Gary Kaskel: Documenting An Age of Monsters & Miracles

Gary KaskelAuthor Gary Kaskel’s diverse career includes working as a camera salesman, stand-up comedian, journalist, technology consultant, charity executive, actor, screenwriter, director, cameraman and editor.

From 1980 to 1982 he was associate producer for television legend Milton Berle’s production company.

After a move back to New York City, he became a freelance director/cameraman for broadcasters and advertising agencies.

For more than twenty years, Gary Kaskel has had a strong interest in animal protection and other social justice issues. He was president of United Action for Animals in NYC (2003-2007).

His intimate knowledge of the spectrum of animal advocacy led him to make “Animal People – the humane movement in America,” a feature documentary in 2006.

From 2008 to 2011 he was a producer of the annual Genesis Awards for the Hollywood office of The Humane Society of the United States.

After several years of researching the life of ASPCA-founder Henry Bergh, he wrote an historical novel based on his life entitled Monsters and Miracles: Henry Bergh’s America.

He is presently working on an autobiography titled, I Could Have Been a Pawnbroker.

Gary Kaskel Interview

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Monsters & Miracles

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Gary Kaskel Transcript

Tim Knox: Hi everyone. Welcome in to Interviewing Authors – a very interesting show for you today. Gary Kaskel is my guest. Gary is the author of the book, Monsters and Miracles: Henry Bergh’s America. Now Henry Bergh is the guy who founded the ASPCA way back in the 1800s and he was truly the first activist for animal rights in the country. This is a guy who was a wealthy fellow who used his connections to get the ASPCA founded and get government regulation privileges. He would actually go into the slaughterhouses in New York City and shut them down for animal cruelty.

Needless to say he created quite a cubby of enemies and the tractors, they were out to get him but that didn’t detract Bergh. He continued with his mission, went on to become an advocate for children’s rights. One of the things I found really interesting about this interview was that in the late 1800s children were really considered no higher than the animals when it came to their individual rights.

So a great book. Gary Kaskel, Monsters and Miracles: Henry Bergh’s America, on this edition of Interviewing Authors.

Gary, welcome to the program.

Gary Kaskel: Thank you, Time. Thank you for having me.

Tim Knox: It’s nice having you here today. You’re in sunny California you said, not really beach weather but pretty pleasant.

Gary Kaskel: Oh it’s a beautiful weekend in Los Angeles and I think I’ll hit the beach on the weekend.

Tim Knox: Well there you go. Hey before we get started, we’re going to talk about the new book Monsters and Miracles but before we do let’s, for folks that aren’t familiar with you, give us a little background.

Gary Kaskel: Well I’m a native New Yorker, born and raised in Manhattan. My dad was a pawnbroker and my mother was an actress and we had a family business in New York since 1888. I didn’t want to go into the family business. I wanted to make movies so I ended up coming out here to California to go to film school in the 1970s, studied with Sandy McKendrick who directed a lot of wonderful films like The Man in the White Suit and The Lady Killers.

Then I went on to do a lot of freelance work and ended up working for Milton Berle for a couple of years. He had a production company and that was highly entertaining. I went back to New York in the 1980s and I did a lot of freelance film work, mostly shooting video and there were a lot of news and entertainment.

I was a cameraman for Entertainment Tonight and Cable News Network and a lot of advertising agencies. In that period I developed an interest in animal protection issues, actually having watched some public access cable television show that showed some really gruesome footage, what they wouldn’t show on regular network television. It really spurred my interest and it got my hackles up because you can’t watch stuff like that without getting angry.

Tim Knox: We want to talk about that, your new book Monsters and Miracles is about the life of Henry Bergh who was the founder of the ASPCA, but before we do that I want to talk a little bit more about you because you have such a fascinating background. I always like to hear how these super creative people got where they are. You were always creative I assume? Your family had been in the, was it the pawn business?

Gary Kaskel: We had a pawn broking in the jewelry store first on Columbus Avenue and then later on West 57th Street from 1888 to 1974.

Tim Knox: Did you work in the business?

