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March 2004
What Would Henry Do? Pushing the Peanut Forward
The Satya Interview with Henry Spira, 1995


Henry Spira. Photo courtesy Animal Right International

Henry Spira was the Coordinator of Animal Rights International. An activist for more than 50 years, he fought for union democracy in the maritime industry, marched for civil rights and won major battles to reduce animal suffering. He was instrumental in persuading Revlon to stop testing cosmetics on animals and convinced major companies like Procter & Gamble to invest millions in research for alternatives to animal testing. In the years before he died, Spira was a lone voice focusing on the suffering of the billions of farm animals. His work on their behalf included a successful campaign to get the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to end its policy of face-branding steers imported from Mexico. The subject of a documentary and book by Peter Singer, Ethics into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement (2000), Spira made a lasting impact on animal advocacy.

The following is a reprint of a two-part interview by Joan Zacharias originally published in the July and August, 1995 issues of Satya. Henry Spira died of esophageal cancer on September 12, 1998, at age 71.

What made you become an activist?
While I was growing up I was farmed out to a variety of relatives in a variety of countries and with a variety of outlooks. This probably encouraged independence and, later, a willingness to question authority.

I remember my first dream was to liberate all birds from their cages. Later on, when I was about 12, we lived in Panama and I accompanied a couple of pistol-packing rent collectors through the slums. I knew their boss, the landlord, and he lived in palatial affluence and I felt it was terribly wrong. But at the time, there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

This was also the period of the Holocaust. There were lots of people who could do something about that, but they didn’t. They only expressed the right sentiments—much like our current politically correct do-nothings.

These sorts of personal and political experiences may well have turned me into an activist who wants to make a difference where it matters. And to me, what defines an activist is going beyond the words and sentiments, turning words into productive action that leads to results.

There are all kinds of injustices in the world. How did you end up working on animal issues—and why did you select the farm animal issue?
For most of my life I’ve been active in human rights campaigns, including the movements for trade union democracy and for civil rights. Animal rights, for me, was nothing more than a logical extension of these concerns.

For almost two decades we successfully promoted alternatives to the use of lab animals. But however you look at this progress, it did not have an impact on 95 percent of all animal suffering—the nine billion farm animals raised for dinners every year. A few years ago we began to plan how we could adapt the earlier strategies to the farm animal arena.

How do you respond to those people who say, “We’ve got all these human problems. Don’t you have anything better to do with your time than worry about animals?”
It defies common sense to make it appear that you’ve got a limited amount of compassion—that if you use it for animals then you don’t have it for humans. I think compassion is such that the more you use it, the more of it you have. Once we start excluding certain living, feeling beings from the circle of compassion, the easier it becomes to exclude others as well.

When we see nine billion animals who never had a good day in their entire lives and we’re the ones responsible for it, that’s when I think one figures there’s nothing else one can do but fight in their defense. This does not preclude people from also fighting for other vulnerable folks. The big difference with nonhuman animals is that they’re incapable of organizing in their own defense. We’re the ones who have to do it for them.

Tell us about the work you’re doing on the farm animal issue.
We’re working on a number of fronts. One of them is the USDA, which has enormous influence. We’ve established good rapport with the Department. It takes us seriously and recognizes that we’re out to solve problems and not just looking for a fight. But the USDA also knows that we’re capable of conducting a public awareness campaign, as we did on face-branding. The enormous outpouring of public concern with the face-branding campaign made it possible for people at the USDA, many of whom were themselves concerned, to launch a Farm Animal Well-Being Task Group which is working to upgrade current practices.

Another front is the corporate sector. McDonald’s has declared that they intend to become a role model for industry in upgrading humane conditions for farm animals. They’ve created a new corporate position of Director of Farm Animal Welfare and have contracted with Dr. Temple Grandin, a leader in designing less stressful systems in animal agriculture. McDonald’s has also developed a formal plan outlining how they plan to proceed in this groundbreaking effort. We’re talking with other major corporations to get them to set standards and also to place the whole issue of animal well-being on the agenda.

At the same time, we’re also producing generic ads and posters suggesting that there’s misery in meat, and that for the sake of your health, the animals’ health and environmental health one should go meatless or eat less meat. It’s a win-win situation. We’ve also highlighted the inconsistency of petting some animals and eating others. And we’re now creating ads that suggest that eating meat is as harmful to our health as smoking.

Why are these companies suddenly so willing to take measures to reduce animal suffering?
The fact that McDonald’s set standards for its suppliers was not necessarily because they suddenly became more sensitive to farm animal misery. What it became sensitive to is the public’s concern with this issue. When I talk to any corporate type, the USDA, or whoever, I just say, “The fact that we’re suggesting something doesn’t have to concern you at all. It’s just that when we suggest something where we’re in sync with the public and you’re not, that’s when you should start worrying.” I don’t think that animal agriculture today is in sync with what the public wants. But, the public doesn’t know what’s going on. So, isn’t it our duty to let the public know? The reason the American Meat Institute put out humane guidelines a few years ago and that everyone we contacted switched over from shackling and hoisting [animals] to an upright restrainer system was because they figured their practices were indefensible in public debate.

You’ve said that you look to turn walls into stepping stones of cooperation. But what about when it’s not in someone’s best interests to cooperate, such as Frank Perdue (CEO of Perdue Farms, the nation’s fourth largest poultry processor)?
Most of the time rational discussion does succeed. Sometimes people jerk us around, but you can still see that over the long haul they are going to be responsive. In the case of Perdue, he didn’t even think there was a problem, never mind being responsive. But even with Perdue, it was good strategy to attempt to communicate with him, because when we launched our public awareness campaign, we could legitimately say that Perdue forced us into it. And this negative campaign has probably been very useful in our farm animal initiatives. It reminded those whom we contacted that while we’d rather engage in productive dialogue, we were capable of harming their public image.

