It is a portrait of intimacy and friendship, the photograph of a man sitting with his collie on a bench, his right arm draped around the dog’s neck.
A pennant with the words “Be Kind to Animals” hangs above them, as they gaze serenely and contentedly toward the camera.
But this is not just any picture. It is a steppingstone to the modern movement that celebrates the human-animal bond and calls us all to a higher standard of treatment for animals.
The man in the photo is Henry Lewith of Charleston, South Carolina, and the dog — Beauty — his cherished pet. One hundred years ago this month, the American humane movement took up the slogan Lewith coined, “Be Kind to Animals,” as a rallying cry.
Observed in May by hundreds of humane societies around the country, Be Kind to Animals Week has been celebrated in parades and proclamations, broadcast through the media, and plastered on posters, literature, pin backs, pennants, and signs.
Originally called “Kindness Week” and “Humane Week,” the commemoration resulted directly from Lewith’s persuasive skills and his ability to enlist the support of the nation’s leading humanitarians.
Lewith, a linotype operator and proofreader, was a lifelong animal advocate who from his earliest years rescued animals from the pound and the streets.
Retiring early, he used a family inheritance to devote all of his time to humane activity. He and Beauty were a familiar sight in their walks around Charleston.
Lewith’s motto was “the personal touch counts,” and he never hesitated to help an individual animal in need.
But he set his sights on the bigger picture, too.
Since 1864, in England, the RSPCA had been sending appeals to the clergy to preach on kindness to animals on Trinity Sunday (the first Sunday after Pentecost).
At that first year’s Mercy Sunday, at Westminster Abbey, Dean Arthur Penrhyn Stanley told his flock, “Be ye merciful to dumb animals, for we have a common nature with them. Be ye merciful, for you are made in the image of Him who is all-merciful and all-compassionate.”
Nothing similar had taken hold in the United States before Lewith began his campaign, although Mary F. Lovell, a Philadelphia humanitarian with ties to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, had been calling for an American Mercy Sunday. Lewith, a devout Jew who persuaded his rabbi to author a pamphlet on the scriptural basis for kindness to animals, believed a more secular approach would be a better way forward.
A regular at national conferences, Lewith lobbied other advocates to support a week focusing on the slogan as a way of getting the cause before the public.
At the 1914 meeting of the American Humane Association, in Atlantic City, delegates from around the country adopted a resolution of support. The concept quickly took hold, with one day of the week, Humane Sunday, serving the purpose that Lovell had intended of a day for sermons on the treatment of animals.
Lewis reportedly spent as much as $40,000 from his inheritance on printing banners, pins, badges and other promotional materials.
But he gave Be Kind to Animals Week its strongest boost with a 24-page supplement about humane issues that appeared on Easter Sunday 1919 in the Charleston American. This was the first time any newspaper had afforded such space to the anticruelty movement, and Lewith printed thousands of copies for national circulation.
One copy caught the attention of an Ohio newspaper owner named Warren G. Harding, who adopted the insert for the paper he controlled. Several years after that, in 1921, President Harding, along with General John Pershing, attended a Be Kind to Animals Week parade in Washington consisting of thirty floats led by the president’s dog, Laddie Boy.
In 1926, at 50 years of age, Lewith took ill and went to live in a Charleston sanatorium.
Newspapers reported that Beauty died of grief at not being able to see him anymore. Two weeks after that, Lewith died, too.
But like the bond that knit the two together, and the photo that documents their mutual devotion, Lewith’s call to compassion, as poignant as ever, lives on.
Bernard Unti is the senior policy adviser and special assistant to the president & CEO of The Humane Society of the United States.