Gary Kaskel: Well I worked for my dad in the summertime and during holidays but I didn’t want to go into the family business. I wasn’t interested in being a pawnbroker. In fact now I’m working on my autobiography which is titled, I Could Have Been a Pawnbroker.

Tim Knox: I was going to ask you about that title. Were you always creative? Were you always writing and creating?

Gary Kaskel: Always, always since I was a kid. Even when I was a kid in junior high school I would take my dad’s 8mm camera and it had a single-frame exposure on it and I could make little animated films. My neighbors downstairs, we did little short, funny videos or films in those days. I always was interested in creating things. It’s kind of a blessing and a curse at the same time.

Tim Knox: To be that creative.

Gary Kaskel: No, you know, people who are creative are rarely requited or fully happy in their lives because their creativity isn’t always shared with the rest of the world.

Tim Knox: The world doesn’t appreciate the talent like you do.

Gary Kaskel: That’s correct. I’m afraid we have a lot of creative people who ended up in bad circumstances because they felt differently about their creativity than the rest of the world.

Tim Knox: Well you did have a really creative background. I would imagine your time with Milton Berle, there are some stories there that may never be told.

Gary Kaskel: Well now that he’s passed on they might be. He was a wonderful, wonderful guy. He was a complicated guy and a simple guy at the same time but he was extremely entertaining. He was always on. He just had a memory like a trap. He remembered everything and his career in silent movies and went all the way up until, you know, he passed away at the age of 93. I saw him just a few months before he passed away and even though he was sick and dying of prostate cancer and in a wheelchair, he was still mentally agile and still funny.

Tim Knox: He was as sharp as he ever was, huh?

Gary Kaskel: Sharp as a tack. It was amazing.

Tim Knox: Wow, well you have written the book Monsters and Miracles, and it is about Henry Bergh. Tell us who Henry Bergh was.

Gary Kaskel: Well I knew about Henry Bergh for a long time and I always wondered why he was never really in the American landscape of historical figures because he really was the father of two great social justice movements in this country – animal protection and children’s protection. He started it after the Civil War which is a long time ago. It was kind of my mission to make this man known to every American because I think he’s kind of a forgotten American hero.

Tim Knox: How did you get interested in Bergh initially?

Gary Kaskel: Well I knew about Bergh for years. In fact I lived a block and a half from the ASPCA headquarters in New York. In the course of having a friendship with people there I was allowed access to the archives and they had his personal journals and they had his scrapbooks, all kind of photographs and memorabilia and it was a wonderful treasure trove.

There had been a few books written about him many years ago, the last one really for adults was written in the 1950s, prior to that the 1940s. He hadn’t been really written about in a contemporary telling. My background as a writer is really a screenwriter and journalist so I wanted to tell his story in a way that people would relate to and understand and try to get inside his head.

Many historical figures, their public activities are written about but their personal psyche is a different matter altogether and I wanted to delve into this man and kind of find out what made him tick and why he did what he did.

Tim Knox: Tell us about that. Who was he?

Gary Kaskel: Well he was born into a wealthy family. His father was a Swedish-American who owned a shipbuilding factory and when he passed on he gave it to his kids, Henry and his two siblings. So Bergh was a young millionaire in his 20’s, married his sweetheart and they basically traveled around for the next two decades.

They went to Europe, they went all over the country. He kind of led an aimless life for a long time. He was sort of a dilatant if you know what I mean. He had a friendship with influential people through his wealth and one of them was William Seward, who later became Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State. Through that friendship he ended up getting diplomatic permission to the Court of St. Petersburg in Russia, so he was sent to Russia to be the American representative there. He did that for a couple of years. By that time he was in his late 40’s, early 50’s.

His wife was kind of… it was very cold and tough winters in Russia so after a couple years there they really wanted to get back to America.

So on their trip through Europe to get back to America they stopped in Spain and they were the guests of the King and Queen of Spain at a bullfight. Bergh had never been to a bullfight before and didn’t even really know about them. That’s kind of a very European thing. He was just dumbstruck at the savagery and the bloody spectacle of this horrible event.

