Animal Care History

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Magic was the earliest form of medical treatment for humans and animals alike. Practitioners called upon the supernatural to cure all their patients! Fortunately, medicine is now based on the scientific method instead of incantations.


Veterinary medicine is as old as civilization. Early people in the Mediterranean cultures began to domesticate animals and to turn from a hunting society to an agricultural society at least 4,000 years B.C. Throughout large parts of Africa and Asia, a veterinary profession developed to tend animals that sickened. The Egyptians, Babylonians, and Hindus all developed human and animal medicine as one practice, while the early Greeks developed the scientific method and taught animal and human anatomy.

The Babylonians are credited with a significant early step in animal medicine, the isolation of sick animals from the herd. Although ailing animals were treated by magic, these early animal doctors passed the isolation technique on to the Hebrews who in turn passed on the idea to later Western civilizations.

By the beginning of the second century B.C., veterinary practice had taken root in the agrarian society of India where cattle were the most valuable resource. The Hindu religious concept of reincarnation-and with it the sacred status of the cow-was the basis for serious concern about animal care. India continued to develop animal care, establishing veterinary hospitals in the Middle Ages. Even today, there are government-operated gosadans (literally "old cow homes") that are a direct outgrowth of these early veterinary hospitals.

The Greeks were the first people to record detailed veterinary history. In 400 B.C., King Alexander of Macedonia created pro-grams of animal study, and the Greek physician, Hippocrates, recognized the similarities between animal and human physiology as he plunged into the exciting sciences of pathology and anatomy. Over 200 years later, Galen, a Greek physician working in Rome, dissected horses and noted his anatomical and physiological observations. The Hippiatrika, the first detailed veterinary writing, was developed in the Byzantine Empire by Aspyrtusand Vegetius, acknowledged as the true founders of veterinary medicine.


From the fall of the Roman Empire until the Renaissance, much medical information, human and animal, was lost. However, the horseshoe was invented during this time, and the farrier (or shoer of horses) was the nearest thing to a veterinarian. The horse was one of the few animals in this period that was medically studied. In fact, in 1598, a veterinary work, The Anatomy of the Horse, was published. It was a detailed study, although crude by today's standards.

Another scholar, the Benedictine Abbess, St. Hildegarde, was also at work during this period, and prepared a study on animals, fish, and birds. She did not draw from earlier studies of any sort, but gathered voluminous information herself.

The Renaissance arrived to waken an intellectually slumbering world, and among its contributions was a revival of interest in medicine. Advances in the control of human and animal diseases were due in large part to the discovery of the circulation of the blood and the invention of the microscope.

At this time, people were studying animals in different ways. In the late fifteenth century, an early zoo was created on the grounds of the Regent of France, Anne de Beaujeu. This enterprising monarch raised animals in the stately gardens behind the Royal Palace. She also studied the habits of turkeys, an unseemly pastime for a member of royalty!


It was not until 1762 that animal care in Europe was organized into a formal tradition. This development was prompted by a devastating cattle plague that begged for a hasty solution. As a result, the first veterinary college, Ecole Nationale Veterinaire of Lyons, France, was formed.

The college attempted to find ways to combat the plague by methods other than quarantine and slaughter.

Less than one hundred years later, the French physician and scientist, Louis Pasteur, discovered micro-organisms, and established their relationship to diseases in people and other animals. Pasteur's studies encouraged veterinarians to protect animals from communicable diseases. The doctor's interest extended also to protecting humans from diseases of animal origin, particularly those transmitted through meats and dairy products. The principles of food hygiene begun in the nineteenth century owe much to Pasteur's trailblazing research.


The first stirrings of animal health care in America revolved around a directive, Liberties of Brute Animals. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony wrote the treatise, a voluntary set of rules governing humane animal care.

It was still to be more than 200 years before any general animal welfare movement would surface in America; yet between 1650 and 1850 there developed the rudiments of veterinary medicine, and a gradual separation of the field from human medicine.

People shipping animals to America-early America counted heavily on cattle, swine, and horses from abroad-had their own way of keeping a disease from spreading. The crews of the animal-laden ships were directed to toss any sick animals overboard. Although a heartless process, this practice prevented at least some of the livestock contamination caused by imported stock.

In these formative years of the developing country, wildlife was considered every citizen's property, to be consumed without restriction or governmental control. Commercial demand for leather, fur, feathers, and meat led to wholesale exploitation of wild animals. Domestic cattle succumbed to disease rather than greed as anthrax, pleuropneumonia, and hog cholera were increasingly prevalent.

Two events within a year of each other meant hope for both wildlife and livestock. The Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 was passed by Congress, providing federal land and funds for education in agriculture, the mechanical arts, and veterinary science. A year later, the American Veterinary Medical Association was founded. Its aim was a full-scale attack on the diseases of domestic livestock. Only in more recent years has this organization been able to concentrate on total care for all animals.

