BOOK REVIEW: Ethics Into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement

Ethics Into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement (Studies in Social, Political, & Legal Philosophy)

For more than a century, anti-vivisection societies had been campaigning against animal experiments without having the slightest impact. … While they put out their strongly worded leaflets condemning animal experimentation, the number of animals used in research grew from a few hundred a year to an estimated 20 million. … The antivivisection movement had been in existence for more than a century without ever stopping a single experiment.

And then along came Henry Spira.

Spria’s campaigning on behalf of animals brought the animal protection movement into its own, from an ignored fringe issue to a matter of national debate. Whether you’re a longtime fan of Spira or have never heard of him, all animal advocates owe it to themselves to pick up this book.

Spira’s very first campaign, against a series of bizarre and unjustifiable cat experiments conducted by the American Museum of Natural History, made history in itself in that it was the first time ever that public advocacy has stopped an animal experiment. But Spira didn’t just sit on his laurels. Using the momentum gained through the Museum campaign, he targeted similarly superfluous examples of the vivisection establishment’s unquestioned power.

For decades a New York law mandated that all animal shelters had to release their unclaimed pets into the hands of vivisectors. This particularly odious policy, called “pound seizure,” was hated by shelter workers and most citizens, but it had some very powerful defenders in the legislature.

The National Society for Medical Research boasted of its success in stifling the repeal of the act. … Lobbying hard against the repeal was the New York state biomedical research establishment: the Medical Society for the State of New York, the New York State Veterinary Medical Society, the Council of Agricultural Organizations, and of course, the National Society for Medical Research, which feared that if New York repealed its pound seizure law, other states would follow suit.

The users of shelter pets were no penny-ante outfits either. The pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers was the most persistent and last remaining company to raid NY animal shelters for lab subjects. However, Spira succeeded in getting this law repealed, setting a template for other states to do the same.

One of Spira’s most lasting legacies is the ability for cosmetics companies to state that they use no animals in product testing. Thanks to Spira’s ingenious, measured campaigns, the cosmetics companies began funding research that led to the development of non-animal testing methods.

The cosmetics industry uses less than 1 percent of animals used in product testing. But it was the cosmetics industry that opened up the whole field of nonanimal toxicology …

Readers may be surprised that the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing cultivated some surprising sponsors, including Exxon, IBM, the EPA, the NIH, cosmetics and drug companies. And Spira’s respectable approach even won a grudging respect from animal rights’ toughest critics. Even pro-vivisection crusader Frankie Trull of the Association for Biomedical Research advised a SmithKline executive to meet with Henry because of his professionalism.

When the animal use industries argue that we don’t need the animal rights movement because they would do the right thing anyway, it’s important to know the history discussed within this book.

The [20/20] reporter asked why the Federal Government utilizes such a painful test, and why the animal was not given pain medication. The official responded that “No one thought of it.”

In a move that revealed how utterly mindless the approach to the use of animals in safety testing had been before Henry started campaigning against it, the government’s Interagency Regularity Liaison Group issued a statement that “substances known to be corrosive may be assumed to be eye irritants” and should not be tested on the eyes of rabbits.

We cannot trust corporations and gov’t agencies to do the right thing on their own when animals are involved. We need an engaged and active sector of the public to make sure they live up to society’s standards of humaneness.

We can also thank Henry Spira for putting farmed animals front and center into the animal protection agenda. In previous decades, the movement had virtually ignored farmed animals all the while the factory farming abuses had grown progressively worse. (Think today’s factory farm industry claims are insipid? In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Perdue was referring to its factory broiler sheds as “Chicken Heaven” and of the birds’ lives, “your kids never had it so good!” LMAO.  )

Spira saw great change in his lifetime, but he also saw the rise of the first great backlash against animal protection. Singer includes the best recounting of the Fran Trutt debacle I’ve read yet, which amazingly enough, is still occasionally cited by animal use interests as evidence of the “dangerous” nature of AR folks. If you care about animals or corporate responsibility at all, you owe it to yourself to read about this issue.

Unfortunately, animal advocates tend to butt heads with each other nearly as much as they do with animal abusive industries. The “radical abolitionist” vs. “incremental approach” argument was alive and well in Spira’s time, too.

For many activists in the animal rights movement, [an incremental approach] was heresy. All animal testing was a violation of the rights of animals and should be stopped. Henry’s ultimate goal was as radical as anyone’s but he also thought that it was simply unrealistic to expect that goal to be achieved in the near future. … His thought was: the animals are suffering now, and if we can change things so that some of them don’t suffer, then we should do so.

Those animal advocates who are not fond of PETA are not likely to find much to sway their opinion within this book. Some animal advocates are on a near-obsessive tear against Procter & Gamble, and it’s a campaign I got swept up into during my younger years, before I had access to more nuanced views via the Internet and Animal People News.  P&G reports it has spent $64 million to develop nonanimal testing methods, roughly three times as much as any other company or institution. Yet, some activists, goaded by PETA, have focused on P&G even as other companies’ animal testing rates have stayed the same or even increased. Spira wrote:

“I do not support PETA’s campaign which attempts to portray P&G as the villain when, in fact, P&G has the best record to date in developing, implementing, and promoting alternatives to the use of animals in product testing.”

Historically PETA also seemed to enjoy horning in on other groups’ work and then taking the credit when years of difficult campaigning came to fruition.

To those with no knowledge of the history of the issue—and since the animal rights movement was young and had grown rapidly, that meant most of its supporters—it looked as if it was PETA’s boycott that brought about Avon’s announcement. .. Cosmetics companies were in a position to stop animal testing only because of the development of alternatives. … The development of alternatives was an essential prerequisite for the success of PETA’s boycott.

I’ve also read PETA materials that mention Amnesty International’s pig torture experiments as if they were recent occurrences. Henry Spira, in reaction to these pointless experiments, convinced Amnesty to stop sponsoring animal experiments in 1978!

(Originally appeared at

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