It really affected him profoundly and through conversations at the time he discovered that there was an animal protection society already existing in England, The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which was founded in the 1820s. So he decides to stop in London on the way back to America and speak with them and that’s just what he did.

He met with the head of the organization and in describing how their organization worked and what their mission was, Bergh decides to import this model to America. He returns to New York and he starts a campaign to raise people’s awareness and get a charter for a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals in New York City. He spent his own money on kind of fundraising parties and awareness raising parties and he got 100 signatures of prominent New Yorkers to endorse a charter.

So he was granted a charter in 1866 and several weeks later he managed to get the New York State Legislature to pass the first animal protection laws and giving his society enforcement powers, police powers to arrest and cite people for animal cruelty and that’s what started in 1866. The organization still exists today.

Tim Knox: So when he came from Europe – had seen the bullfighting and came back here with the idea of starting this organization to protect animals, what kind of resistance did he meet? I think it’s chapter nine where he confronts this slaughterhouse owner and there’s this great big melee with animal body parts. At the time there probably weren’t a whole lot of people that were too concerned about the cruelty to animals, was there not?

Gary Kaskel: Well it’s interesting. They were very different times than now. I’ll go into the differences later but at that time animals were considered mere property and they’re still actually property today under the law but in those days it was a different concept. They were not considered… like people have house pets today and they’re members of the family.

People didn’t have those kinds of relationships with animals as much as they do today. The main animals in society were food animals and work animals, which were principally horses. So horses were the most visible work animals because they pulled the streetcars, pulled the carriages and they pulled the carts.

In the heat of summer and the dead of winter these horses would be overworked, whipped and would occasionally drop dead in the streets. They would lay in the streets for several days. It’s a big deal to get a large animal transported off the street. People would see these sights and it was a horrifying site to see, an animal in front of your building or down the street from you.

Bergh really concentrated on protecting the horses first. That was his first mandate but he went on to protect all forms of animals that were exploited and, yes, there was support and opposition for his society and his mission. In those days there was about a dozen newspapers in the city and about half of them wind up with Bergh and about half of them wind up against Bergh.

The ones that were against him were all cozy with the big shots, the corporations that were using these animals – the streetcar lines, the dairy farms, the abattoirs, slaughterhouses. So he very quickly became a public figure in New York because they were writing about his activities. He went out and started arresting people immediately for animal cruelty, for overloading the carts, for overloading the streetcars, for unhealthy food practices. He actually became quite the public figure early on and was even satirized in cartoons.

Some of them were savagely satirizing him. He understood the power of the media. He was an early PR guy I guess you’d put it and he understood the power that his stories and his images brought to the public when he was in the papers and he cultivated those relationships with the newspapers.

The difference between animal cruelty then and now in many ways is the same and in many ways is different. The way it’s the same is people think, they have a misconception about animal cruelty toady and that is I think a lot of people believe that the majority of animal suffering is inflicted by neglectful pet owners and people who don’t take care of their house pets. Of course that’s a problem but not nearly as big a problem as corporate animal abuse.

The majority of animals suffering in this society are inflicted by large corporations that run gigantic factory farms where thousands and hundreds of thousands of animals are packed in close quarters. Then you have biomedical and pharmaceutical laboratory testing. We have animals used in entertainment like rodeos and circuses.

The vast majority of these is all for money, for profit. If you want to know about any situation follow the money.

Tim Knox: One of the things I find really interesting is that he actually had the power to arrest people. Was he an imposing figure?

Gary Kaskel: Yeah he was a tall man for his time. He was 6’2” and on top of his height he would wear a tall stovepipe hat in public and a dress overcoat and he had manufactured an ASPCA shield that was gold encrusted with diamonds and emeralds around it. He enjoyed his image of authority.

Tim Knox: I can just picture someone from the ASPCA showing up arresting someone today. I assume that practice didn’t last. He had some very public confrontations with people like Vanderbilt and P.T. Barnum. Talk a little about that.

Gary Kaskel: Well Commodore Vanderbilt was one of the wealthiest Americans at that time and among owning several industries, one of the things he owned was all the streetcar lines or some of the major streetcar lines that ran north and south in the city. They would regularly overload the cars, sometimes double the capacity.

