History of The Anti-Cruelty Society

The Anti-Cruelty Society has been on the forefront of animal welfare and humane education ever since it was founded in 1899. Our extensive history is proof of the importance of our work, and also serves as a reminder of the many things that our organization has accomplished over the years.

The Early Years: 1899-1929      

From May to October of 1893, Chicago played host to the world at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Over 27 million people traveled to Chicago’s shimmering White City to marvel at man’s progress and visions for the future. Yet the utopian ephemeral White City was a sharp contrast to the poorer neighborhoods that lay a short distance from the fairgrounds. The United States was in the midst of an economic depression. Hoards of immigrants, spurred by the industrial revolution, flocked to Chicago and other urban centers in search of work only to find themselves poor, starving, and huddled in crowded tenements. Raw sewage ran through the streets and epidemics of typhoid and other diseases often ravaged the city. The social unrest that would lead to the deadly Pullman Strike in 1894 was on the rise.

As the century drew to a close, this grim climate and a deepening fear of these growing urban masses lead to the rise of progressive social reforms in Chicago and other urban centers. The middle and upper class women of the day were the driving force of this movement. Since the rise of the Suffrage movement in the 1850s, many women had become increasingly dissatisfied with their designated place in society and wished to play a more active role in bringing about needed change. In Chicago, many such women took the lead in establishing ground breaking social institutions and reforms. Jane Adams opened Hull House in 1889 to provide social services to immigrants and the working poor. Chicago’s Women’s Clubs formed charitable organizations and reform committees in response to the needs of the city’s poor, neglected and abused. In 1899 a small group of Chicago women turned their attention to a forgotten group of suffering creatures – the city’s animal population.

These humanitarians faced an uphill struggle to overcome the hardship, neglect, and cruelty all around them. A large percentage of the city’s estimated 50,000 workhorses were old, sick, and ill cared for. Many dropped under heavy burdens, only to be savagely beaten by insensitive drivers. The burgeoning Union Stock Yards and the slaughterhouses demonstrated little concern for the livestock they handled and incidents of inhumane butchery practices were common. Homeless dogs and cats wove their way through crowds of people in the streets in search of morsels of food and temporary shelter.

A deep concern for the welfare of these helpless creatures led five Chicagoans to the home of Mrs. Theodore Thomas, wife of the city’s symphony conductor, on the evening of January 19, 1899. A second larger meeting at the residence of Mrs. Joseph Winterbothom on March 7, 1899, led to the formation of The Anti-Cruelty Society. This meeting saw the adoption of by-laws and election of Mrs. Thomas as the group’s first president. As the president of The Anti-Cruelty Society, Mrs. Thomas became one of the first women to head a Humane Society.

This small band of dedicated volunteers set high goals: to suppress cruelty to animals, to educate the public on humane treatment, and to create a refuge for strays. The Anti-Cruelty Society opened its first small animal shelter in 1904 at 1898 North Clark Street. By 1905, it had placed watering troughs throughout Chicago for thirsty workhorses. On December 6, 1906, The Anti-Cruelty Society received a charter from the State of Illinois to conduct protective work with animals and children. In addition to its work with animals, the Society was directly involved in the handling of child welfare cases for the next decade. The Society also instituted a humane education campaign organizing children’s chapters, distributing humane literature, and providing lectures.

The Society opened a downtown office headquarters at 90 North LaSalle Street in 1907. A motorcycle with a cage attachment for transporting stray dogs was purchased the following year, and a horse named Beauty and her attendant were posted at the Rush Street Bridge over the Chicago River to help heavily loaded horses up the steep incline. For a short time, the Society maintained “Horse Haven,” a south side rest farm for sick and worn-out workhorses. In 1908, the Society joined representatives from major meat packing houses in a series of meetings that lead to the development of voluntary guidelines for humane butchery.

In 1910, the Society acquired a permanent home at 155 Indiana Avenue (now Grand Avenue). The building housed a kennel, administrative offices, classrooms, and a humane library. That same year, 5,000 posters detailing the proper care of horses were distributed to stables across the city.

