Henry Spira, activist for animal rights and social justice,
died September 12th after a long battle with cancer. He was 71 years
old. Several of the recollections below were made at a meeting to celebrate
his life on Sunday, September 13th.
Zacharias, NYC Sierra Club Vegetarian Outings Committee
I've just had my mid-life crisis. I turned 40 last
year, and the form it took for me was asking, "What should I do with
my life? How could I make a difference in a world so full of pain and
suffering?" I never thought my teacher or guide would be someone like
Henry Spira. When I worked with him for the first time three years ago,
interviewing him for Satya , he seemed gruff and impatient at first,
even a little cantankerous. When I showed him the questions I planned
to ask--which were all over the place--instead of throwing them out,
he offered to help me rewrite them so that the interview would make
more sense. He spent hours working on it with me until we got it right.
That's the way
he was: underneath the tough New York exterior, I found a very warm,
generous, magnanimous and loving man. Over the past three years we worked
together on several projects, including a campaign to get the largest
food processor to scrap plans involving chemically burning off the hair
of stunned animals before slaughter, and a nationwide poll on factory
farming--which Henry was able to use in negotiations with the USDA and
fast food companies. Henry never hesitated to tell me when I was wrong
or full of it or naïve. Through this process, I learned a hell
of a lot about strategy, about winning--something I had never thought
much about at the protests I'd attended. We had marched and chanted
and demanded and had gone from this demo to that demo. But I always
wondered what we had accomplished.
Gradually I have
gone from what Henry called "Hyperactivity" or "Random Protesting" to
campaigning. It's much harder in a way. You have to set achievable goals,
do your homework, think strategically, and even think about the feelings
and interests of the people or institutions you are trying to change.
Do you want to be liked or do you want to be effective? You might even
have to dialogue with your enemy. And you have to focus on achieving
step-by-step, incremental change, not all or nothing. Henry was always
asking, "What can we accomplish today? What can we do tomorrow? How
can we push the peanut forward?" That's how Henry has been enormously
effective. When we first met, I was bashing the Sierra Club for
not endorsing vegetarianism. Now we are on the agenda for the next national
board of directors meeting to sit down seriously at the table and discuss
changing a policy in support of vegetarianism. We have a very good chance
of winning. I don't know about you, but I need a victory now and then
to keep me going, so I don't feel so helpless in the face of all the
suffering--so I don't burn out.
That's the gift
that Henry has given all of us: a whole lifetime of lessons on how to
fight and how to win, how to push the peanut forward. It's all in Peter
[Singer]'s book [Ethics into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights
Movement] for us to study and apply. Henry did it all without wealth
or money or big organizations, just working out of his apartment. He
wore one orange shirt, a pair of khakis and some old sneakers most of
the time. We used to laugh that he looked like a model for a Gap ad.
Yet he was comfortable with CEOs, big medical people, government officials,
and politicians. He was never intimidated by money, status or power.
I have to tell
you a story that says it all. Over the years, Henry has been honored
many times, and Sandy [Reed] and I wondered what he did with all those
awards and plaques. One night, a few weeks ago, we asked him about it,
and he got out a ladder and reached up into a hallway closet to show
us all these beautiful medals, crystal awards, and engraved plaques--stuff
from animal organizations, Johns Hopkins, and so forth, all collecting
dust. I think most of us would have displayed at least one or two of
these honors. But Henry stowed them all away. You see, the highest honor
for him was to reduce the universe of pain and suffering, and for that
we honor him. I'm going to miss Henry.
Singer, author of Animal Liberation and Ethics into Action: Henry Spira
and the Animal Rights Movement
Henry Spira was the most effective activist of the
modern animal rights movement. He tackled giant corporations and bureaucracies
like Revlon, Avon, Procter & Gamble, and the U.S. Department of
Agriculture and persuaded them to change their ways. He put the issue
of cosmetic testing on the political map. It is thanks to his efforts
that millions of cattle in the U.S. no longer get a red hot branding
iron thrust into their face. The fact that Spira did these things while
working out of his own apartment, with no regular salaried staff and
no private fortune, is a remarkable demonstration that in a complex
world one person can still make a difference.