A car that was supposed to hold 40 would be loaded with 80 people. They’d be hanging off the sides, sitting on the roof, sitting on the horses. It would be terrible for the horses because they’d have to pull all this extra weight which in the heat of summer and the dead of winter was significant. It was a significant amount of additional suffering for the animal. Bergh went out in the streets and had his agents actually stop the overloaded streetcars and throw everybody off that didn’t have a seat.

Well you can imagine how much that cost the streetcar line because they’d have to put on more cars, pay for more horses and the riding public would be obviously inconvenienced. Bergh wasn’t afraid of not making friends with people and he threatened to put Commodore Vanderbilt in jail if he didn’t stop this practice.

P.T. Barnum was another high profile New Yorker who ran an animal menagerie, a museum on lower Broadway. The building was made out of wood and it burned down a couple of times but they had all these live animals inside and Bergh received a complaint from one of the patrons there who said they were feeding live rabbits to the snakes in front of people for entertainment I suppose.

Bergh had a very public letter writing campaign back and forth in the paper with Mr. Barnum asking him to stop this practice, which experts came in to discuss how wild animals eat and he never really did get him to stop the practice but there was a very acrimonious series of letters that went public.

Even though the impression might have been given that P.T. Barnum was angry but he actually had a respect for Bergh that was rather profound and in fact in his will he left $1,000 to erect a statue of Bergh, which does exist. I think it’s in Rochester, New York at the SPCA up there. Bergh may have made enemies in public but I think behind closed doors if you had any sense of justice and humanity that people understood that Bergh’s cause was just.

Tim Knox: Given the time for him though, for him to come in… he was almost like a regulatory body. He’s coming into these businesses telling them you’re going to have to change the way you’re doing things and you can’t let people ride your cart and this sort of thing. Was he ever in danger?

Gary Kaskel: Well yeah he got into public scrapes with people and there was a report of him getting into a fistfight with a manual laborer that was erecting a wall that there was a live cat behind and they couldn’t liberate the cat because the wall had been built up too high. Bergh heard about this from somebody in the neighborhood and went over there and made him tear down the wall.

The guy almost pummeled him because he didn’t want to have his work, three days’ work destroyed but Bergh prevailed because the guy knew he’d be thrown in jail if he didn’t do what he was told. Yeah he had public confrontations with the owners of various businesses, the owners of abattoirs. An abattoir was the name they used to use for a slaughterhouse.

There was a rather large slaughterhouse on the west side that Bergh went over and inspected and found deplorable conditions.

An interesting sideline from this series of investigations was the dairy industry. In those days they would feed the cheapest feedstock to the cows that they could, which comprised of un-boiled swill. The swill, because it was un-boiled would have bacteria in it. The bacteria would be transmitted to the animal and to the milk. Many children died from drinking what was called swill milk because it was unclean and there was no refrigeration in those days where there is now.

Bergh went after the dairies for unclean conditions and in fact as a result of Bergh’s efforts the New York City Board of Health actually became a force to reckon with and began overseeing the food sources for the city. So Bergh had a wide spectrum of issues that not only protected human health but animal welfare from a wide variety of mostly corporate abusers.

Then interestingly seven or eight years after he started the ASPCA, a church worker on the west side of Manhattan was visiting one of her shut in cases and while visiting her in the tenement house heard the screams of a little child down the alley. She asked the woman, you know, who is that? What’s going on? What’s happening here? The woman said oh this poor little girl, we hear her all the time.

She’s always screaming. Her mother beats her and we don’t know what to do about it. So the church worker kind of made it her cause to help this little girl. She went to the police to report it and the police wouldn’t do anything about it. She went to her alderman and she went to the District Attorney and no one would do anything about it because in those days, you know, the parents were considered the owners of their children and it was viewed that they had a right to raise them anyway they saw fit.

So this really frustrated this poor church worker so much that she didn’t know where to go but in a conversation with one of her nieces, the niece suggested why don’t you go to Mr. Bergh? He’s a famous New Yorker who protects animals. Isn’t a little child a little animal? I mean shouldn’t a child be protected by the same laws that protect animals?

