The term “animal rights advocate” tends to conjure a very specific image in most people’s minds; an outspoken, overbearing, argumentative and often affluent caricature. Though this image may not apply to the vast majority of advocates, it does describe Henry Bergh, the godfather of the animal rights movement in the United States. Author Ernest Freeberg’s depiction of Henry Bergh in A Traitor to His Species: Henry Bergh and the Birth of the Animal Rights Movement is one of a complex, eccentric man dedicated to making the lives of animals just slightly more tolerable.
Bergh was by no means a perfect advocate. Freeberg clearly outlines Bergh’s misogyny, classism, and view of meat consumption as a “necessary evil”. And yet, without Bergh’s tenacity, an alternate future for the animal rights movement is difficult to imagine. Freeberg’s vivid writing tells us the story of a stubborn man determined to lead with moral authority. Comprehensive research paired with great storytelling weaves a fascinating narrative of the various public trials and feuds in which Bergh seemed to compulsively engage. Each chapter of A Traitor to His Species covers one piece of the puzzle for animal rights. From dog fighting to methods of transporting turtles to the treatment of carriage horses, A Traitor to His Species flawlessly encompasses the life and work of Henry Bergh.
Freeberg artfully toes the line between critical reflection and admiration that every biographist must manage. In one section, Freeberg traces the linear journey from Bergh’s advocacy for removing animal slaughter from public view to increased meat consumption and a lack of empathy for animals deemed “livestock”. In another chapter, Freeberg discusses Bergh’s brief work as an advocate against cruelty to children for, in Bergh’s mind, “children are animals”. No advocate for any cause will ever be perfect and that is okay. Freeberg’s portrayal of Bergh’s imperfection is wholly honest and his insight is fascinating. A Traitor to His Species is a must-read for animal rights advocates and history buffs alike.