By 1914, the Society had its first four wheeled small animal rescue vehicle. Two years later, a new better equipped ambulance was purchased. Its first Charity Clinic opened in 1916, at a time when veterinary facilities for small animals were almost nonexistent.

Society volunteers worked tirelessly on behalf of the city’s horses during 1917. July and August brought a record heat wave. In addition to maintaining the watering troughs throughout the city, a man with a watering hose was stationed in front of the Society’s headquarters to wet down the horses as they came to drink from the three fountains in front of the facility. It was reported that about 2,000 horses a day made their way to the Society’s fountains during the heat spell. During the cold icy winter the same year, the Society’s volunteers came to the aid of poorly shod horses that were having difficulty on the icy streets by distributing shoe covers made of canvas and old carpet.

With the onset of World War I, Chicago humanitarians formed a Red Star Animal Relief Chapter. Red Star Chapters raised funds for animal relief equipment and recruited volunteer veterinary corps including farriers, blacksmiths, and stable men to care for the estimated 700,000 American Army horses in Europe. When prohibition closed taverns in the 1920s, the Society took over the maintenance of the horse troughs in front of many of these establishments often paying for the water tax and repairs. In April of 1920 in honor of Be Kind to Animals Week, the first Humane Day was held in Chicago’s public schools. The Society furnished 8,000 booklets to the schools containing humane education exercises. The Society provided Chicago “Moving Picture Houses” with special lantern slides showing pictures of a child and dog and the message “Be Kind to Animals”. In the mid 1920s, the Society observed its first Horses’ Christmas with deliveries of food and blankets to the city’s workhorses.

In addition to two animal ambulances that covered the city every day picking up animals, the Society placed ads in the newspaper urging Chicago citizens to place sick or injured animals in a taxi cab and instruct the driver to take them to The Anti-Cruelty Society. The cab fares were paid by the Society from a fund set up by Mrs. George M. Wisner. In 1922, the Society hired Mr. Louis Krueger as its first full time Humane Investigator. Educational activities also expanded in 1924; the Society and Chicago Board of Education held pet shows at school playgrounds.

By the 1920s, The Anti-Cruelty Society was taking in over 20,000 animals a year. A rabies epidemic in 1928 forced the Society to limit the number of dogs that would be kept at the refuge to no more than 150 on any given day for the duration of the crisis. The practice of keeping a kennel card for each dog, that is still used today, was initiated at that time so that the health of animals could be better tracked. In 1928, The Anti-Cruelty Society assisted Mrs. Frederick McLaughlin in founding the “Orphans of the Storm” animal refuge in Deerfield, Illinois by providing a third of the necessary funds. The creation of this facility helped to ease some of the demand on the Society’s refuge.

By the end of the 1920s, The Anti-Cruelty Society had gained national respect and recognition. Its leadership and volunteers would have great influence in bringing about additional reforms in Chicago in the years to come.

The Great Depression and the War Years: 1930-1949

Chicago of the 1930s was a study in contrasts. The Great Depression struck especially hard at America’s large industrial cities. At the nadir of the Depression, Chicago’s unemployed numbered 700,000 people; 40 percent of the workforce. Hoovervilles, a phrase coined by a colony of Chicago’s unemployed men, had sprung up in Chicago’s front yard at Randolph Street and Grant Park mere blocks away from the Gold Coast mansions of the wealthy.

There is no greater symbol of these stark contrasts than the “Century of Progress Exposition” which opened in 1933. The people called it “The Rainbow City”. In the midst of the grim poverty-stricken city, The Century of Progress Exposition was vibrant with color. Buildings were painted with color schemes, usually of four hues. Night time illumination with white and colored lights heightened the effect. The fair was officially a monument to a century of scientific progress. Unofficially, it was an attempt to bolster consumerism and confidence in science. In contrast to the lofty promises of the future highlighted in the Science Pavilion, was the tawdry Midway. The Midway, or “ballyhoo boulevard” as some called it, featured freak shows, animal acts, a midget village and of course, the fan dancing Sally Rand. Sally Rand intended her show as a spoof on Chicago high-society matrons who insisted on overdressing at a time when many Americans barely had money to clothe themselves. By taking it off, she was putting them on. These times of both extreme want and flagrant excess brought out the best and the worst in people. For The Anti-Cruelty Society these years would bring the greatest challenges and lead to some of their greatest accomplishments.

