On March 25, I wrote a piece for this blog about the early history of the Richmond SPCA. I described its founding in 1891 as a result of the hard work of Nellie and Ben Palmer, Joseph Bryan, Jud Wood and others of our distinguished initial Board of Directors. I said that there would be more to come and here it is:
After its formation in 1891 at the beginning of the humane movement in this country, the Richmond SPCA struggled with inadequate funding. Then, Nellie Palmer convinced her aunt, Mrs. Louisa Nalle, to leave her estate to the Richmond SPCA. Mrs. Nalle passed away in the first decade of the 20th century and the $24,000 she left the organization really put it on its feet.
During these early years, there was no concept yet of sheltering homeless animals – that did not come along until about the 1920’s. Humane organizations such as ours were dedicated to advocacy for all animals. One of the great accomplishments of our organization in its early years was getting the Virginia General Assembly to adopt the first statute making cruelty to an animal a criminal offense.
In the early 1900’s, our organization had the benefit of a new and deeply dedicated leader. Ellen Glasgow was a Richmonder and one of the most famous and honored novelists of the 20th century. Her novel In This Our Life won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1942 and was made into a movie starring Bette Davis. She wrote with remarkable perception about the unfairness to and suffering of the downtrodden, including women, African- Americans and animals, during her lifetime.
Ellen Glasgow cared passionately about animals and was President of the Board of the Richmond SPCA for 21 years until her death in 1945. She recruited many prominent and powerful Richmonders to our Board such as Douglas Southall Freeman and James Branch Cabell. Miss Glasgow was the driving force behind the opening of our first shelter in 1924.
Ellen Glasgow’s sudden death in 1945 left a large hole in the organization’s leadership (she actually died in bed during the night after having hosted a meeting of the Richmond SPCA Board in her dining room that evening.) However, her generosity in leaving the bulk of her estate and the all of rights to her great works of literature to the Richmond SPCA formed the nucleus of our endowment, which would impart fiscal stability for decades to come. Her bequest to our organization in her will was left in memory of her beloved Sealyham Terrier Jeremy, reflecting the great role he had played in her life. To this day, we continue to honor Ellen Glasgow and Jeremy in the names of our major giving societies.
The latter part of the 20th century was a very sad period for animal welfare both in this community and across the country. There were far more animals being born than possible homes for them and a general refusal of the public to face these facts with honesty. Humane organizations like ours all over the country took in many thousands of animals and killed the majority of them. They seemed to believe that this was their proper role and felt a need to conceal this terrible reality from the public. The result of this widespread dishonesty was that the steps that could be taken to deal compassionately and non-lethally with pet homelessness were not undertaken for far too long.
Next time, I will write about the beginnings of the no-kill movement in the 1980’s and how it has radically changed the prospects for homeless animals for the better.
Robin Robertson Starr is the chief executive officer of the Richmond SPCA. To read her biography or that of our other bloggers, please click here. Before posting a comment, please review our comment guidelines. Please note that our comment policy requires a first and last name to be used as your screen name.