Ten Tips for Animal Activists Based on the Life of Henry Spira

Ten Tips for Animal Activists Based on the Life of Henry Spira

By | 2009-10-09T11:53:00+00:00 October 9th, 2009|Tags: , , |5 Comments

In 1973, when Henry Spira was 45, two things happened that sparked his interest in animal rights. A friend gave him a cat (he had no personal relationships with animals until that time) and he met Peter Singer. It was a turning point that gave way to full-time activism on behalf of animals.

Ethics Into Action, written by Singer, is the story of Henry’s work. It reads like an inspirational tale of one activist’s life as well as a manual on how to get things done. The lessons in this book for activists are not to be missed.

Before his involvement with animal rights, Henry already had decades of experience with the Merchant Marines, the Army, union organizing, the civil rights movement, and teaching high school. His background and knowledge served him well when he began the work that came to define his life.

Henry chose his first campaign with great care. He looked for one that was extremely vulnerable and that would garner public support and media attention. His target was some rather obscure experimentation at the Museum of Natural History in which—for no earthly reason—researchers mutilated cats and examined the impacts on the cats’ sexual behavior. He spent a year gathering information about the museum’s experiments and funding, talking to scientists, and building support. The campaign itself lasted for more than a year with weekly demonstrations in front of the museum, letter writing campaigns, newspaper ads, and letters to museum benefactors asking them to withhold support.

Henry’s efforts were victorious and the experiments at the museum were ended. Looking back, the amount of effort expended to end experiments that used around 75 animals per year might make the victory seem pretty insignificant. In fact, it was historic. In more than a century of antivivisection “efforts”—which consisted largely of rhetoric about abolition—this was the first time that anyone succeeded in actually ending any animal testing. It was a tiny successful step that put Henry in a position to move onto much bigger things. And it earned him the reputation as someone who finished what he started. That fact alone was crucial to his future successes.

He established a coalition of more than 400 groups to pressure Revlon and the rest of the cosmetics industry to phase out the Draize test. The result was the establishment of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at John Hopkins University, another historic outcome. And it generated a new market for products that are not tested on animals.

In the late 1980s, Henry turned his attention to the farm animal industry where he was single-handedly responsible for the virtual elimination of the horrific practice of shackling and hoisting steers for kosher slaughter, and for the complete elimination of face branding of cattle coming into the United States from Mexico.

Among the many remarkable things about Henry Spira is the fact that he alone was the driving force behind most of these changes. He founded Animal Rights International, a nonprofit organization that did not have any members, and employed a staff of two or three people.

While he deplored bureaucracy, however, much of his work was actually funded by large organizations like the ASPCA and HSUS. In fact, among his other accomplishments, he was instrumental in bringing more established organizations like these—groups that reach large numbers of supporters—closer to the animal rights movement. It was one of the ways in which his work helped to narrow the gap between animal welfare and animal rights. His goal was abolition of all animal use, but he also believed in doing everything possible to reduce animal suffering in the meantime.

Henry was known as a coalition builder and a bridge builder. He worked with large organizations, scientists, marketing professionals and the media. He also worked directly with his opponents, among whom he was widely respected and even (sometimes) liked. He modeled some of his approach on his experience with the civil rights movement, noting that change came about step-by-step.

Henry died in 1998 at the age of 71, just after this book was published. He worked closely with Peter Singer in telling his story (and there is much more to it that the few campaigns I’ve mentioned here). The book ends with a list of ten key points to consider when working on behalf of animals, based on Henry’s activism.

1. Try to understand the public’s current thinking and where it could be encouraged to go tomorrow. Above all, keep in touch with reality. Activists sometimes lose their feel for what the average person in the street might think, and this impacts their ability to know what is possible right now.

2. Select a target on the basis of vulnerabilities to public opinion, the intensity of suffering, and the opportunities for change.

3. Set goals that are achievable. Bring about meaningful change one step at a time. Raising awareness is not enough. When Henry took on his first campaign, the anti-vivisection movement had no goal other than raising awareness in the hopes that this would bring about total abolition of animal experimentation. Henry noted “I want to abolish the use of animals as much as anybody else, but I say, let’s do what we can do today and then do more tomorrow.” He looked at successes as stepping stones toward bigger targets and more significant victories.

4. Establish credible sources of information and documentation. Never assume anything. (Henry was a meticulous researcher and record keeper.)

5. Don’t divide the world into saints and sinners. Henry said “People can change. I used to eat animals and I never considered myself a cannibal.”

6. Seek dialogue and attempt to work together to solve problems. Position issues as problems with solutions. Present realistic alternatives.

7. Be ready for confrontation if your target is unresponsive. If accepted channels don’t work, prepare an escalating public awareness campaign to place your adversary on the defensive.

8. Avoid bureaucracy.

9. Don’t assume that only legislation or legal action can solve the problem.

10. Ask yourself: “Will it work?”


  1. BAIT ART October 10, 2009 at 8:57 am - Reply

    great post!
    RE point 3: This could mean "attacking the weakest link", like it has been tried with campaigns against fur and vivisection laboratories in Europe, and this would mean not focusing on the "main problem" (by numbers)- animals raised for food. In my (little) experience this has not worked very well. Also this is what the big groups like HSUS ARE doing, trying to work step by step. And I think without raising awareness these steps don't seem to be tiny and not permanent (eg the re-popularity of fur, or closing down one experimentation lab does not really lead to less experiments). just my thoughts 😉

  2. Vegan Outreach October 19, 2009 at 10:32 am - Reply

    People often think that the lesson of Henry's life is that you have to "defeat" a company or industry. But every single person whom we help change from eating animals is a major victory, saving thousands of animals over the course of a lifetime. It is like closing down an entire lab or fur farm every time we convince someone to no longer eat animals (and that person then goes on to influence others).

  3. Ginny Messina October 21, 2009 at 11:52 am - Reply

    Thanks to both of you for your comments. I think that Henry Spira did switch his focus to farm animals because of the numbers of animals involved. And I agree that raising awareness is always the most important thing we can do. Promoting vegan lifestyle is crucial advocacy.

    But a couple of points about that: First, the research that Henry ended at the Museum of Natural History did not have a consumer end product. It was basic research, done purely to gather data that had no real purpose. So encouraging people to go vegan does not put an end to research of that type. Secondly, Henry was responsible for efforts to find alternatives to animal testing. If we want people to stop using products tested on animals, we need to present them with alternative products. All the behavior change in the world doesn’t matter if there is nothing to change to!

  4. Therese September 17, 2011 at 9:44 am - Reply

    Great post, some awesome points to keep in mind… Thanks Ginny!

  5. Vegan Shift August 10, 2014 at 7:19 am - Reply

    I enthusiastically agree with you Ginny on your statement “If we want people to stol using products tested on animals we need to present them with alternative products.”

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