Animal Rescue League’s Boston chapter is deeply rooted in Dot

The Smith home at 65 Pleasant St. in Dorchester around the turn-of-the-20th century.

Anna Harris Smith, circa 1920.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Animal Rescue League of Boston (ARL) was founded with the mission to care for the neglected and largely forgotten population of animals living on the streets. The idea for this historic organization was born and cultivated right here in Dorchester.

Anna Harris Smith (1843-1929) was a member of the prominent Clapp family, which had generational roots in Dorchester. She was born at 65 Pleasant Street, a home with a foundation dating back to the mid-1600. It still stands today due to a collaborative renovation project with the Dorchester Historical Society.

From an early age, compassion and empathy were the cornerstone of Anna’s being. She showed great interest in all things involving nature, animals, and people; and it was her compassion that would guide her during her early professional life and later on in the founding of ARL.
At age seven, Anna recalled thinking, “When I’m grown up I’m going to turn my daddy’s big barn into a nice, warm home for all the kitties and doggies in the world.”

After completing her education in Boston, Anna was a social worker, specializing in the protection and education of children. It was during this time that she became acutely aware of issues pertaining to animals in the city of Boston. Day after day, she witnessed Boston’s working horses subjected to grueling conditions and unspeakable cruelty. Additionally, she grew concerned with the hordes of homeless cats and dogs living on the city streets and in its alleyways.

While there were measures being taken to protect animals through cruelty statutes, there were no steps taken to physically help animals in need. A determined and innovative thinker, Anna saw the need as a calling and was adamant about doing something to confront that issue.

In January 1899, Anna wrote a letter in the Boston Evening Transcript that advocated for a centrally located shelter for the rescue and care of homeless animals, asserting that “while getting dogs and cats off the street is work worth doing, the teaching of thoughtful kindness is the work that changes families, communities, and a nation.”

This letter led to the very first meeting of the Animal Rescue League of Boston on Feb. 7, 1899, at the Park Street Church in Boston that attracted 110 people.

Within its first year, the organization rescued more than 2,600 animals off the street, and the rest, as they say, is history. In 2023, ARL helped nearly 21,000 animals, and over the course of the organization’s 125-year history, the local non-profit has helped well over 6.2 million animals in need.

As the president of ARL from 1901 to 1929, Anna acted upon a wide range of animal welfare and humane issues, such as the abandonment of pets, workhorse abuses, poor livestock transport methods, the abuse of animals in motion pictures, and the humane education of children.
She wrote and lectured extensively on humane topics and was one of the most influential and respected leaders in animal welfare in her day. By 1915, she had helped organize seven Animal Rescue Leagues in Massachusetts, and in at least 10 other states and Washington, D.C.

When Anna died in 1929, ARL received an outpouring of sympathetic letters from around the country attesting to her importance.

While ARL’s programs and services have widely expanded over the past 125 years, the organization’s work is still rooted in Anna’s vision and values and remains an invested community partner in Dorchester.

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The Wellness Waggin’ makes a stop locally. All photos courtesy ARL Boston

ARL continues to be on the forefront of innovation, recognizing the need to move beyond the brick-and-mortar shelter model to bring high-quality accessible pet services directly where they’re most needed.

Pet ownership can bring challenging barriers, including the ever-increasing cost of care and supplies, along with limited access to services in many communities, including Dorchester.

Partnering with community members and human-based nonprofit organizations, such as Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) and Boston Senior Homecare (BSHC), ARL has made a tireless effort to provide services to keep pets together with their families.

In 2019, ARL launched the Wellness Waggin’, a mobile pet wellness clinic that makes weekly stops at ABCD’s Dorchester location, as well as in surrounding communities. Since its inception, this program has helped well over 10,000 animals, making it easier for pet owners to access high-quality and low-cost pet wellness services. ARL also routinely visits BSHC facilities to provide pet food and basic care to senior pet owners.

Additionally, since 2020, ARL’s Keep Pets S.A.F.E. (Supporting Animals and Families Everyday) program has delivered more than 200,000 pet meals and supplies to local pet owners, many of whom reside in Dorchester.

While there is always more work to be done, ARL is proud to continue the work of Anna Harris Smith and to incorporate her ideals in assisting both animals and people, and to live by the phrase that she coined in the early days of ARL – “Kindness uplifts the world.”

Mike DeFina is the media relations manager for Animal Rescue League of Boston.

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