In 1884, Congress passed the Hatch Act, landmark legislation that established the Bureau of Animal Industry within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Bureau regulated the importation of cattle in order to control contagious pleuropneumonia, the most persistent cattle disease, and other livestock illnesses.


While there was some enlightenment in the field, cruelty to animals and indifference to their plight were still "givens." Many horses were treated as brutally in life as "Black Beauty" was in fiction. At one time in New York City alone, some 25,000 horses, many drawing streetcars, were poorly cared for and overworked. Henry Bergh, a wealthy New York career diplomat, left the diplomatic service to devote his life to curtailing animal cruelty among the hapless streetcar and carriage horses and other creatures. In a ringing speech delivered on February 8, 1886, Bergh declared that "... the blood-red hand of cruelty shall no longer torture dumb animals with impunity." On that day, Bergh established the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

Bergh also pressed for the enactment of the Animal Welfare Act of 1886 in New York State. Under its terms, any act of animal cruelty was a misdemeanor with specific penalties. It shortly became the model for legislation in other states. Only six days after the Act was passed, a Brooklyn butcher piled sheep and calves into a cart like so many bags of grain. The butcher was the first of a parade of violators that year to feel the sting of the new animal protection law.

The following year, a national federation of animal welfare agencies was established in an effort to make welfare programs more unified among the growing number of independent agencies. The move was the beginning of a concerted effort to treat all animals like people's best friends.

While humane societies arose to do their part, health education in the animal field was also expanding. More than 22 colleges were offering courses in veterinary subjects. The first public veterinary college was founded at Iowa State College. Today, there are 27 colleges of veterinary medicine in the United States and three in Canada. Of the early private institutions of veterinary medicine, only the University of Pennsylvania remains.

For twenty years before 1883, Americans were gradually be-coming more aware of the finite nature of wildlife. Spurred by the writings of James Audubon, John Muir, Henry Thoreau, and John Burroughs, people were forming conservation organizations. Since these early efforts posed no threat to industry, they were tolerated. (To a degree, this perspective continues today.) But by 1883, fewer than 1,000 of America's onetime bison population of 60 million remained; fur-bearing animals were in danger of extinction; the passenger pigeon was nearly gone-it would disappear forever in 1914. The American Ornithologists Union, founded in 1883, was the first national conservation group; others like the Sierra Club (1892) and the New York Zoological Society were founded. This latter organization was the first dedicated to wildlife conservation as we understand it today.


The first half of the twentieth century saw the establishment of state and federal wildlife agencies designed to promote the careful use of natural resources including wildlife. During this time, eradication of diseases continued to be the primary goal of veterinary medicine. Toward mid-century, especially after World War II, veterinarians began a greater degree of interaction with human medical specialists and increased their involvement with control and protection of the pet population-characteristics of today's veterinary practice and animal medical research.

In the early years of the 1930s, Alfred Leopold, a professional forester, began to formulate ecological and evolutionary theories. He recognized the existence of "ecosystems," the interdependence of human beings, animals, and environment. By mid-decade, Leopold was questioning the validity of prevailing wildlife management concepts that favored certain species. While game animals received the major share of attention, predatory animals remained "second-class citizens."

A major spur to the conservation movement was Rachel Car-son's book, Silent Spring. In it, the author demonstrated the dangers of current practices such as insecticide use and destruction of wildlife and its habitat for commercial purposes. The conservation awareness she generated led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the President's Council on Environmental Quality and promoted the enactment of the Wilderness Act, Endangered Species Act, and National Environmental Policy Act. A not-so-gentle ripple had grown to a strong current of concern and this time, a woman was proving the pen to be mightier than the sword.


There is a growing interrelationship among the many groups concerned with animal preservation and animal care, the connection between humans and animals long separated in veterinary medicine has merged as well. Veterinary medicine has taken an increasingly active role in researching the medical uses of atomic energy, in the application of many drugs with common uses for people and animals, in the research efforts of the space program, and in the control and elimination of Zoonoses (ailments common to humans and animals). Veterinarians now interact with agricultural specialists as well, in their common concern for food purity as it relates to animal drugs and animal feed pesticides.

In this capsule history, we have not traced the important contributions to animal care made by zoological societies. Zoos have evolved from places of animal confinement to habitats designed for the understanding and the protection of endangered species, and for the education of people in the importance of preserving the balance of nature. Author-zoologists such as Lawrence Durrell actively promote this essential element of animal care through numerous highly readable books, and through the protectionist work performed by his Isle of Jersey Zoo off the English coast.

The tremendous growth of the American pet population pro-vides this final historical note: there are more than 2,000 animal welfare organizations in the country today, ranging from small local SPCAs to national groups. The tremendous pet population has also ushered in a broad range of pet care services, from dog grooming salons to operating amphitheaters for animal shows. Many new animal care occupations offer career opportunities today that did not exist even a few years ago.
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