The Anti-Cruelty Society was hit doubly hard by the Depression as the demand for its services went up astronomically while its revenues decreased greatly. The Society was receiving from 200 to 500 requests a day to pick up abandoned animals. The two ambulance drivers made daily rounds of the Hoovervilles in Grant and Jefferson Parks and behind the Field Museum to pick up the stray animals that were drawn to these places in search of food. In 1935, a record 38,000 animals were taken in. This number continued to increase throughout the next decade, the peak year being 1941 when 60,820 were taken in. Demand for the Charity Clinic services tripled.

Cruelty to animals was on the rise as desperate people used animals to make money. Puppy mills, mostly operated by bankrupt farmers, sprang up all over the Midwest and impromptu storefront pet shops were set up all over Chicago to sell this new cash crop. Cock fighting and dog fighting was on the rise. Roadside menageries featuring wild animals were common. In 1934, The Anti-Cruelty Society took in nine black bears from menagerie owners who could not afford to feed the animals.

Despite the almost overwhelming demand for the Society’s services, the 1930s were also a time of great progress. A bequest from Mrs. Marion McConnell enabled construction of the Marion and Horace E. McConnell Memorial Building in 1936. The building was designed by prominent Chicago architect, Leon E. Stanhope. The Anti-Cruelty Society’s new home featured a modern clinic, surgical facilities, and a large auditorium. In 1935 Dr. W.A. Young, Chief Veterinarian of the Animal Rescue League of Boston took charge of the Society as manager and directing head. Under his bold leadership many advances were made. Dr. Young introduced a 15 minute radio show called “Animals in the News” which aired for twenty years. He also introduced the publication “Progress Bulletin”, started Pet First Aid Classes for children and enlarged the Horses’ Christmas activities to include distribution of food for dogs and cats.

In 1937, the Society hired its first full time humane educator, Virginia Sedgwick, a former school teacher in the Gary, Indiana schools. The first humane education program was held in a Chicago public school on March 7, 1937. In the first year, programs were presented in 127 schools to over 112,000 children. She also started the Silver Horseshoe riding club for children. Also that year, the clinic became one of the first veterinary facilities in the midwest to install x-ray equipment, which was made available to Chicago veterinarians. Forty-two kennels were placed in Chicago police stations, enabling citizens to bring strays to their police station to be held for pick up by The Anti-Cruelty Society ambulance.

The 1940s brought new challenges as the Society attempted to meet the special needs of the community during World War II. On December 6, 1941, the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dr. W.A. Young read this chilling and prophetic address at the Society’s Annual Meeting: “We are not blind to the possibility that this Nation and this city might be directly affected by the ravages of war. I do not wish to tack a scare headline on my remarks today, but I do want to tell you that your Society has taken steps to cooperate with national, state, and city officials in the event of emergency. We have quietly built up a list of stables, kennels which might be needed in the event of a blitz. All of this work has been done rather quietly in order that we should be prepared for any eventuality.”

War time rationing and restrictions forced the Society to do more with less. Gasoline and tire rationing and the deteriorating condition of the ambulances meant that the trucks must travel fewer miles each day. Food rationing for animals forced a change from beef to horse meat and meant that a limit must be placed on the number of animals received. The fuel oil allotment was cut by one third making it difficult to heat the facility. Straw was used as bedding in the kennels for additional warmth.

Dr. Young, in a 1942 monthly report, stated that “The Civil Defense authorities look upon The Anti-Cruelty Society as the hub of the wheel for civilian defense of animals. We are trying to make this wheel go round.” Dr. Young served on the veterinary committee of Dogs for Defense. As of 1943, nine dogs had gone to war from the Society. Over 1,000 dogs were shipped from the Chicago area. He also served as the regional director of the American Red Star Animal Relief for the 12 north central states. A four session Red Star Auxiliary class was offered to the public. In addition to Pet First Aid basics, the participants learned how to care for animals during air raids, gas attacks and blackouts. In the final class students practiced rescuing animals under blackout conditions.

