Animal Writes
3 May 2000 Issue
Book Review

by Steve Best - [email protected]

Ethics Into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement

by Peter Singer

Rowman and Littlefield, 1998

Although he died last year, the contributions of Henry Spira to the animal rights movement will endure. Ethics into Action exemplifies the reciprocal influences Peter Singer and Spira had on one another, since Singer's 1975 book Animal Liberation was a galvanizing force for Spira, and Spira's ideas were compelling enough for Singer to write about his life and struggles.

Singer's book also offers a new perspective on the formation of the animal rights movement in the 1970s and 1980s, describing Spira's importance and his differences with groups like PETA and the ALF. Moreover, Singer outlines Spira's methods as a model for animal rights groups and any movement to effectively achieve their political goals. Finally, he upholds Spira's life as an example of how an individual can gain deep existential meaning in a violent and soulless world through compassionate struggle for the rights of oppressed and powerless beings.

Spira began his political career in the civil rights movement, as a carnivore and speciesist with no liking for animals. But all this changed when a friend's cat warmed him over, when he became aware of the plight of animals, and when he read Singer's powerful book, Animal Liberation. Spira's transpecies political philosophy is summarized in his statement, "If you see something that's wrong, you've got to do something about it."

So here is an individual seeking to translate ethics into action. Where, Singer argues, animal rights groups had been completely ineffective in challenging issues like cosmetic testing on animals, Spira's intelligent tactics brought him quick and dramatic results on numerous issues. Among other things, his tactics involved modest beginnings with small, winnable issues; advancing progress step-by-step rather than through an all-or-nothing attitude; winning over animal abusers to his side by engaging them as human beings rather than as monsters; and when talks and various pressure tactics fail, bring attention to issues through bold advertisements that arouse public indignation about animal cruelty.

And so Spira began his animal activism by informing the public of senseless sex experiments the New York Natural History Museum was performing on cats. This was quickly stopped. He moved on to challenge corporations that test cosmetics and other substances on animals. Here his brilliant tactics involved getting them to donate small fractions of their profit to developing alternatives and, in quick succession, Revlon, Avon, Bristol-Myers stopped all testing. The product label "Not Tested on Animals" so common today owes much to Spira's work.

As he realized that "animal rights and eating animals don't mix," and that billions more animals were killed for food consumption than medical experimentation, Spira's attention shifted to the plight of farm animals. He took on Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds, the FDA, USDA, and other giant industries. Through provocative ads (such as merging a KFC box with a toilet bowl), he educated the public about the dangers of meat and cruelty toward animals, and moved some of these food giants toward reforms.

Not everyone agreed with Spira's reform methods and often friendly working relations with the "enemy," but no one can deny his contributions, as he saved and improved the lives of millions of animals.

Perhaps the most important lesson Singer's book offers is that one person -- compassionate, committed, and intelligent -- indeed can make a huge difference in this world. Throughout history this has been proven, and to the long list of world-shakers, we can add the names of Peter Singer and Henry Spira.

This review originally appeared in "Life Giving Choices", the newsletter of the Vegetarian Society of El Paso (VSEP).

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