BOOKS: Ethics Into Action
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1998:
Ethics Into Action:
Henry Spira and the
Animal Rights Movement
by Peter Singer
Bowman & Littlefield, Publishers
(4720 Boston Way, Lanham, MD 20706), 1998. 192 pages, hardcover,
We hope Ethics Into Action, Peter
Singer’s revealing and inspiring biography of
Animal Rights International founder Henry
Spira, shall become as influential over the next
25 years as Singer’s 1973 opus Animal
Liberation has over the past 25: as a blueprint
for action on behalf of animals, this time exemplified
as well as theorized.
Paradoxically, Ethics Into Action
comes with cover endorsements by several
overpaid executives of very well-endowed animal
protection organizations who have collectively
accomplished less to reduce animal suffering
in their careers than Spira frequently does
in a week, on a budget (and diet) of peanuts.
Says one of them, Humane Society of
the U.S. CEO Paul Irwin, “Henry Spira is a
shining example of how to be an effective,
pragmatic, and humane animal activist.”
Correct, and that is exactly why
under the leadership of these gents on the one
hand and sociopaths like PETA guru Ingrid
Newkirk on the other, the big national groups
are presently accomplishing the same zilch that
they did before Spira jumped in, back in 1976,
and started showing how to get things done.
Since then, Spira and the few other
activists who use his methods have accomplished
a lot––for which the national organizations
often loudly claim credit in direct mail
appeals, and other times inexplicably ignore.
Singer extensively describes several
examples: the PETA usurpation of Spira’s success
in persuading Revlon, Avon, and nine
other cosmetics firms to cease animal testing;
the PETA claim of a “victory” over L’Oreal in
1993 when L’Oreal policy and practice
remained unchanged; and the boycotts of
Procter & Gamble by HSUS, In Defense of
Animals, and PETA, called in 1984 after Spira
persuaded P&G to commit more than $67 million
to date to an ongoing effort to phase out
HSUS did recently back away from
the P&G boycott. On August 4, as PETA picketed
P&G president John Pepper’s home,
HSUS vice president for animal research issues
Martin J. Stephens acknowledged to Frederic J.
Frommer of Associated Press that, “P&G has
perhaps done more than any other corporation
to speed the development and acceptance of
non-animal testing methods.’’
But the bottom line of Frommer’s
report was that Stephens “said HSUS received a
small grant from P&G to provide alternatives to
students who don’t want to dissect lab animals.”
We are accordingly skeptical of HSUS motives.
The Spira prescription for success,
which Spira himself articulated in greater detail
on page 21 of our March 1997 edition, includes
nine rules of conduct, amounting to an admonition
to play hard but play fair:
• Try to understand public opinion.
Stay in touch with reality.
• Select vulnerable campaign targets.
• Set achieveable, meaningful goals.
• Verify claims.
• Don’t divide the world into saints
• Seek dialog. Position issues as
problems with realistic solutions.
• Maintain credibility. Don’t exaggerate
or hype the issue.
• Develop a realistic, practical,
doable campaign strategy.
• Be ready for confrontation via escalating
public awareness if your target proves
The Spira philosophy, he explained
and Singer emphasizes, is “to push for the most
rapid progress that can realistically be achieved.
Keep building on previous achievements. Aim
for initiatives that grow, proliferate, and
become self-sustaining. With each step forward,
you can look further ahead.”
Neither San Francisco SPCA president
Richard Avanzino nor Chicago Animal
Rights Coalition founder Steve Hindi has ever
met Spira, but Avanzino’s blueprint for achieving
no-kill dog and cat control and Hindi’s crusades
against pigeon shoots, canned hunts,
rodeo, and bullfighting have each evolved
through successful applications of the same
This is no surprise to Spira, who sees
them not as “Henry’s way,” the title of Peter
Singer’s 1997 documentary video on Spira’s
life, but rather as universals which every
activist should stumble upon eventually, if he
or she pays attention to outcomes and keeps
track of precedent.
A lifelong activist, who survived
Krystalnacht as a child in Nazi Germany, Spira
developed his precepts through three decades of
work on behalf of Jewish, left, labor, human
rights, and educational causes. Under the name
Henry Gitano, he had also become a daring and
distinguished investigative reporter. Between
1955 and 1966, as Singer recounts and Spira’s
1997 book Strategies For Activists d o c u m e n t s ,
Spira extensively exposed FBI violations of
civil rights, was perhaps the first U.S. reporter
to visit post-Castro Cuba, traveled wth the
Freedom Riders during their early 1960s Deep
South voter registration and desegregation campaigns,
and revealed corruption reinforced by
mayhem within the National Maritime Union.
In each instance Spira broke stories that other
reporters later and much more safely developed
into whole careers. Spira himself moved on,
becoming a New York City high school teacher
noted for his energetic and innovative approach
to getting inner city youth interested in their
own education, and taking the night course
from Singer in 1973 that led him first into work
on behalf of laboratory animals, then to his
post-1984 focus on farm animals.
As Singer records, Spira has throughout
his life steadily broadened his “circle of
compassion” to reflect his own ever widening
perception of the “universe of suffering,” which
he has committed himself to making smaller.
He is still working for the same essential
cause––compassion and decency––that he took
up in 1943, when at age 16 he made his activist
debut. What has changed is that he has traced
the origins of oppression and cruelty back from
the Holocaust to the human subjugation of other
animals for consumption as meat, and has
begun to attack the disease at the source.