Henry Spira

Henry Spira revolutionized animal rights activism by applying the most effective techniques of the labor and civil rights movements.
Last Updated: September 21, 2016

Henry Spira wasn’t just a hero to animals, he was the animal protection movement’s first truly great activist. In 1973, Henry read a Peter Singer essay that would later be expanded into the seminal book, Animal Liberation. That essay instantly changed Henry’s view of animals. He decided that petting one animal (his cat) while sticking knives and forks into cows and chickens was morally untenable.

A 46-year-old New York City high school English teacher, Henry had more than two decades’ experience doing both civil rights and labor activism. He perceived right away that many of the most effective tactics from these movements could be readily applied to protecting animals.

If there was one thing about Henry that separated him from other activists of his era, it was a refusal to shoot from the hip. Every one of his campaigns was the result of months of planning and research. His goal was to choose campaigns that were winnable, and would impact as many animals as possible.

At the start of his animal rights career, Henry recognized that the best way to protect large numbers of animals was to set precedent. At the time, laboratory animals were denied any moral consideration, and horrific abuses occurred on a massive scale. Henry found an especially objectionable series of experiments that were taking place just a few blocks from his Manhattan apartment: the American Museum of Natural History was funding sex experiments on cats who had been subjected to brain damage (you can’t make this stuff up.)

Henry first approached the museum privately, since the foundation of his technique is to win concessions via friendly one-on-one negotiations, and to go public only if all else fails. When the museum made clear it had no interest in dialog, Henry launched a well-coordinated campaign that led to a flood of membership cancellations and negative media headlines. Soon, the museum relented, marking the first time a vivisection lab had been closed down for reasons related to animal rights.

The museum campaign was only the beginning for Henry, and over the next 25 years he used the same set of techniques to win a series of increasingly important victories. His next campaign convinced America’s top two cosmetics companies (Revlon and Avon) to fund research to create animal-free alternatives to horrors like the Draize rabbit eye test.

With that victory achieved, Henry shifted his focus to emphasize farmed animal protection. He targeted McDonald’s and—after years of effort—persuaded the company to upgrade animal welfare and slaughter standards. Since every meat company wants to sell to a giant customer like McDonald’s, slaughterhouses across the United States had no choice but to implement animal handling techniques that met the fast food giant’s new standards.

Near the end of his life, in 1995 Henry won his last big victory. Once again he targeted a massive and absurd injustice that no reasonable person could defend: a USDA regulation that required every calf imported from Mexico to be branded on the face. This victory spared hundreds of thousands of cattle a year from suffering this ordeal.

Today, well-funded groups like the Humane League, the Humane Society, and Mercy For Animals are racking up major wins for animals. But from the mid-1970s to the late-1990s, many of the movement’s most impressive wins were achieved largely by one guy on a tiny budget working out of his apartment.

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If you want to learn more about Henry’s advocacy career, check out his biography by Peter Singer titled Ethics Into Action.