Ethics into Action

I’m reading this terrific book about the life of Henry Spira, a New Yorker who challenged large corporations over their abuse of animals, and he did so effectively, without money and with no large organisation behind him. The book is not so much a biography but a book about Henry’s strategy and why he was so successful. It’s a valuable guide for activists everywhere about how to create movements that are effective and proves that even individuals can make a difference.

Why was he so successful?

Henry chose specific targets for his campaigns and these he selected for their vulnerability and what Henry perceived would be the lack of public support for what those targets were doing. His first target was the American Museum of Natural History. They were conducting experiments on cats which involved mutilating the cats to observe changes in sexual behaviour. He chose this target for several reasons:

  1. The research was being funded with tax-payer money.
  2. People were more likely to object to experiments on cats because of our close relationship with them as companion animals.
  3. The research was obviously pointless.

His strategy was as follows:

  1. Research as much information about the organisation and experiments through the Freedom of Information Act and other sources.
  2. Contact the organisation to discuss the issue privately first – this was a prevailing strategy of Henry’s throughout his time as animal activist. The American Museum of Natural History ignored all his attempts to communicate with them.
  3. If step two fails launch a campaign to raise public awareness of the issue through weekly demonstrations outside the museum, articles in newspapers, and letters to politicians as well as to the museum’s own donors.

Mutilating cats to observe changes in their sexual behaviour sounds like an outrageous way to spend tax-payer money but we have to remember that this was back in 1970 and at a time when no-one questioned the torturing of rabbits for beauty’s sake. It took several years of campaigning before the American Museum of Natural History ended the experiments. It sounds like a very long time to end what had no obvious justification but Henry was able to achieve in a few years what anti-vivisectionists had failed to do in more than a century of campaigning, such was the attitude towards animals in labs at the time.

The book goes on to describe many other examples of Henry’s successful campaigns, one of which was his campaign against Revlon for their blinding of rabbits for cosmetic testing. There are several lessons we can learn from Henry.

He chose specific targets and he was persistent. Initially his targets were all dismissive of Henry and they wrongly assumed the publicity would die down and fade away. But Henry did not give up. He was relentless until eventually the public pressure was so great they could not ignore him.

He reached out to his targets to create a conversation with them and in some cases worked with them to find a solution. This is what ultimately happened with Revlon. When they realised they couldn’t dismiss him they worked with him to find a solution and he had University contacts who were working on alternatives to the Draize experiment ready to give them. He knew he couldn’t demand that Revlon stop the testing overnight since at the time there was no other test available and even if they did stop all the other companies would still be doing it which wouldn’t help those rabbits in the long-term. Instead he found a workable solution which was that Revlon gave Rockefellar University $750,000 over three years to develop an alternative test. After this he moved onto Avon and from there to Bristol-Myers and so on until everyone was working together to find a solution. This is what he was good at: getting people from opposing sides to work together towards a shared goal.

Henry Spira died in 1998. There’s a nice article in the New York Times about him where he is described as the architect of the American animal rights movement’s first successful campaigns. The first part of his life was spent campaigning for the civil rights movement and the second half for animal rights. The two are closely linked for if you accept the principle of equality – which says we cannot give greater consideration to the interests of a being on the basis of their sex or race, then we cannot give greater consideration to a being on their basis of their species as this would be inconsistent and is known as speciesism. Henry Spira was influenced by Peter Singer. He explains, (p50 Ethics into Action)

Singer made an enormous impression on me because his concern for other animals was rational and defensible in public debate. It did not depend on sentimentality, on the cuteness of the animals in question or their popularity as pets. To me he was saying simply that it is wrong to harm others, and as a matter of consistency we don’t limit who the others are; if they can tell the difference between pain and pleasure, then they have the fundamental right not to be harmed.

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