First Animal Shelter in U.S. Due to Caroline Earle White

first animal shelter

The first animal shelter in America came about due to the efforts of Caroline Earle White (1833-1916) of Philadelphia. White was also the power behind several other animal protection organizations.

She was among the first to launch the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and she created an offshoot of that organization to create a welcoming environment where women, too, could work for animal welfare. Later she became aware of the medical testing that was being done on animals, and she was first to establish the American Anti-Vivisection Society in the United States.

Early Life

started first animal shelterCaroline Earle White was raised in a well-to-do Quaker family. Her father was an attorney and fully devoted to abolishing slavery. Her mother, a cousin of suffragist advocate Lucretia Mott, worked for suffrage as well as abolition.

Both Caroline’s parents placed high value on education, so Caroline had more learning opportunities than most girls her age. In addition to a general education, she studied astronomy and learned five languages other than English.

Animal Life in the Mid-1800s

During the mid-1800s, horses and mules were work animals and were vital to the delivery of goods within a city. Any big street would have been filled with horse- or mule-drawn wagons. It was not uncommon for drivers to beat the animals when they felt the animals weren’t pulling the heavy loads fast enough. As a young girl, Caroline hated witnessing scenes like this, and she then tried to avoid walking down certain streets that had caused her particular pain.

Marriage Offers More Opportunity

In 1854 she married out of the Quaker religion, marrying Philadelphia attorney Richard P. White, a Catholic. At that time,

Women's branch of PSPCA
Women’s branch of PSPCA

Protestants and some Quakers found Catholic beliefs to be objectionable, but Caroline’s parents were open-minded and felt that whatever religion Caroline followed would be fine. (Caroline did eventually convert to Catholicism.)

Richard White was very supportive of his wife. He recognized her sincere interest in animal welfare, and he knew that well-to-do New York businessman Henry Bergh had just formed the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (1866). White encouraged Caroline to set up a meeting with Bergh, which she did.

Bergh offered suggestions on what needed to be done to get an organization launched in Philadelphia. Caroline White returned to Philadelphia, and in 1867 she began seeking funds and signatures for the cause. In doing so, she found that another fellow, Colonel M. Richards Muckle, was interested in the same thing. They teamed up to work together.

When it came time to legally establish the organization, Caroline White offered the services of her husband since he was an attorney.  When the board was formed, Richard White and Colonel Muckle were among the board members of the organization. Caroline Earle White was not.

first animal shelterThe inability for the men to give Caroline Earle White her rightful place at the table was indicative of the time. Women were welcome to help with causes but not to run them. It is not clear that Caroline White was particularly bothered by this. She continued to work with the organization, and after only 18 months, the association had 600 members.

In 1869, Caroline White set up an offshoot of the PSPCA so that women could become more actively involved. The Women’s PSPCA, later known as the Women’s Human Society, undertook different causes.

Welfare of Small Animals

The main focus of the women’s organization became the number of stray dogs on the streets of the city. Rabies was common at this time, so animal management was important for the human population, too.

When considering household animals, there is a vast difference between “then” and “now.” In the mid-19th century, cats would have been kept at houses and in businesses to keep down the rodent population. City dogs would have been kept as guard dogs. Many would have been considered “pets,” but not the pampered pets of today.  A family might have provided dinner scraps and a place for a dog to sleep, but the animal would have had a lot of latitude to travel the town. This freedom during the day would have guaranteed an active number of puppy births on a regular basis.

First Animal Shelter

At the third meeting of the women’s branch of the PSPCA, the women passed a motion that “one of the objects of this Society shall be, to provide as soon as possible, a Refuge for lost and homeless opened first animal shelterdogs, where they could be kept until homes could be found for them, or they be otherwise disposed of.”

The women raised funds to have a facility, which was the first animal shelter in the nation and was the model for all others. The “refuge,” as they called it, was located in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, about 20 miles northeast of downtown Philadelphia.

The group also undertook other issues: Dog fighting and rooster matches were popular at that time, and the WPSPCA worked actively to end this form of animal abuse. They also brought an end to “animal baiting,” which involved tying up an animal and letting other animals attack it for the amusement of spectators.

Alcohol Part of Problem

Many society women of that time believed that alcohol was the root of much evil, and they campaigned for restriction of alcohol. Those who also supported animal rights felt that alcohol fueled mistreatment of animals of all types. While the bigger issue of temperance was being fought separately, the WPSPCA launched a program to raise money for more water fountains in cities all over the country. The animals would definitely benefit from more convenient access to water. It was hoped by giving the men a free alternative to liquor that it would reduce drinking.

