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A 19th-century pet cemetery in Westchester County, N.Y., with poignant epitaphs: "Born a dog/Lived like a gentleman/Died beloved." A metropolis adjacent to a metropolis, with teeming Chicago stockyards next to a luxurious hotel. Manhattan's equine ambulance, which preceded the city's first human ambulance by a couple of years.

These are among the delectable anecdotes in Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy's "Our Kindred Creatures," a revelatory, beautifully crafted account of the rise of animal-rights activism in the United States. Born in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the movement evolved rapidly, reflecting a tenuously reunited country weary of agony and distress. Wasik, an editor at the New York Times magazine, and Murphy, a veterinarian, paint a vibrant portrait of the movement's thinkers and doers, animated by a fiery thesis: "To believe that animals can suffer, and that that suffering is worthy of moral consideration, is to understand that not just depraved assaults on them but their everyday treatment must become a matter of urgent human attention."

At the center were three remarkable figures: Henry Bergh, a patrician repulsed by Spanish bullfights, who leveraged his affluence to shape laws; Caroline White of Philadelphia, a brilliant organizer who elevated women to the front ranks; and Boston's George Angell, whose modest origins and lengthy career left an indelible stamp, a meld of Horace Greeley and Henry Ward Beecher: "Henry Bergh had a knack for dudgeon and an impulse for attention-getting, but Angell was something more — a gifted rhetorician who channeled both the slashing moralism of a newspaperman and the celestial fire of a preacher."

Together, they cobbled the ASPCA, modeled on similar groups in Britain, and within six years chapters thrived in eight of America's 10 largest cities.

Wasik and Murphy rightly connect the ASPCA to reformist currents, from the struggle over racial segregation to women's suffrage to improved housing and sanitation standards. Angell and his colleagues initially trained their efforts to make husbandry humane. Bergh coined "cruelism" to depict brutal whippings of horses and dogs, yet the term expanded to cover slaughterhouses and vivisections of squirming rabbits, widening its safety net to include game birds and circus elephants and paving the way for veterinary hospitals already in vogue across the Atlantic. Popular awareness of these issues spread like a prairie fire, despite entrenched resistance from capitalists such as Philip Armour, patriarch of the meatpacking dynasty.

Angell emerges as the book's colossus, straddling continents and decades to gather the world's species into his care, a modern-day Noah. "Our Kindred Creatures" pivots from his death in 1909 to his legacy: the vectors of ASPCA principles into the culture and the persistence of coarse rationalizations for beef consumption. (Trust me: After reading the stockyard sections you'll pass on hamburgers for a while.)

The authors remind us that for all the strides we've made to alleviate pain, we must do better: "What would it take to inaugurate a new new type of goodness, one that convinced Americans to take seriously their responsibility to the nation's food animals?"

Elegant, meticulous and urgent, "Our Kindred Creatures" is social history at its finest.

Hamilton Cain, who also reviews for the New York Times and Washington Post, lives in Brooklyn.

Our Kindred Creatures: How Americans Came to Feel the Way They Do About Animals

By: Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy.

Publisher: Knopf, 450 pages, $35.