So she did. She went to Bergh and Bergh ended up taking on the case of the child and not as it turned out using the animal protection laws but becoming the attorney ad litem for the child – called the woman into court, she was arrested, she was charged with assault and battery, she was convicted and the child was taken away from her.

That case was the first law case to assert the rights of children over parental abuse and ended up being the impetus for Bergh founding the first children’s protection society. That started the whole children’s protection movement with the labor farm and everything else.

Tim Knox: So at that time children weren’t really held in much higher regard than the animals.

Gary Kaskel: And they were also highly exploited as workers at a very early age. Even women who did what’s called piece meal work at home, the children would have to do it too and some of them worked in factories at age six and seven. All that changed toward the end of the 19th century, early 20th century but it took somebody to start that movement to stand up and say, hey, children should have rights the same as animals.

Tim Knox: Did Bergh ever have kids of his own?

Gary Kaskel: Never had children and he never had pets. Isn’t that ironic? It’s so ironic that the man who protected them never had any of his own. That may be part of his psyche. That could have been part of his psychological need to do something for these two groups of basically helpless creatures. I think his psyche, he was an interesting guy in a number of ways.

He was kind of a, I call it a conflicted warrior. He started his life and wrote poetry and he wrote a bunch of unsuccessful plays and if you look at the theme of these works of his writings, his creative writings, a lot of them had to do with unrequited love and unhappy marriages and things that kind of, if you read between the lines, kind of insinuate that somehow he was kind of a heartsick fellow and kind of aimless in his own life because he’d been given all this wealth and didn’t have to really support himself and do anything for society. It had to have something to do with how he ended up doing these two major things in his life.

Tim Knox: How long did he run the ASPCA?

Gary Kaskel: 22 years, from 1866 to 1888.

Tim Knox: He passed away at what age?

Gary Kaskel: He was, let’s see… born in 1813 so he was 75.

Tim Knox: One of the things I find most interesting is the ASPCA had the ability to regulate and arrest. How long did that stay in practice?

Gary Kaskel: Well it’s interesting that you should bring that up because the ASPCA was arresting people until January. The humane law enforcement division was really Henry Bergh’s core program and mission. That program and that department existed from the ASPCA from its inception in 1866 until this past January when they disbanded that department. It was highly controversial at the time.

The newspapers reported it in New York and budgetary reasons were cited. It’s interesting that the ASPCA has over 100 million dollars in their treasury after a six, seven year television campaign that’s been very successful. You’ve seen the sad animals with Sarah McLachlan singing Arms of an Angel. Well that campaign drew millions of dollars to the ASPCA. The A has kind of a checkered reputation.

After Bergh died the first thing that happened was that the board became populated by bankers from Brown Brothers and other society people in New York who saw it kind of as a status symbol to be on the board of this animal protection organization. Somehow there’s a school of thought that they weren’t really animal people at heart.

They were really kind of looking for social status more than they were the core to the organization.

The other thing is Bergh was offered by the city of New York to take over the animal shelter system and he turned it down. He didn’t want that because he saw that they had to kill surplus animals and he didn’t want to do that. Well less than 20 years after his death the ASPCA accepted the contract from the city in 1894 and ran it for exactly 100 years until 1994.

The reason they stopped it in 1994 was that there was a growing chorus of criticism from animal advocates complaining that they were not really meeting the mission of the organization – which was supposed to protect animals – by killing them, by euthanizing the surplus animals. That was beginning to cut into their fundraising efforts so they dropped that contract in 1994 and then the city took it over which was even more controversial. I was living in the city at the time so I was involved in observing that transition.

The ASPCA today, they claim that they’re concentrating on legislation and other issues but the common misnomer among the general public is that the ASPCA is the umbrella organization for your local SPCA and that is not true. All the SPCAs cross country are independent of the ASPCA in New York City.

They have one office in New York City and they run a hospital and they run a spay/neuter program. They have various programs that outreach across the country but they really only have one office. It’s just like the Humane Society of the United States is not affiliated with your local Humane Societies across the country.

