A Loving Tribute to Henry Spira
by Karen Davis
"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 the issue was just too big, too "unwinnable." This is the man who went on to become a vigorous, globally famous advocate on behalf of farmed animals. The New York Times memorial 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."

"'I began to wonder why we cuddle some animals and put a fork in others,' he often said," The Times article stated. 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, Frank Perdue was appointed to the University's 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 student rallies against Perdue. Together with the students, we attended board of regents meetings around the state where we followed Perdue with our chant, "Cluck You, Frank Perdue!"

On a Sunday morning in February 1992, Henry took the train to College Park, and he, I, and two other people drove to Salisbury, Md where we spent the morning taking pictures inside chicken houses. That's when we got our "Misery Is Not A Health Food" photo of a dead chicken in a pile of dead birds on the ground outside a Perdue house. 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. 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.)

I watched Phoenix die of congestive heart failure at our sanctuary on April 18, 1993, 14 months later. Henry wrote to me: "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."

In 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 in front of the Perdue chicken slaughter plant in Salisbury, Md, May 1, 1992. The occasion was UPC's Second Annual Spring Mourning Vigil for Chickens. Henry came down from New York to be with us. We spent the day surrounded by Perdue trucks stacked with those individuals who represented, in Henry's words, "the largest universe of pain and suffering" in the world.

Henry Spira
photo by Nancy siesel for The New York Times

“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. . . . 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. . . .”

• • •
“Animals are not edibles.”
– Henry Spira

Factory-farmed animals and vegetarianism were Henry's focus in the 1990s. His full-page ads in The New York Times showing steers being branded on the face with red hot irons were decisive in putting an end to this USDA atrocity in 1994: "THIS IS WHAT USDA POLICY LOOKS LIKE. CAN YOU IMAGINE WHAT IT FEELS LIKE?" He placed an ad in The Washington Times in 1996 showing a cat going through a meat grinder with the challenge: "Loving and petting one kind of animal while ignoring others who feel exactly the same pain is what's really irrational."

The last time I talked with Henry was in July. 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 donate to our ad in DVM Newsmagazine, urging veterinarians to oppose the starvation of hens used for egg production. He said, "Sure." This was Henry, working 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.