms. In late 1887, the Society initiated a prosecution of pigeon shooters under the 1869 statute, securing a conviction in the lower courts. Unfortunately, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court did not sustain these judgments. Under White’s authority, the Women’s PSPCA also challenged fox hunting in the Philadelphia vicinity, through public criticism, attempts to secure prohibitive legislation, and prosecution.
While White took no active political role in the women’s rights movement, she worked along its fault lines. Her longtime heroine in the anti-slavery cause, Mary Grew went on to become a leader in the suffrage movement. Throughout the1890s, White wrote for and was written about in the Philadelphia journal Woman’s Progress, which carried regular features in support of women’s suffrage. Her work with the WPSPCA and AAVS typified what contemporary scholars call “social feminism,” the pursuit of expanded roles for women in public life through the creation and development of separate institutions.
Despite her many principled personal convictions, White remained pragmatic in all of her campaign strategies. She was never complacent, and proved very receptive to the more progressive strains of animal advocacy that emerged in the last decade of the century, and there is little doubt that she would have felt comfortable with the direction of animal protection in the twenty-first century. Indeed, Caroline Earle White was a crucial figure in the field of animal rights and a true foremother of contemporary animal advocacy.
Written by Bernie Unti, Ph.D.