In the post war years, with the easing of war time restrictions, the Society was able to increase the numbers of animals serviced. In the 1946 Year Book, the astonishing amount of work undertaken in the previous year was represented graphically as follows:

During the year of 1945:

6,201 animals were investigated meaning that an animal abuse complaint was received by the Society every 41 seconds of a 40-hour work week.

More than 9,000 patients were treated in the clinic, one new patient every 12 minutes of the clinic work day. If put in a line, this parade of people with their sick or injured pets would extend from City Hall in the Loop to the Trailside Museum in River Forest.

A parade of boys and girls that participated in Humane Education programs that year would make a parade from State and Madison Street to South Bend Indiana.

Over 30,000 animals were taken in. Every 53 seconds of the 40-hour work week a call was received to pick up an animal.

It is astounding to know that all of this was accomplished by only 16 employees and a handful of dedicated board members. Truly these people had more than paid their rent for living.

From then to Now: 1950-Now

Post-World War II Chicago enjoyed a period of economic abundance. The GI Bill fed into this mood of economic prosperity by providing returning veterans with money for education and down payments on homes. However, there was a terrible housing shortage for returning veterans. In an effort to help, the Chicago Housing Authority provided several thousand units of temporary housing in the form of plywood houses and Quonset huts. But returning veterans were looking forward to achieving the American dream of marrying, having children, and owning a decent home. The Chicagoland area, like many communities across the country, followed the example of William Levitt of New York, who mass-produced cookie cutter homes using assembly techniques he learned in the military. The allure of freedom and privacy that could be purchased at a low price lured droves of young couples to these new communities, causing an explosion of suburban growth.

On top of this, post-war Chicago brought many new challenges to The Anti-Cruelty Society. Huge tracks of residential land were cleared for urban renewal projects, public housing developments, and expressways. Thousands of people lost their homes and many abandoned their pets. The number of stray animals in Chicago increased dramatically. This problem was exacerbated by a rabies outbreak in 1953 and 1954 that resulted in many lasting foundational changes. Thousands of frightened pet owners relinquished their dogs. In 1954, the Illinois Rabies Law requiring mandatory vaccinations went into effect, causing many more pet owners to relinquish their dogs because of the additional expense.

In addition, many landlords began adopting “no pets allowed” policies. Relief from the overcrowding in the shelter came in the form of a generous bequest from Mrs. Emily Hulbert, which allowed the Society to build a new addition to the existing shelter. The Hulbert Memorial Annex, which opened on February 5, 1954, provided additional kennel space and isolation areas. Renovations were also made to the clinic and existing shelter.

On February 12, 1952, Mr. J. J. Shaffer of the American Veterinary Medical Association replaced Dr. Wesley A. Young as the managing director of The Anti-Cruelty Society. Mr. Shaffer began work with the meat packers on the humane slaughter of animals. This led to the passage of the Federal Humane Slaughter Bill signed by President Eisenhower in 1958.

The Society was also the major proponent of a state law passed in 1957 that made abandoning animals illegal in Illinois. Continuing its legislative efforts, the Society was a principal advisor during the formulation of a 1965 State Law regulating the operations of Illinois pet shops and dog dealers. Also in 1952, Dr. Jo Anne Schmidt joined the clinic staff. At the time, she was one of only 150 female veterinarians practicing in the United States.

The “Booming 60s” brought people increased prosperity, but paradoxically increased the demand for services from The Anti-Cruelty Society. The municipalities of the ever-growing suburban areas were ill-prepared to deal with animal collection issues. This resulted in an increase in the number of suburbs contracting with The Anti-Cruelty Society to pick up their unclaimed animals. The trend toward more liberal employment contracts that allowed for longer vacations resulted in many vacationers relinquishing their pets, rather than paying boarding fees.

