A Brief History of the SPCA Serving Erie County

April 4, 2020
By: SPCA President & CEO Gary Willoughby

There are many things to be proud of when we learn about Buffalo and Western New York’s history. A lesser-known item is that the SPCA Serving Erie County has the honor of being the 2nd animal welfare organization formed in North America in 1867…153 years ago today, as a matter of fact. This occurred before Buffalo had its own dedicated police force or even before the government of Canada was formed.

Our first documented event that eventually led to bringing animal welfare to Western New York occurred on Monday, November 19, 1866.  Earlier that year, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) was formed in New York City by Henry Bergh.  On this day, the Secretary of the ASPCA, William Coventry Henry Waddell wrote to former United States President Millard Fillmore to inquire about starting a branch in Buffalo, New York.

Waddell wrote, “We are desirous of availing ourselves of your kind and efficient support in establishing a branch of this society in your city.”

President Fillmore soon worked with an “enthusiastic promoter” of the Buffalo Project, Mrs. Mary Elizabeth (Johnson) Lord, wife of the Reverend Dr. John Lord and daughter of Dr. Ebenezer Johnson, Buffalo’s first mayor.

Buffalo had seen rapid growth in the 19th century, from near devastation of its community and people during the War of 1812, when 500 people called Buffalo home; many new arrivals courtesy of the Erie Canal’s completion in 1825 to a post-Civil War total of nearly 100,000 residents in this city formed in 1832.

The canal boats pulled by horses and other large animals, as well as the tremendous influx of horses pulling people and supplies, along with one of the nation’s busiest ports led to an incredible number of animals without any laws in place to protect them.

While many types of animals had been domesticated going back as far as 14,000 B.C., protection for animals and creating groups to protect them was a new subject worldwide.

The first such organization of its kind was the Royal SPCA, formed in 1824 in England. Their model became the template for the ASPCA 42 years later in 1866, which quickly spread to Buffal in 1867, then Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco.  Mentorship was key in the rapid growth of these groups both in Europe and the United States.

In Western New York, the SPCA Serving Erie County helped establish similar societies in Rochester (now Lollypop Farm) in 1873 and what is now the Niagara SPCA in 1883.

In these beginnings, most communities relied on well-connected community leaders to help influence legislation and enforcement, with most emphasis on large animals, whether they were intended to carry us and our goods or for food purposes. At this time, most households didn’t have dogs or cats as household pets.  The most common animals in your home were goldfish and small birds.

In Buffalo, we were honored to have significant support from community leaders, including the distinction of two of the first 22 Presidents of the United States as board members; Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland. They were joined by a number of Buffalo mayors such as Orlando Allen, C.J. Wells, and William Fargo who served as mayor of Buffalo during the Civil War and was co-founder of American Express and Wells-Fargo. M&T Bank’s first president, Henry Martin, George Washington Tifft (of Tifft Nature Preserve) and later members of well-known families such as Knox, Albright, Wendt, Wurlitzer, Rochester, de Forest, and Spaulding signed on to help animals in need.

Their help was invaluable, but the lion’s share of the credit of our organization’s early success was in the work being done in the trenches. The SPCA employed a couple of cruelty officers who inspected all livestock arriving via train or ship, as well as any injured horse, dog, cat or wildlife animal brought to their attention.  In part two of this series, we will learn about the shift towards dogs and cats, humane education, and other modern programs that evolved out of our important 19th century beginnings.

1895 was a milestone year for our organization. This was the first year of our Humane Education Department’s Poster Essay Contest, the first year that horse-drawn cars were outlawed, making way for electric or motorized public transportation in the city, and was the year the SPCA took over day to day operations of the City of Buffalo Animal Shelter.

The beginning of the 20th century brought forward the SPCA’s influence on bringing awareness to animal suffering in a variety of ways. In 1901, the SPCA worked with then Buffalo mayor Conrad Diehl, to express outrage at the case of Jumbo the elephant, who was to appear at the Pan-American Exposition. Electricity was new to Buffalo and the organizers thought that electrocuting this poor elephant in front of onlookers would demonstrate this new invention’s power.  Fortunately, Jumbo survived and the public was rightly outraged at the attempt.

A few years later, the SPCA highlighted the best horse owners in Buffalo through a series of Buffalo Workhorse Parades held from 1908-1914, both on Main Street and at Humbolt (now M.L.K.) Park. Categories included police and fire departments, deliveries, bakers, and milk dealers, among others. Soon after, Henry Ford and others brought forward motorized cars and trucks that were able to take this work burden off of these horses and the SPCA moved forward with greater emphasis on dogs and cats, as well as veterinary medicine for low-income pet owners.

The first building ever constructed for the SPCA Serving Erie County opened at 121 W. Tupper Street in Buffalo in January 1916. The 5,200 square foot structure cost $21,500 to build and housed the officers’ horses, the administrative offices and the clinic, opened to the public twice weekly.

Nearby, the SPCA was responsible for the care for the growing city’s homeless dogs and cats. This was not a great time to be a homeless pet, as most never had the chance to be adopted. Most cats lived outside, as commercial cat litter wasn’t invented until 1947. Spaying and neutering was many decades away, leading to rampant pet overpopulation.

As we drew closer to the middle of the 20th century, adoptions were up, but the number of animals coming in were as well. 1951 saw a very public breakup of the partnership with the City of Buffalo and the SPCA, in a heated debate about what to do with unclaimed pets. The SPCA tried to accommodate some dogs and cats in their Tupper Street shelter, but there was enough space to safely do so.

In 1962, a $450,000 shelter was built in Tonawanda, which would serve as the organization’s headquarters for 55 years. The shelter would ultimately grow to 26,000 square feet, adding programs such as farm and wildlife divisions, a shelter infirmary, and educational offerings such as summer camps.  In the early days of this new shelter, Erie County was near its all-time population peak, with over 1 million residents. That is about double the population when the Tupper Street location was built and about 900,000 more than we had in our founding back in 1867.

Erie County’s human population declined slightly over the next decades, but the pet population was another story. Spay and neuter services gained traction in the 1980s and by 2000, the SPCA started getting its pet population numbers somewhat under control.  Each year in this new century has seen less homeless animals than the year before, allowing us to do more for the most vulnerable of animals coming to us.

In 2017, the SPCA moved its headquarters to West Seneca, doubling its size to 52,000 square feet at the cost of $14 million. More emphasis was given to wildlife animals, as well as isolation areas to keep the sick animals away from the healthy ones. The organization that has started humbly 150 years ago with just a few volunteers and one officer, had grown to about 115 employees and nearly 2,000 volunteers, all thanks to the people of Erie County who have supported their work all along.

As we face 2020, dogs and cats have the best chance at adoption they have ever had at the SPCA, dozens of species of wildlife have dedicated people to care for them, and the best is yet to come. For more information, please visit http://YourSPCA.org.

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