by Karen Davis
"Animals Are Not Edibles"--Henry Spira
"I don't think one can articulate a satisfaction with harming another being whether it's human or nonhuman."--Henry Spira
In the mid-1970s, Henry Spira questioned getting involved in the farm animal issue because, as an animal advocate told me when Henry died of cancer on September 12th at age 71, the farm animal issue was just too big, too "unwinnable." This is the man who went on to become a vigorous, prolific, courageous, wry, testy, ingenious, and globally famous advocate on behalf of farmed animals. He began his animal advocacy career in 1976 by drawing attention to some hideous sex experiments on cats that were being conducted at the American Museum of Natural History, which he succeeded in stopping. Later, in a dramatic full-page ad in The New York Times, April 15, 1980, Henry Spira opened the world's eyes (including mine) to the fact that cosmetic companies routinely blind and poison animals to test ingredients in lipsticks, shaving lotions, and similar products. He asked: How Many Rabbits Does Revlon Blind for Beauty's Sake?
The New York Times article about him that appeared on September 15th explained that Henry, who was born in Belgium and worked in a manila folder stacked New York City apartment where he lived with his beloved cat Nina, "brought half a lifetime of activism in the labor and civil rights movements to the animal rights world when he became involved at the age of 45. His interest in what he once called 'the most defenseless of all the world's victims' was aroused when a friend left him with a cat around the time he first read 'Animal Liberation,' a 1973 essay [in The New York Times] by Peter Singer, an Australian bioethicist [author of the 1975 book, Animal Liberation, which spearheaded the modern animal rights movement].
"'I began to wonder why we cuddle some animals and put a fork in others,' he often said," The Times article stated.
I would like to say a few words about Henry the man I knew. Henry Spira, the founder and president of Animal Rights International and the Coalition for Nonviolent Food, was inseparable from my decision to start United Poultry Concerns in 1990. He was a member of our board of advisors from the beginning. On October 20, 1989, Henry ran a full-page ad in The New York Times that showed Frank Perdue with a Pinocchio nose (for being a liar) with two chicks at the end of it. It said: "FRANK, ARE YOU TELLING THE TRUTH ABOUT YOUR CHICKENS? Is Frank Perdue's advertising just a pile of poultry puffery hiding the brutal realities of an inhumane industry? The ad went on tartly to answer these questions.
Henry put the spotlight on chickens, the largest number of abused warm-blooded animals on earth. He put a face on the poultry industry by way of Frank Perdue. "The reason for focusing on Perdue is that the vast majority of factory farmed animals are birds, and because Frank Perdue has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on ads which deliberately deceive consumers about the brutal realities of poultry farming," he wrote. When I was teaching English at the University of Maryland, College Park and running the student Animal Rights Coalition which I started in 1989, Frank Perdue was appointed by the Maryland governor to the University of Maryland System Board of Regents in 1991. Henry joined our campaign to cancel the appointment. He ran feisty ads in UM student newspapers--the P. word. There's a word for someone who does bad stuff for money. Perdue. He took the train from New York City to UM campuses to speak at our rallies against Perdue, who was appointed because he gave the university system millions of dollars to build slaughterhouse replicas and set up business school programs whereby to clone himself. Together with the students, we attended board of regents meetings around the state where we followed Perdue with our chant, "Cluck You, Frank Perdue!"
Below is an excerpt from the June 1991 Vegetarian Times article by Jack Rosenberger about our campaign, which got us also into Time Magazine and The New York Times.
Davis demanded Perdue's resignation, informing the regents at the College Park campus that Perdue has a "documented record of abuse--not only of chickens, but of his employees and the environment.". . . Working with Davis is Henry Spira, a long-time vegetarian and founder of the New York-based group Animal Rights International, who targeted Perdue last year. Spira's full-page ads have run in The New York Times detailing animal abuse on the Perdue farms. "Frank Perdue represents far more than abused chickens," Spira says. "He not only abuses chickens for profit, but he also treats his workers--mostly poor, minority women--as an expendable commodity." Davis agrees: "His whole lifestyle is repressive and mean," she says. "He has the soul of a gangster."On a Sunday morning in February 1992, Henry took the train to College Park, and he, I, and two other people drove to Salisbury, Maryland where we spent the morning sneaking around and taking pictures inside Perdue chicken houses. That was when we took our "Misery Is Not A Health Food" photo of a dead chicken in a pile of dead birds on the ground outside one of the Perdue houses. When I picked up a day-old chick from the thousands of baby birds at our feet inside a house, I couldn't put him down and we took him away with us. When we got back to College Park, Henry and I sat in my car looking at this chick, who was at that moment fast asleep. I said, "This is 'Perdue.'" Henry said, "I know." It was then and there that he said this bird should be named Phoenix after the mythical bird who eternally rises from the ashes of death. (If you look at the handsome rooster in the upper left-hand corner of PoultryPress, that is Phoenix.)
