The Dutchess County S.P.C.A.

Do you have a “fur baby” of your own? That could be a dog, cat, hamster, or even something that doesn’t necessarily have fur like a fish or a bird. Perhaps you raise chickens or you have a horse or a goat that means the world to you? Many people found their fur babies at the Dutchess County S.P.C.A. shelter. Did you know that the Dutchess County S.P.C.A is one of the oldest in the United States? Some of the leading figures of Poughkeepsie were members of the society and worked tirelessly to end cruelty to animals throughout the county. 

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (or S.P.C.A. for short) was the idea of a diplomat from New York City named Henry Bergh. He had once witnessed a man beating his horse that had fallen in the street and pleaded with him to stop. He decided to do more, and created an organization that fought back against those who mistreated animals of all sorts. This was difficult work in 19th century America, where people relied on their animals for work more than companionship. In many places, people considered things like dog or chicken fights as a source of entertainment. Bergh started the S.P.C.A. in 1866, and it was the “first and only humane society in the Western Hemisphere, and its formation prompted the New York State Legislature to pass the country’s first effective anti-cruelty law.” 

Here in Poughkeepsie, a group of concerned citizens began a chapter of the S.P.C.A. officially in September of 1871, making the Dutchess County S.P.C.A. one of the oldest in the country. The longevity of the society was not a sure thing, though, in those early days. At first they had trouble finding and keeping members, as not everyone was so interested in the well-being of animals. As President of the Society, Matthew Vassar, Jr. proclaimed in his speech in 1878, “Our Society, I believe, has grown in favor with many of our citizens. Its progress has been somewhat slow heretofore as it is difficult to impress upon the minds of the public, through a few officers, the real necessity of caring for the dumb animals which are so essential to our comfort and, I may say indispensable to our use.” (By the way, he doesn’t use the word dumb in a derogatory manner, only to say that animals cannot speak.)

The society had agents who could detect and arrest anyone who was believed to be committing cruelty to animals, whether it was neglecting a pet or overworking a farm animal. Several cases were tried and punishments were carried out, as seen throughout many articles in the Poughkeepsie Journal. The society even encouraged citizens to do their part and alert agents to any suspected cruelty. However, in the early years there was no shelter to house unwanted or sick animals, so it became the agent’s job to destroy them. It wasn’t until 1934 that a shelter was finally constructed for the housing of unwanted cats and dogs; a small model of the new shelter was placed on display in the window of Luckey, Platt, and Company’s department store. By 1960, the shelter had moved to the current property off of Violet Avenue. In 2013 it received a generous donation to build the current shelter and education center. 

It should be noted that there were certainly plenty of animal lovers in Poughkeepsie and Dutchess County in the 19th century, as we have seen from several photos that we have in our Vail Brothers Photography collection. We have photos of cats, dogs, and even some chickens, who were clearly loved enough for their owners to have spent a fair amount of money on some photographs (images on the right). So remember to show your fur babies some love.           

Poughkeepsie Journal – 18 Sep 1871, 12 Mar 1878, 27 Sep 1880, 26 Jan, 1934, 15 Feb 1948, 27 Oct 1960, 24 Feb 2013.

01 – Vail Brothers photograph of a small dog circa 1870s. LH Collection
02 – Vail Brothers photograph of a lovely cat. LH Collection
03 – Vail Brothers photograph of two chickens. LH Collection
04 – Vail Brothers photograph of Carlotta Eastman with her dog. LH Collection
05 – Article from the Poughkeepsie Eagle News about the work of the S.P.C.A., September 27, 1880.