In contrast, the adoption rate increased dramatically in the 60s, primarily due to media coverage. Ray Rayner of WGN-TV, Jim Stewart of the “Here’s Geraldine” Show, Lee Phillip of the “Lee Phillip Show,” and radio personality John Harrington regularly promoted The Anti-Cruelty Society. In addition, the Chicago Tribune began running a weekly Dog of the Week feature in 1962. The Anti-Cruelty Society also received national media attention for several daring animal rescues in the 50s and 60s. The heroics of The Anti-Cruelty Society ambulance drivers became so well known that they were depicted in a 1963 Dick Tracy comic strip rescuing a dog stranded on the ice.

The 1970s were a time of both crisis and renewal for The Anti-Cruelty Society. In 1973, “Chicago Today,” an afternoon tabloid, published a scathing exposé of The Anti-Cruelty Society and The Animal Welfare League. They charged that the decompression chamber used for euthanasia was inhumane and that insufficient resources were being spent to insure humane treatment of animals and lower the euthanasia rate. The result of the exposé was that public opinion started to turn against The Anti-Cruelty Society.

There were frequent protests outside of our doors.  As a result of these events, the Society underwent a complete reorganization of its staff and operations, as well as an extensive renovation of the shelter facilities. In 1974, Robert A. Brown from the New York Zoological Society replaced J.J. Shaffer as managing director. Under his leadership, many exciting new programs and innovations were made, resulting in a renaissance for the Society.

In 1975, the Society took the bold step of limiting clinic services to low income clients. In addition to providing free spaying and neutering for all adopted animals, the Society launched a spay subsidy program to assist low income pet owners with the cost of private spaying. A new publication department introduced the “Animal Crackers” magazine.

In 1976, the volunteer program was launched. Within its first year, volunteers in the Lost Pet Program reunited hundreds of pets with their owners, volunteers in the Pet Therapy program visited many local hospitals with small companion animals, and volunteer humane educators brought our Traveling SPCA bus to schools and community sites to deliver educational programs.

Also in 1976, the Society installed the first in-house computer in the humane field, and attempts were made to increase adoption rates by piloting two off-site adoption centers. During the summer, a student-run Adopt-A-Mutt center was set up at Niles North High School, and Pets N Things, a year-round adoption center, was opened on Howard Street in Chicago.

1977 brought transition. With the help of Robert R. McCormick and other funders, planning began for a new landmark shelter, which would be developed by noted architect Stanley Tigerman. Plans were finally unveiled in the spring of 1979. In addition to being a state-of-the-art facility, it was also designed to create a more inviting atmosphere for the public. The Society hoped that the appealing design would do for shelters what removing the bars from exhibits had done for zoos. Groundbreaking on the first phase of the project took place on June 21, 1979.

The new shelter opened in November 1981. It was soon apparent that although the design was appealing, many aspects of the structure were not practical for sheltering animals. Many repairs and changes needed to be made, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in cost overruns. The result was that by 1982, the shelter was running at a deficit and in danger of having to close its doors. In an effort to cut costs, the education department and the field service ambulance services were eliminated. The shelter closed its doors for adoptions two days a week.

By 1984, the Society had recovered enough financially to restore ambulance services and extend adoption hours to 7 days a week once again. The education department was reestablished in 1985. Mr. Ward B. Howland became executive director of the Society in 1984. Under his leadership, the Society began to move forward with new programs and initiatives. In April of 1987, the Society’s Mobile Vaccination Van made its debut. It traveled to some of Chicago’s neediest neighborhoods to provide free vaccinations. In 1989, the Humane Education Department released its first film, “Protecting the Web,” which was aimed at middle school children. This film would be the first of four to be produced in the 1990s, all of which won several awards. On November 1, 1989, thanks to a generous bequest, The Ruth and Henry Dawson Spay Neuter Fund was established. Through this program, spaying and neutering coupons were distributed and could be redeemed at most Chicago-area veterinary clinics.

