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October 1998
Remembering Henry Spira


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.

Joan 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.

Peter 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 forward."

Peter 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.

Susan 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.

Erik 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.

Pam 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.

Martin 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.

Rynn 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.

Batya 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.



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