Medical Testing on Animals

During White’s time with the animal shelter, she was contacted by a doctor who made a request that bothered her. The man wanted her to send any unwanted dogs to him to use in medical testing and animal experimentation.

CEW bookletThis was an era when great medical progress was occurring, so there was great enthusiasm for learning more through experimentation. But Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species was also beginning to bring focus to animals as part of an evolutionary process. This made the issue of animal rights a topic of conversation for some.

White was horrified at the thought of sending these homeless dogs off to be used in experiments. Because of this, in 1783 White started her third animal-oriented organization: the American Anti-Vivisection Society.

The Anti-Vivisection Society brought animal medical testing to a national audience by arranging to distribute literature at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. They handed out many leaflets concerning the horrors of lab animals and live testing on animals.

White also served as the editor of The Journal of Zoophily, a publication that began to document the history of animal rights.

Society Still Exists

The organization that began as the women’s PSPCA is now known as the Women’s Humane Society and still runs the animal shelter. They

first animal shelter
Dog from shelter happy in new home

are no longer affiliated with any other animal organization but still maintain an active presence in the community with a low-cost veterinary clinic, an adoption program, and an education program to teach children and community groups about animal care and dog obedience. They also operate a cruelty investigation unit and an animal ambulance service.

The Society still plays an active role in legislative issues to safeguard animals. They have worked to get birds, mice, and rats included in the protective clauses of the Animal Welfare Act, and they have helped reduce the use of rabbits in cosmetic testing. Part of this work has been encouraging exploration of alternative methods to animal experimentation.  They also monitor and advise on the laws that are being put in place regarding animal cloning.

Caroline Earle White’s Greatest Pride

When asked what changes she was most proud of bringing about, Caroline Earle White described the 28-Hour law that the Women’s PSPCA spearheaded. The move toward this legislation came about when organization became aware of inhumane treatment of animals in transport.

RRUnder her leadership, the Women’s PSPCA stationed agents at specific locations along the major railroad routes to observe how the animals were handled. They kept records by telegraphing back to headquarters what they observed on the rail lines.

Eventually they had a strong enough case to take the Reading Railroad to court in 1896 for transporting a shipment of horses over a 52-hour period without ever stopping to feed them or give them water.

They won their case and were able to pass legislation (1907) that mandated that animals be fed and watered after 28 hours in transit.  Fines and convictions of various train lines followed.

Caroline Earle White was a very talented woman with numerous interests. She was also involved in children’s causes and has several travel novels to her name.

Animal Rights Most Important

From early in her life, White was always especially invested in animals. She explains her passion this way:

“There are many people who when we ask them to join us say that they prefer to work for human beings. But are we not working for human beings? Are we not constantly striving to make men and women more humane and disposed to all kindly feelings and to teach children to become gentle and merciful? Is not everything which tends to elevate man in the mortal scale a benefit to him?” 

The Audubon Society is another organization that was launched by a woman in a similar era.  To read about Harriet Lawrence Hemenway, click here. 

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11 thoughts on “First Animal Shelter in U.S. Due to Caroline Earle White”

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  6. I was so glad to read this. It is amazing what one woman could do!
    I recently created a group on Facebook and I named it ‘The Center For National Animal Shelter Reform.’
    I am trying hard to encourage other members that through legislation we absolutely can bring about changes in the laws and create new ones.
    Just look at what one woman did! So, I have full confidence that we will achieve our goals. Our first goal is to make certain methods of euthanasia a Federal offense.

  7. I’m so happy you found the article about Caroline Earle White, and thank you for sharing what you are working on. The changes you are working on are so important! Good luck.

  8. Sallie A Williams

    What an amazing woman Caroline Earle White was. Her love for animals has continued thur her great grandchild and on to her 2nd and 3rd great grandchildren.

  9. How lovely…I often think of her when I see trucks loaded with cattle. I hope the ranchers and truckers are following the guidelines she put in place. Are her descendants still active with a humane society? That would be a great thing to add.

  10. I love how she creates these ideals to help animals keep protecting from danger. Caroline Earle white and some of her friends formed the women’s Humane Society in 1869. And this article teaches other people a lesson, this article will change my life to protect each animal. I love you Caroline Earle

  11. Thank you so much for posting. Yes she saw how animals were being treated and took action to do something about it. Very admirable!

    And of course from her example, we have many people around the country running shelters and watching out for animal abuse….it’s so important.

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