You’ve been active in many different movements for a long time. From your own experience, how is change really made?
In our campaign, which focused on research and testing, we amplified suggestions from the scientific community itself. This helped create a loop of scientific superstars who agreed that it was time to reassess traditional practices. After the scientific community heard the same message from a hundred different sources, it quietly became part of the mainstream.

You’ve said that you work in an incremental fashion, one step at a time, and that the further you go, the further in the distance you can see. Looking far ahead, what do you see?
I see a coming together of the many movements promoting nonviolence and defending the vulnerable. For too long people have viewed the earth and everything on it as something to be exploited without limits. Now, many of us are beginning to recognize that our planet is not just a quarry to be pillaged and then refilled with garbage. This provides us with an incentive to promote a practical universal ethic—among these, that it’s wrong to harm others who, like us, want to avoid pain and get some pleasure out of life.

It seems to me that common sense suggests that our society will be upgraded by shifting from greed and macho violence to doing the least harm and the most good to other humans, to other animals and our fragile environment.

What’s wrong with the all-or-nothing approach? The atrocities against animals seem to cry out for such an abolitionist approach.
Sometimes this is phrased as, “If humans were vivisected, would you ask for abolition or bigger cages?”—with the all-or-nothings presenting themselves as saints while castigating others as sinners.

But remember, the first law of effective activism is: stay in touch with reality. And the reality is that nine billion non human animals, not humans, are being raised on farms every year for dinner. For as long as they remain edibles it is both futile and counterproductive to engage in the blustering bravado of “Abolition now!”

The animal victims can’t afford this self-righteous, moralistic stance of all or nothing, because so far it has led to nothing. For 100 years people hollered “Abolish vivisection!” while the number of animals in laboratories kept skyrocketing. Reduction came about as a result of campaigns to promote alternatives. If you go for all-or-nothing, it is a good way to get applause, but it is not a good way to make progress. I don’t think that the suffering animals are well-served by the self-indulgence of the politically correct.

Progress is made stepwise, incrementally. You can have ideals, but, in practical terms, what are you going to do today? What are you going to do tomorrow? You need a program that makes sense in order to move ahead.

Critics accuse you of compromising with injustice—“hobnobbing in the halls with the enemy.” How do you respond?
For us, dialoguing with the other side has produced tangible results. When you suggest alternatives that are doable and that lead to progress, and where everybody can come out a winner, then you get a change that’s a great deal more enduring because it’s not begrudging.

I think you always need to start off with dialogue, because if you start off with bashing, it looks like you’re looking to fight and not to solve problems. The point is to look at issues as problems with solutions, try to figure out solutions, and move ahead. But, where no action is forthcoming, we’ve been tough and relentless.

What advice would you give someone who wants to make a difference, but doesn’t know where to start?
You probably want to select what you’re comfortable doing, be it big or small. How much time do you have? What resources are available to you? What are your personal skills, people skills, writing skills? Do you have a talent for organizing protests or for street theater? Anything that makes a difference is valid on its own merits. Droplets turn into streams that can finally turn into tidal waves of change.

You gain confidence by doing. It’s good to be impatient with injustice, but you need to be patient with yourself. Start off by writing a letter to the editor, encourage school and company cafeterias to offer more vegetarian options, ask your library to carry Animal Liberation and other books dealing with animal protection. Call or write your favorite media personalities and ask them to tell the “meat is misery” story.

You’ve been at this for a long time, and the problems are enormous. What keeps you going? Do you ever get tired of trying?
No matter how big the problems have been, we’ve always been able to move forward. It’s crucial to have a long-term perspective. Looking back over the past 20 years, I see progress that we’ve helped achieve. And when a particular initiative causes much frustration, I keep looking at the big picture while pushing obstacles out of the way. And there’s nothing more energizing than making a difference.

I think that to be effective, you must enjoy what you’re doing. To feel that there’s nothing in the world you’d rather do. That you find it personally fulfilling and it gives meaning to your life. It’s a lifestyle where everything is sorted out from the perspective of “what difference does it make?” Where you’re not concerned with appearances, popularity, material possessions, social status and trappings of power. You are concerned with results that will endure.

Still, it’s been said that we don’t live by politics alone. Personally, I also get much pleasure from Nina, my playful feline companion. And I walk in parks and, when I can, hike along the seashore. For me, being in contact with nature is like recharging one’s batteries.

Do you think you’ve seen a sea change in your lifetime?
I think there’s been a revolution in our attitude toward animal suffering. It’s totally remarkable that one book, in a couple of decades, has changed our outlook and even our behavior toward nonhuman animals. But if there hadn’t been an Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, then I think the same thing might have happened, just more slowly. Once all humans are considered within the circle of our concern, it’s just inevitable and natural that the next expansion will be toward nonhuman animals.

Are you satisfied with your life?
Yes. Some things I would do differently, but by and large I am comfortable with what I’m doing with my life. And I enjoy it, too. It’s exciting, interesting, and I generally feel that I’m doing the best I can. I think that activism is a lifestyle that more people should consider.

I think most of us want to be able to look back and figure that, hey, we’ve done something useful with our lives and, as my current cliché goes, done more than consume products and generate garbage.


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