Spira was not religious,
and never sought material wealth. His rent-controlled apartment was
sparsely, even shabbily, furnished. His clothes were usually crumpled,
and seemed to last him decades. Even if he struggled into a suit and
tie for an important meeting, he seemed unable to discard his sneakers,
or to keep his laces tied. None of these things mattered to him. His
goal was to keep things moving along in the right direction. He did
that with a great sense of realism, born from an understanding of human
nature that he had picked up when working on the ships. He had no time
for pomposity, for talk that led nowhere, nor for ideological disputes
that did not have a practical outcome. From his time in left-wing politics
he learned that, "you've got to have a crap detector rotating all the
time." He was always direct, sometimes blunt, but he never lost his
cynical sense of humor. He was a person who enjoyed living and acting
in the world. Best of all he liked to know that he had made a difference.
In a 1989 New York Times Magazine profile, Barnaby Feder asked him what
he would like his epitaph to be. Spira replied, "He pushed the peanut
Singer's piece was excerpted from a forthcoming obituary in The
Animals' Agenda. A fuller version will appear in the November/December
issue. Ethics into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement
by Peter Singer is published by Rowman & Littlefield.
Kalev, animal activist
For the past nine years, since I became involved with
animal issues, I have wondered where the battle-cry was, where the uprising
of decent, normal people was once they knew about what is done to animals.
I wondered what I, one person, could do. After I met Henry and knew
of his work, I understood. Henry knew that if you can make peace and
talk peacefully, you don't need to wage a war. Henry was instrumental
in popularizing the "three Rs"--especially in animal experimentation:
refine, reduce, replace. I thought that for those "Rs" we could now
substitute others. To "recognize" Henry's achievements, to "remember"
his contribution, and to "reunite" to continue his work.
Marcus, author of Vegan: A New Ethics of Eating (via fax)
Henry's work has convinced countless people that animal
liberation may be the most noble calling a person can have. In his 25
years of fighting for animal rights, Henry was directly responsible
for reducing or eliminating the suffering of millions of animals. I
owe my presence in the animal rights movement to Henry's example and
encouragement. While I will always be awed by his genius as an activist,
it is his warmth and caring as a friend that I'll remember most.
Teisler-Rice, author of 101 Reasons Why I'm a Vegetarian (via fax)
The average person sees society's problems and chalks
them up to "the ways of the world." It's a rare person indeed who bothers
to take on the seemingly insurmountable and deeply ingrained ills they
see around them. Henry was truly one of the rare of the rare in this
category. Henry Spira had a motto: "If you see something is wrong, you
gotta do something about it." That's certainly an easy thing to say,
but Henry Spira not only said these words, he genuinely lived them.
He possessed an uncommon brilliance in figuring out ways to overcome
what to most appears totally unchangeable.
Rowe, editor, Satya
What so impressed me about Henry was his phenomenal
organization. It's a talent that may not sound very romantic and exciting;
but to be well-organized, as I know through my own struggles, is quite
a major achievement. He also knew how to strategize, and to up the ante
at crucial periods. At every step along the way in his dealings with
institutions he wished to change, he allowed the "opposition" an honorable
way out so that actual change could come about. In our tendency sometimes
to rush to the barricades, to chant and yell and anathematize, we need
to recognize what both Gandhi and Henry Spira knew: That the point is
not to bring an opponent to their knees but to bring them to their senses.
Berry, author of Famous Vegetarians and their Favorite Recipes
I didn't know Henry well, but I knew enough to form
a very high opinion of him. He always reminded me of another Henry,
who lived about 100 years before our Henry did: Henry Thoreau. Thoreau
formulated the principles of non-violent resistance and civil disobedience
that shaped the modern Civil Rights movement and influenced Tolstoy
and Gandhi. Thoreau created a new paradigm and, like Henry Spira, reduced
life to its simplest essentials. Like Henry, Thoreau turned his back
on a wealthy, privileged childhood and decided to live life on his own
terms, a bachelor. Like Henry, Thoreau was indignant at racial oppression
and discrimination. He showed quite plainly that one man could make
a difference, more of a difference than any or all groups together.
And I think it's a cause for hope and rejoicing that we should all follow
Thoreau's example. Like Thoreau, Henry was a genius in formulating new
principles and new tactics for dealing with the oppressors.
Bauman, for Feminists for Animal Rights (via fax)
We are saddened by the death of this gentle spirit,
who had been so effective in his tireless efforts on behalf of justice
for all. The passing of Henry Spira is a loss to the animal advocacy
movement and certainly to the animals. We feminists for animal rights
have lost a friend and a strong ally. May he go in peace to finally
find the rest and relief from all the injustices that hurt his heart
and soul, and from the worthy battles he fought so bravely and so effectively.