Virginia Messina, on
The Vegan R.D.
In 1973, when Henry Spira was 45, two things happened that sparked his interest in animal rights. A friend gave him a cat (he had no personal relationships with animals until that time) and he met Peter Singer. It was a turning point that gave way to full-time activism on behalf of animals.
Ethics Into Action, written by Singer, is the story of Henry’s work. It reads like an inspirational tale of one activist’s life as well as a manual on how to get things done. The lessons in this book for activists are not to be missed.
Before his involvement with animal rights, Henry already had decades of experience with the Merchant Marines, the Army, union organizing, the civil rights movement, and teaching high school. His background and knowledge served him well when he began the work that came to define his life.
Henry chose his first campaign with great care. He looked for one that was extremely vulnerable and that would garner public support and media attention. His target was some rather obscure experimentation at the Museum of Natural History in which—for no earthly reason—researchers mutilated cats and examined the impacts on the cats’ sexual behavior. He spent a year gathering information about the museum’s experiments and funding, talking to scientists, and building support. The campaign itself lasted for more than a year with weekly demonstrations in front of the museum, letter writing campaigns, newspaper ads, and letters to museum benefactors asking them to withhold support.
Henry’s efforts were victorious and the experiments at the museum were ended. Looking back, the amount of effort expended to end experiments that used around 75 animals per year might make the victory seem pretty insignificant. In fact, it was historic. In more than a century of antivivisection “efforts”—which consisted largely of rhetoric about abolition—this was the first time that anyone succeeded in actually ending any animal testing. It was a tiny successful step that put Henry in a position to move onto much bigger things. And it earned him the reputation as someone who finished what he started. That fact alone was crucial to his future successes.
He established a coalition of more than 400 groups to pressure Revlon and the rest of the cosmetics industry to phase out the Draize test. The result was the establishment of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at John Hopkins University, another historic outcome. And it generated a new market for products that are not tested on animals.
In the late 1980s, Henry turned his attention to the farm animal industry where he was single-handedly responsible for the virtual elimination of the horrific practice of shackling and hoisting steers for kosher slaughter, and for the complete elimination of face branding of cattle coming into the United States from Mexico.
Among the many remarkable things about Henry Spira is the fact that he alone was the driving force behind most of these changes. He founded Animal Rights International, a nonprofit organization that did not have any members, and employed a staff of two or three people.
While he deplored bureaucracy, however, much of his work was actually funded by large organizations like the ASPCA and HSUS.
In fact, among his other accomplishments, he was instrumental in bringing more established organizations like these—groups that reach large numbers of supporters—closer to the animal rights movement. It was one of the ways in which his work helped to narrow the gap between animal welfare and animal rights. His goal was abolition of all animal use, but he also believed in doing everything possible to reduce animal suffering in the meantime.
Henry was known as a coalition builder and a bridge builder. He worked with large organizations, scientists, marketing professionals and the media. He also worked directly with his opponents, among whom he was widely respected and even (sometimes) liked. He modeled some of his approach on his experience with the civil rights movement, noting that change came about step-by-step.
Henry died in 1998 at the age of 71, just after this book was published. He worked closely with Peter Singer in telling his story (and there is much more to it that the few campaigns I’ve mentioned here). The book ends with a list of ten key points to consider when working on behalf of animals, based on Henry’s activism.
Return to Animal Rights Activist Strategies