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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Animal Cruelty Curtailed

History books rarely say anything about it, but the pioneers who trekked overland in the 1840s seeking a better life in the West brought their dogs too, along with their families and hopes and dreams. And not just them, either. Members of the American military also had their dogs aboard ship with them, when they landed on California soil in 1846 to fight in the Mexican-American War.

In fact, there were suddenly so many dogs—when just a decade earlier, working dogs and pets alike were extremely scarce in California—that by 1852 major cities such as San Francisco, Sacramento, and Marysville were overrun with stray canines. Perhaps abandoned by their owners, or runaways, the animals reproduced rapidly, prowling the settlements untethered. Some of the vagrant dogs were diseased; all were considered nuisances.

According to San Francisco’s Daily Alta in August 1852, “There are all descriptions of dogs in this city in abundance from the noble and intelligent St. Bernard down to the diminutive lap-dog; from the dignified mastiff to the degenerate sneaking cur, dogs with no hair and dogs with all hair—in fact, San Francisco is alive with dogs. The number of dogs in California must be very great, provided all places are supplied in proportion to their size, as it is said that there are at least two thousand in Los Angeles who have neither homes nor master. There are hundreds here, lying around on the sunny side of the streets, to whom no one appears to have any peculiar claim.”

The unclaimed mutts that roamed the city were rounded up and exterminated so frequently and indiscriminately, that in 1854 gentlemen who frequented the horse races were urged not to bring their favorite dogs to the racetrack lest they fall victim to animal control personnel.

Dogs with owners worked as guard dogs, as circus performers, as rescue animals; and it was said that the prostitutes in Nevada City kept pet Poodles. Unfortunately, dogs were also used in “amusements” as combatants in fights with bears or bulls—although the Nevada Journal reproached the rabble by saying, “We don’t think it adds to the character of a gentleman to be seen setting two dogs to fighting, and then standing over them and exulting in their ferocity.”

By 1855, most larger towns in Northern California had decreed that owners must license their dogs for a nominal annual fee, conformity affirmed by a brass tag worn on the animal’s collar. Thirteen years later, San Franciscans organized a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, based on a successful New York state agency of the same name, and endorsed by an Act passed by the California State Legislature’s 17th session.

In brief, the Act decreed that “Any person who shall, for any purpose, cause any bull, bear, dog, cock or other creature, to fight, worry, and injure each other, or any person who shall permit the same on premises under his control, and any person who shall aid, abet, or be present at such fighting as a spectator for an admission fee, shall on conviction be guilty of a misdemeanor,” adding the same penalty for anyone who unnecessarily caused pain and suffering to any living creatures they were transporting, for whatever reason.

It was the first time in California that animal cruelty was punishable in a court of law.

S. P. C. A. members carried badges and were empowered to make arrests the same as official law enforcement. By March 1872 the Daily Alta was applauding the Society’s efforts for having “crushed” dogfighting; however, there was no specific law that actually prohibited the sport itself. The brutality of it continued for decades—albeit in covert places—until the practice was finally outlawed by legislation passed in California in the mid-20th century.

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