Henry Spira is an inspirational example of an individual committed to compassion and most significantly, an expert on political activism. His methods of political strategy and planning proves that with the correct approach and careful organisation, big social changes can happen relatively quickly.
Spira established himself as one of the most effective proponents of animal rights in the 20th century. Having a rich history of political activism, Henry Spira first became interested in animal rights when caring for a friend’s cat. He told the New York Times in 1973 that he “began to wonder about the appropriateness of cuddling one animal while sticking a knife and fork into another.”
He worked extensively with and was close friends with Peter Singer, having read an article by the latter, whereby Singer identified the book, Animals, Men and Morals (1971) to be the ideal manifesto for “animal liberation.”
Spira was inspired by the article: “Singer described a universe of more than 4 billion (in 1972) animals being killed each year in the USA alone. Their suffering is intense, widespread, expanding, systematic and socially sanctioned. And the victims are unable to organize in defence of their own interests. I felt that animal liberation was the logical extension of what my life was all about – identifying with the powerless and the vulnerable, the victims, dominated and oppressed.”(link)
Spira realised that the moral double standards of our inconsistency in eating one high intelligent, sensitive animal being yet torturing and horribly abusing billions of other conscious, suffering beings was morally untenable.
His particular political approach was very successful in putting pressure on numerous multi-national corporations that dominate the industry. It is an exemplary lesson in how to affect political change successfully, as well as consistently. He set up Animal Rights International (ARI) to stop companies from testing products of animals and in experimentation and the meat industry. They had numerous notable successes.
His innovative approach was to encourage a collaberative, yet assertive approach to persuading massive corporations to change their ways. He came up with the idea of “reintegrative shaming.”
The beauty of Spira’s work lies in his approach – he would work with the corporations privately, rather than publicly vilifying them. He did this to encourage a more cooperative rather than confrontational approach, since he recognised that it is more conducive to progress to work with companies rather than against them – they will be much more receptive and open to the possibilty of change without being heckled, judged or shamed.
As much as one may feel that they deserve public shaming, it is arguably the less effective means of getting companies to change. Sociologist Lyle Munro writes that Spira went to great lengths to avoid using publicity to shame companies, using it only as a last resort.
In 1976, he led the ARI’s anti-vivisection campaign vivisection on cats that the American Museum of Natural History had been conducting for a staggering 20 years. The “purpose” of the research was to investigate the impact of certain types of mutilation on the sex lives of cats. They would insert lesions into the cats’ brains and pointlessly observe them mating more indiscriminately – utterly pointless research.
After a year and a half of campaigning, eventually the museum halted the research in 1977. At the time, Spira’s campaign was hailed as the first ever to succeed in stopping animal experiments. He reasoned that it was a good target since the museum so valued its public image. Through carefully organisation and direct action, Spira managed to significantly alleviate the suffering for a huge number of animals.
He also drew public attention to cosmetics giant Revlon’s use of the Draize test, which involves dripping household substances into animals’ eyes, usually rabbits, to determine their toxicity. Within a year, Revlon had donated $750,000 to a fund to investigate alternatives to animal testing, followed by substantial donations from various other large cosmetic companies including Avon, Bristol Meyers, Estée Lauder, Max Factor, Chanel, and Mary Kay Cosmetics.
His success ultimately answers the question of an abolitionist vs a gradualist approach, as to the best way to affect significant change on the animal issue. Spira also coordinated campaigns bringing both KFC and McDonalds to raise their welfare standards. Here, abolitionists would argue that little has been achieved however two important things have been achieved.
Firstly, there is an substantial overall reduction in suffering – a small improvement multiplied for billions of animals is a huge step in the right direction; secondly, it will help build momentum towards bigger ethical changes.
We must remember that social struggles are overcome gradually – to reject this is to reject reality. Let the animal right movement focus on best how to organise politically knowing this fact – we must not get disheartened by the magnitude of the task, but just put the work in and get there gradually – day by day, year after year.