In 1992, Howland retired from his position as executive director and was replaced by Ms. Jane Stern. During the 1990s, four major renovations were made, encompassing almost every area of the facility. In February of 1994, the Society made one of the most significant changes in its history when the Ruth and Henry Dawson Spay Neuter program was changed from coupon redemption at private veterinary clinics to a low cost spay/neuter clinic at our facility. Recognizing that prevention is the future of the humane field, this change allowed us to make a significant impact on Chicago’s pet overpopulation problem in the years to come. Knowing that education is tantamount to the prevention of cruelty to animals, the shelter made a second bold move in 1999, and the decision was made to build an education and training center. The center would allow us to dramatically increase the number and variety of educational programs that the Society could offer. Groundbreaking took place on August 26, 1999.

Dr. Gene Mueller replaced Jane Stern as president of the Society on October 4, 1999. That same year, the Society celebrated its 100th anniversary with a huge gala event held at the top of the Aon Center in downtown Chicago.

2001 saw The Anti-Cruelty Society’s low-cost spay/neuter clinic transform into a high-volume clinic, and for the next decade, doctors were performing well over 10,000 surgeries every year. It didn’t take long for this change to have a noticeable impact on the community, and in just a few short years (approximately 2005-2006), the shelter was seeing a dramatic decline in the number of animals it had coming in. Also in 2001, the Society began transferring animals in from the City of Chicago’s Animal Care and Control facility and putting them up for adoption in the shelter. This was the first time that Animal Care and Control transferred animals out to another organization.

A generous donation from Charlotte Schmidt in 2004 allowed the shelter to open the Bruckner Rehabilitation & Treatment Center, which is located on the second floor of the Society’s administration building. This center, which is still operational today, would allow staff members to rehabilitate cats suffering from upper respiratory infections, and it has room to accommodate up to 100 sick felines. The Bruckner Center was so successful that The Anti-Cruelty Society added another one in 2007. The Virginia Butts-Berger Cat Clinic doubled the size of the shelter’s existing rehabilitation space, helping many more sick cats and greatly reducing the need for euthanasia in the process.

In 2008, the Society began the SAFE Program, which provides an invaluable service to the community. Originally, SAFE began as a way to temporarily house the pets of victims of domestic violence, since many shelters for women and children cannot accommodate animals. It wasn’t long before the program expanded to include accommodations for other domestic emergencies, such as house fires, floods, or temporary relocation.

Dr. Robyn Barbiers became the new president of The Anti-Cruelty Society in August of 2008, and continues to hold that position today. One of her first initiatives was to re-examine the shelter’s kennel spaces and enrichment programs, with the ultimate goal of bringing them in-line with modern best practices and new research. Dr. Barbiers also entered into negotiations with PetSmart Charities®, the non-profit arm of the popular pet store chain, which resulted in the Society’s inclusion in the Rescue Waggin’ ® program, as well as the opening of the Everyday Adoption Center inside the PetSmart location in Chicago’s South Loop. In addition, she helped initiate the partnership between the shelter and Lambs Farm in Libertyville, Illinois, which provided the Society with another adoption outlet, while giving Lambs Farm a more humane alternative for its pet store efforts. In late 2009, the shelter started accepting large-scale transports of rescue animals coming from the southern United States, a practice that continues today.

In 2009, the original aluminum siding on the adoption center that Stanley Tigerman designed in 1979 had deteriorated badly. Many of the windows leaked during rainstorms, the seals in the windows had broken, resulting in fogging between the panes that made it difficult to see inside, and pieces of the siding had fallen away. The façade was replaced using a state of the art terra cotta rain screen system and energy efficient window system that will keep the animals safe and comfortable for many years to come, as well as return significant energy savings.

Big changes started brewing in 2012, when it became apparent that The Anti-Cruelty Society was going to need to update its clinic, and shortly after that, the design process was underway! Construction on the new clinic began in 2013, but that was just the first part of a 4-year-long plan to improve the Society’s facilities. The new clinic was opened in September of 2013. As of March 2014, the Society is about to begin renovation on its brand new intake department, which will occupy the space that used to be the old clinic.




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