It has its main headquarters in Washington and they concentrate on the bigger picture issues. I know this because I used to work for the Humane Society. The local SPCAs and the local Humane Societies are not affiliated with the master organizations in the East.

I bring that up because people give money to the big organizations thinking that they’re supporting their local shelter animals and what I would recommend is if you’re interested in fighting factory farming, pharmaceutical testing, the bigger corporate abuses then I would suggest you support the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States with your donations.

If you’re interested in supporting homeless dogs and cats and the pet overpopulation problem in your area then you need to support your local SPCA and Humane Society because they need those dollars to meet their missions.

Tim Knox: Alive today, do you think he would be happy at the legacy he left for the ASPCA? Would he be disappointed that things have not gone exactly to his vision? What do you think he would think about the current plight of animals? A lot of animal cruelty in the world. Do you think Bergh would be sad that things have not progressed further than they have?

Gary Kaskel: Well I think he’d be very disappointed in both… the problem is that we’re still fighting the same fight 150 years later that Bergh started on many of these fronts. In fact it’s worse now because of the industrialization of animal exploitation. In those days there was no such thing as what’s called a factory farm. They have these huge spaces of animals confined in tiny little quarters.

The demand for products made from animals has increased with the increase in human population. It’s kind of a conundrum. The more people there are the more animals we have to raise to support and we have to kill more animals to support the consumer demand for these products. It’s a problem. In some ways it’s better and in many ways it’s worse.

There certainly seems to be a lot more awareness today, maybe because of the media and the internet, about these issues. You can go on Google and search for any animal issues and you’ll get hundreds of hits and videos and everything under the sun. This is a wonderful resource to really shed light on these problems. That’s only recently that this kind of information access has come about.

Henry Bergh, I think it’s a mixed bag. I hate to speak for somebody who’s not alive but I think in many ways he’d be disappointed that his core program has been disbanded and yet they do have a bigger presence in society because of their status and because of the information highway.

Tim Knox: Gary, you’ve also used your documentary film making skills to create a documentary called The Humane People. Tell us about that.

Gary Kaskel: Well I was the president of United Action for Animals in New York City for five years and I used my film making skills to create a documentary called Animal People and it’s an overview of the animal protection movement and a portrait of the various players in it. It’s a wonderful kind of a primer for anybody that’s interested in these issues.

It’s sort of both for our grade school and high school kids. There’s no bad footage in it of animal cruelty. We interviewed all the major players like Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of United States, Ingrid Newkirk of PETA, a PETA singer who wrote Animal Liberation which was a seminal book about the start of the modern animal protection movement.

It’s a 90 minute documentary that you can buy on DVD or you can view it on Vimeo for free if you go to Vimeo and just search Animal People. I highly recommend it and if you buy the DVD it supports the work of United Action for Animals in New York.

Tim Knox: Gary Kaskel – the book is Monsters and Miracles: Henry Bergh’s America. Where can the audience find out more about the book and about you?

Gary Kaskel: I have a website. You can go to GaryKaskel.com and that has links to buy the book on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

You can also buy the Animal People DVD; there’s a link to purchase it there. It’s got my bio and some things of interest, some links to some videos. The book really I think should be an important book because it’s an important man who’s basically not as well-known as he should be. I think this is a story that should be told in every high school class in America because it’s about leadership and it’s about social justice and it’s about animal and children’s protection.

People need to know the history of where these things started. So I’m hoping the book will gain some traction. We’re trying to get a movie made out here in California, see if we can get a big producer and star to play Henry Bergh. I think it’d be a great movie. So I thank you for having me on to help inform the public about this.

Tim Knox: Gary Kaskel, it’s been a pleasure having you on the show. The book is Monsters and Miracles: Henry Bergh’s America. Bergh was the founder of the ASPCA, also worked with children’s rights – a great book. Gary Kaskel, we appreciate you. You’ve got to come back when you get the new book written, your memoir, I Could Have Been a Pawnbroker. I think that’s going to be a great one too.

Gary Kaskel: Thanks, Tim.

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