Henry Spira, the Most Effective Animal Activist
||"Their suffering is intense, widespread, expanding, systematic and socially sanctioned. And the victims are unable to organize in defence of their own interests." Henry Spira (1)
Henry Spira (1927 - 1998) is celebrated for his animal liberation campaigns and winning strategies. His friend and colleague the philosopher Peter Singer said of him, “Henry Spira was the most effective activist of the modern animal rights movement.” Singer wrote Spira's biography as a tribute to him and to show people how to action animal liberation: Ethics into Action: Henry Spira and the animal rights movement
Spira was born in Belgium and his family settled in New York City when he was 13 to escape Nazi persecution of Jews. He served in the American army, worked on a car assembly line, and taught at a New York college. But his main occupation from age 16 was seafaring in the American merchant marine. As a seaman he fought for human rights against the then crooked and ruthless American maritime union and was thrown out of the navy for his troubles. While active in civil rights he even crossed the FBI, who put him under surveillance.
Spira became animal oriented when in his forties, after someone gave him a cat to look after. Watching the cat, Spira asked himself why people ate some animals and took care of others. Just then he happened on an article, Animal Liberation,
in the New York Review of Books (1973). It was written by Peter Singer - someone Spira had never heard of - but the article inspired him to go to Singer’s lectures. As Spira later wrote, “Singer made an enormous impression on me because his concern for other animals was rational and defensible in public debate. It did not depend on sentimentality...” (1)
Spira was more pragmatic than philosophical, as getting things done was foremost to him. His tactics were to set a relatively small feasible goal, assemble activists with diverse contributing expertise, study the problem from all angles, especially from his opponent’s point of view, and enter into constructive discussion with his adversary whenever possible. Then, when Spira was prepared, he submitted his target to a sustained campaign until he won.
Spira was a highly effective animal liberation activist yet he was personally modest. He did not seek status or money for himself and worked for animals from his New York City flat. He elected to go without the staffing and financing of the big regular animal protection organisations. Although honoured by prestigious organisations he shut away all his awards in a cupboard.
Spira's first big battle for animals started in 1976 with New York City's Museum of Natural History. The Museum's laboratory was experimenting on cats, apparently to learn about sex behaviour. But according to Spira it was simply mutilating them and his group kept up a campaign of pressure on the Museum to stop the research. A year later and after much publicity the laboratory closed. The campaign was acclaimed as the first major success for animals against vivisection in America.
Building on that experience he took on Revlon, the cosmetic industry giant, and their Draize test. The test supposedly evaluates the safety of commercial preparations for humans by dripping drops of the substances onto the eyes of rabbits who are held down in racks. A highlight of the campaign was a full-page newspaper advert, one of many in Spira’s animal liberation career, placed in the New York Times exclaiming “How Many Rabbits Does Revlon Blind for Beauty’s Sake?” Eventually Revlon backtracked and paid into a fund to explore alternatives to the Draize test. Other cosmetics companies chipped in.
Spira took on other seemingly inflexible corporations, including Avon, Procter & Gamble, and the poultry and fast food industries. He also attacked the United States Department of Agriculture, exposing their branding of cattle's faces with red hot irons; the Department dropped its branding soon afterwards. And he took on the slaughterhouses, ending the practice of hoisting conscious cattle into the air by a leg to await slaughter.
Spira’s campaigns put on the political agenda cosmetics testing and cruelty to food-animals. His victories were the first big successes of the American animal rights movement to reduce the suffering that humans inflict on animals.
(1) Spira, Henry. Fighting to Win
, in In Defense of Animals
, ed. Peter Singer. 1985:194 - 208.
(2) Singer, Peter. Ethics into Action: Henry Spira and the animal rights movement
. Rowman and Littlefield. 1998.
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