Editorial: Henry and the No-Kill Conference
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1998:
The late Henry Spira was invited to attend the recent No-Kill Conference in
Concord, California, but failing health forced him to decline.
Spira died at home in New York as the conference was in progress, having accomplished
more for animals caught up in farming and scientific research than anyone, perhaps,
since Mahavira and the Buddha. No one ever drove more successful bargains to spare animals––by
the million––from misery. Neither has anyone else in the animal protection cause
ever put more effort into teaching others the method Spira developed of systematically bringing
about change through what he called “stepwise incremental action.”
Though devoted to his cats, Spira didn’t work much on companion animal issues.
Others, Spira knew, were effectively addressing those, including Richard Avanzino of the
San Francisco SPCA and Michael Mountain of the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.
But Avanzino has often credited Spira with helping to inspire his own approach to
negotiating progress, always hearing out his opponents, giving them room to save face, dickering
over specifics without sacrificing principles, and always keeping a deal. Mountain too
has acknowledged Spira as an inspiration.
Spira wanted to attend the No-Kill Conference partly to applaud the growing success
of those postulating the no-kill alternatives to dog and cat population control killing, and partly
to continue teaching. He’d have emphasized the latter.
Many participants could have used the lesson.
Back in 1995, the first No-Kill Conference brought together just 75 advocates of
low-cost neutering, high-volume adoption, and humane care-for-life of unadoptable animals,
amid an atmosphere of skepticism. The SF/SPCA had just completed one year of the
Adoption Pact, guaranteeing placement of all healthy animals who arrived at the city
Department of Animal Care and Control, just across the street. No other U.S. city had anything
similar in place. Most people in the animal care-and-control field still seemed unaware
that a decade of vigorous expansion of affordable neutering programs had already cut population
control killing by about two-thirds.
Then, the No-Kill Conference was about marginalized groups discovering the
strength and mutual applicability of the many ideas they had pioneered, mostly alone.
Only three years later, the conference has expanded into a full-blown movement,
frequently featured on the front pages of nationally circulated mainstream newspapers, with
subconferences and workshops, and nearly 400 participants. The have-tools-will-travel, cando
atmosphere of the early conferences shows signs of degenerating into giddy self-congratulation.
Yet much of the essential work remains to be done.
At least a million more dogs and cats per year must be neutered to bring births down
to the replacement level. Only then can no-kill truly become a national reality. Until then, it
is a goal, and a goal which will remain illusory if the emphasis shifts.
Successful adoption placement, a prominent concern of most shelters and rescue
groups, no-kill or not, is important––but it isn’t part of solving the basic problem. Improving
shelter facilities is also important. Yet as American Humane Association representative Nick
Gilman pointed out, the best shelter ever built won’t bring about no-kill if a community isn’t
fixing enough animals in the right places to keep the population in balance.
Euphoric failure to stay focused on the work ahead was only one of the danger signs
that Spira might have noted and perhaps caustically pointed out.
The other was forgetting that no-kill practitioners have developed effective tactics
against pet overpopulation as a frontal challenge to a frequently defensive and sometimes
aggressively hostile animal care-and-control establishment, many of whose leaders have only
just begun to grudgingly recognize the efficacy of low-cost neutering, high-volume adoption,
neuter/return-to-habitat of feral cats, quality care-for-life, fostering, breed rescue, and various
other tactics that they not long ago tended to ardently oppose.
No-kill organizations and individual rescuers together led the way in reversing 100
years of ever-increasing population control killing by daring to be different, to be critical,
and to articulate radical alternatives to the status quo.
It is essential, praiseworthy, and only decent that no-kill proponents now share tactics,
know-how, and even a bit of glory with more traditional organizations which seek to
emulate success. But it isn’t yet time to declare victory. For every neutering program, adoption
program, and sanctuary, there remain half a dozen conventional shelters, competing for
donations and––especially if doing public animal control work––often obliged to kill animals
in volume. Until birth rates fall farther, they have no choice. Many directors of such shelters
remain committed to defending the old ways, for reasons mixing economics and ego.
Equally of concern, for every successful no-kill organization there are several local
animal “collectors,” pretending to be rescuers and hiding behind no-kill rhetoric, to the detriment
and defamation of serious no-kill proponents, and the disgust of the traditional animal
care-and-control people who usually end up having to handle the mess.
Finally, there are major organizations trying to jump on the bandwagon without having
pushed first, like the Ark Trust, which in September defamed every conventional shelter
with an appeal asserting that “hundreds of times every day…thousands of dogs and cats are ‘put
to sleep’ in shelters, despite the fact that many had been reserved to be adopted after the
required holding period.”
For that claim to hold up, shelters would have to be killing 73,000 animals a
year––15% of the current national toll––by accident. From 1995 to the present, we have
record of exactly 24 such cases actually occuring.
The proposed Ark Trust contribution to achieving no-kill is that for $25 it will send
five paper identification tags for animals to a shelter. The tags cost pennies to print and mail,
and every shelter ANIMAL PEOPLE has ever visited, including in the Third World, already
uses tags and cage-cards of far better quality.