Phoenix died of congestive heart failure at our sanctuary on April 18, 1993, 14 months later. I watched him die. Henry wrote to me on April 20, 1993: "Dear Karen, You and Phoenix had a great life together, from the day we found him. You did everything, and more, that could be done to give him as happy and satisfying a life as is possible, within the parameters of his genetic makeup. Certainly Phoenix, true to his name, will live on, not just in our memories but in that, thinking of Phoenix, we will be energized to fight harder for all his brothers and sisters. Love, Henry."
When you see the video that Henry's mentor, friend and colleague, Peter Singer, did to honor Henry just before he died, Henry Spira: One Man's Way, there's a scene of Henry shouting through a bullhorn--that's our UPC bullhorn. The footage was taken by Ron Scott in front of the Perdue chicken slaughter plant on U.S. Route 50, in Salisbury, MD on Friday, May 1, 1992. The occasion was UPC's Second Annual Spring Mourning Vigil for Chickens.. Henry, a co-sponsor of the Vigil, came down from New York on the train to be with us and with the chickens who were being slaughtered a wall away from where we stood with our signs next to the slaughterhouse, across from a McDonald's, surrounded by Perdue trucks stacked with plastic crates containing those individuals who represented, in Henry's words, "the largest universe of pain and suffering" in the world.
May 19th, 1991. Dear Karen, I look forward to your participation at our "Opportunities, Priorities and Strategies for the 90's" round table discussion on Saturday, June 1, 1991 at the NY Academy of Sciences, 2 East 63 Street, in New York City from 9am to 5pm. Peter Singer will be the luncheon speaker. There are several reasons why a meeting along these lines could be productive at this time, among these, indications that there will be an expansion in the movement's agenda for the 90's. Due to the efforts of many organizations and individuals in the '80s, there's been a revolution in our culture,--a broad based recognition that the suffering of non-human animals does matter. It is now inevitable that the movement will expand into the arena of factory farming which accounts for 95% of all animal suffering--an arena with correspondingly far greater challenges. . . .Factory-farmed animals and vegetarianism were Henry's leading themes in the 1990s. His full-page ads in The New York Times showing steers being branded on the face with red hot irons elicited the public outrage that was decisive in putting an end to this U.S. Department of Agriculture practice in 1994: THIS IS WHAT USDA POLICY LOOKS LIKE. CAN YOU IMAGINE WHAT IT FEELS LIKE? He ran a series of full-page ads in The Washington Times in 1996, Five Good Reasons to Eat Your Cat or Dog. The ad shows a cat going through a meat grinder onto a dinner plate, and ends with the challenge: "Loving and petting one kind of animal while ignoring others who feel exactly the same pain is what's really irrational."
Henry attended my book-signing party at Debby Tanzer's home on May 17, 1997, and purchased many copies afterward. In Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs I include yet another one of his open your heart wake up your brain challenges. He asked: "What gives us the right to violate the bodies and minds of other feeling beings?"
The last time I talked with Henry was in July, on the telephone. I knew he had cancer, but I didn't know he was about to die. I called him to ask if he would like to contribute to an ad we were planning to run in the September issue of DVM Newsmagazine, urging veterinarians to oppose forced molting, the prolonged deliberate starvation of hens used for egg production. Henry said, "Sure," and sent us a check immediately. This was Henry. He worked for animals until he died. As he said about Phoenix, so it may be said about him. Henry Spira will live on, not just in our memories but in that, thinking of him, we will be energized to fight harder for all his brothers and sisters. This fight was what justified human life for Henry Spira, and he exemplified his belief.