HENRY SPIRA, FOUNDER OF THE ANIMAL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1998:
Henry Spira, 71, died in his sleep
on September 12 from esophageal cancer,
after an uncomplaining three-year battle.
Encouraging Peter Singer to expand a 1973
essay on why animals should enjoy rights into
the book Animal Liberation, while taking a
night course from Singer, Spira virtually created
the animal rights movement by leading
his classmates in converting the ideas they had
discussed into political action.
Along the way, Spira learned that
more than 100 years of antivivisectionism
hadn’t ever stopped a cruel experiment. He
changed that with the 1976-1977 campaign
that persuaded the American Museum of
Natural history to end 18 years of sex experiments
on maimed and disfigured cats.
Out of that campaign came Animal
Rights International, which as New York
T i m e s writer Barnaby J. Feder remembered,
“rarely consisted of more than Mr. Spira himself
and a part-time aide,” working out of
Spira’s New York City apartment, on a budget
of less than the top executive salaries at most
national animal protection organizations.
In 1980 Spira convinced Avon and
Revlon to quit animal testing. Other cosmetics
firms followed. Aware that further progress
could come only when makers and regulators
of products with more stringent safety standards
were satisfied that non-animal tests were
better, Spira next approached Procter &
Gamble. In 1984, P&G agreed to phase out
animal testing as rapidly as possible, and
agreed to fund the development of alternatives.
P&G has since spent more than $65 million in
the effort, more than all other institutions
combined, and has cut its own use of animals
in half while tripling in size.
Except for monitoring fulfillment of
the P&G deal, and speaking out against the
ongoing boycott of P&G called later by organizations
which wanted a piece of the victory,
Spira thereafter focused on improving farm
animals’ lives and promoting vegetarianism.
Later achievements included pressuring
the USDA to abolish a requirement that
imported cattle be face-branded, and winning
an agreement from the McDonald’s restaurant
chain to require suppliers to meet basic standards
for animal welfare.
At his death, Spira was negotiating
stronger terms with McDonald’s and seeking a
similar agreement from Wendy’s International.
Spira addressed other issues as he
saw the opportunity. In September 1995 he
learned from an anonymous letter about an
invitation-only bird shoot that was soon to be
held to benefit Helen Keller International. He
spent a weekend designing protest ads for
newspapers, sent samples to the Helen Keller
executives, rushed one layout to A N I M A L
PEOPLE, and called 48 hours later to cancel
the ad because the shoot had been cancelled.
Aware his time was short, Spira in
late 1996 published Campaign Strategies For
Activists, a collection of papers documenting
how he got things done working alone where
big groups couldn’t make headway, and cooperated
with Peter Singer as Singer produced
two biographies of him, the 1997 video
Henry: One Man’s Way, and the book,
Ethics Into Action, issued in August.
All three––and a series of ANIMAL
PEOPLE guest columns, concluding on page
4 of this edition––were assembled to share
strategic wisdom accumulated during an
activist career that was distinguished and influential
even before Spira discovered animals.
Meeting Singer and inheriting a cat
someone left with him at about the same time
in 1973, Spira “began to wonder why we cuddle
some animals and put a fork in others,” he
often remembered. Putting down his fork one
night, he became an instant vegan.
Spira had always acted decisively
any time he saw a way to reduce what he
described as “the universe of suffering.”
Born in 1927, in Antwerp, Belgium,
and known as Noah throughout childhood,
Spira spent some time in England, but when
his father moved to Panama in 1937, Henry,
his sister, and their mother were sent to live
with relatives in Hamburg, Germany. Thus
Spira, who was Jewish, endured K r y s t a l –
nacht, the night of rioting in November 1938
that commenced the pogroms of World War II.
The family joined Spira’s father in Panama
soon afterward, then emigrated to New Jersey.
Spira’s first cause was seeking the
creation of a Jewish homeland. He studied
carpentry to help build Israel, but before he
could go there, his outlook broadened into a
more general concern with human rights. He
became a merchant seaman, lost his union
card in 1952 as an alleged leftist, and was
drafted. The U.S. Army sent him to Berlin,
assigned to “Troop Information and
Education,” i.e. indoctrinating soldiers in the
American way. That gave him the chance to
interview refugees from East Germany.
Spira drew a dishonorable discharge
in 1954 for purported “subversive and disloyal
activities,” later changed to an honorable discharge,
just as he developed serious doubts
about his early hopes for Soviet Communism.
Back in the U.S., Spira worked on
the General Motors assembly line in Linden,
New Jersey, then resumed sailing as a ship’s
electrician, participated in union activism in
both venues, and between voyages did freelance
investigative reporting for The Militant,
the newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party,
under the pseudonym Henry Gitano.
From June to December 1956, Spira
covered Martin Luther King’s 1956 anti-segregation
boycott of the bus system in
Montgomery, Alabama. He covered a similar
boycott in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1957, then
returned to New York to persuade unions,
especially the United Auto Workers, to support
In 1958-1959, Spira took on abuses
of civil liberties by the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover
in particular, at the height of Hoover’s clout.
The FBI tried hard to discredit Spira, but his
research and character withstood the test––
even after he traveled to Cuba late in 1959 to
report on the transformations underway after
the Communist takeover under Fidel Castro.
On April 1, 1961, two weeks before
the CIA-directed invasion of Cuba at the Bay
of Pigs, Spira exposed how the CIA was training
Cuban exiles to invade in Guatemala.
Many lives and much embarrassment for U.S.
president John F. Kennedy might have been
spared had the White House taken note that
Castro knew the attack was coming.
Spira caught up with Martin Luther
King again in 1963-1964, traveling with the
Freedom Riders to cover King’s Mississippi
voter registration campaign for T h e
Independent & The Californian.
From 1964 into 1966, Spira helped
lead a drive to reform the flagrantly corrupt
National Maritime Union as editor of a newspaper
for dissident sailors, The Call for Union
D e m o c r a c y. But a 1965 voyage to Guinea
aboard the hospital ship S.S. Hope i n s p i r e d
him to change careers again and become an
award-winning teacher of English and journalism
at Haaren High School in Spanish Harlem.
Spira taught from 1968 until 1982,
when he retired to focus on animal rights.