This sort of thing cannot and must not be tolerated if a national transition to no-kill
animal control is to succeed.
Building in a stepwise, incremental manner on recent progress requires clearly articulating
not only the goal but also the ways and means of getting there. That requires, in turn,
clearly defining what no-kill organizations and programs are, and are not.
He always liked a doorway
Had Henry Spira attended the No-Kill Conference, cynically slouching in a doorway
at the back of the hall, plenary speakers Michael Mountain and Richard Avanzino of the San
Francisco SPCA might have reworded their paens to cooperation, mutual respect, and working
together, which came across to much of the audience as the platitudinous appeals for
“movement unity” that have reduced the once vigorous animal rights movement to a mere
smokescreen for direct mail plunder of the naive and sensitive, at expense of animal suffering.
Both Mountain and Avanzino privately explained to ANIMAL PEOPLE that they
did not mean anyone should cease articulating divergent views, or cease calling malefactors to
account. Both, especially Avanzino, emphasized directly to us that they have in mind only
that disagreements should be handled in an open, honest, ethical manner, with the emphasis
on issue-oriented dialectic and direct communication. Avanzino in particular urged that animal
activists should strive to be more like Henry Spira.
Let it be clearly remembered that Henry Spira put integrity and principle above all
else. For Spira, honest conduct was an essential part of humane conduct.
Spira was noted for his ability to pull together ad hoc coalitions of as many as 400
animal protection groups of various kinds, virtually on the spur of the moment.
Yet Spira was equally distinguished for his ability to work virtually alone, with minimal
resources, at times even in direct opposition to most of the animal rights movement,
whose rise he more than anyone else brought about––which rewarded his leadership by making
him a pariah, unwelcome at many gatherings, rarely credited for achievements the direct mail
hustlers nonetheless shamelessly usurped any time it suited their purpose.
As an animal rights advocate, Spira began in 1974 with the recognition that as he
later told biographer and longtime close friend Peter Singer, “It didn’t make any sense, to me,
to put out a publication to tell people about atrocities,” as the national anti-vivisection societies
had already done for 100 years before he ever got involved, “and ask them to send
money, so we can tell you next month about more atrocities. Meanwhile,” Spira continued,
“the atrocities keep increasing, the treasuries of the anti-vivisection groups keep increasing,
and it doesn’t help one solitary animal. It just defies common sense…What’s the point in giving
people an ulcer, getting people upset, getting them frustrated, and telling them, what
we’re going to do is frustrate you next month?”
Spira developed alternatives to the way the national organizations did things, and
still do. Eventually, after Spira shut down cruel experiments on cats at the American Museum
of Natural History, persuaded Avon and Revlon to give up animal testing, and got Procter &
Gamble to commit nearly $70 million to date to develop and use alternatives to animal testing,
some of the national organizations jumped on his bandwagon.
When they did, Spira welcomed their support. But he continued to indict the perfidy
of those who go on boycotting Procter & Gamble as a convenient high-profile target, while
ignoring seven competing corporations of comparable size which all use far more animals and
have made little or no effort to replace animal testing.
He continued to make no secret of his contempt for the moral and ethical weakness
of animal protection executives who amassed personal wealth by exploiting animals’ misery.
Never did Spira condone corruption or misconduct, even when politely refraining
from naming names in the Singer documentary video Henry: One Man’s Way, because––as
he explained to us––merely indicting and getting rid of one pack of thieves would not change
the status quo until the public demands higher standards of nonprofit executives.
From 1984 on, after securing the Procter & Gamble commitment, Spira devoted
most of his time and energy to calling the attention of both the public and the animal protection
cause to the long neglected farm animals who, as he put it, constitute more than 99% of the
total universe of suffering, yet had previously received scant humane help.
Spira’s demand that the animal protection movement should move beyond attacking
vivisection, fur-wearing, and other familiar targets was not well-received by most of the
major organizations. Anti-vivisection and anti-fur campaigns are supported by even conservatives
among the animal protection donor base. Attacking the standard American diet
meant––and still means––taking a significant risk. As always, Spira’s advice to the cause was
initally rejected as radical and divisive. But he persisted.
As Spira points out on page four, in the ANIMAL PEOPLE guest column which
may be the last item he ever wrote for publication, the younger half of the activist contingent
are now agreed that the treatment of farm animals should get top priority, and that the only
ethical response to agricultural cruelty is to just stop eating animals.
Henry Spira’s legacy to animal protection included both a hearty welcome to team
players, whatever side they were nominally on, and a healthy contempt for “movement unity”
at any point that it might conflict with either ethics or creative originality.
Spira made plain to us where he stood when we were ostracized by much of the animal
rights establishment, losing ads and grant support for fingering perfidy and mismanagement.
Quietly doubling his ad commitment, he used the space to ask provocative questions.
Henry is no longer slouching in a doorway, but any patch of light illuminating an
open debate could easily be his reflection.