From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2003:
Virginia Gillas, 82, died on October 5 in Hermitage,
Missouri, after an 8-year battle with lung cancer. Born in Orange,
New Jersey, raised in Kansas City, Gillas was daughter of Catherine
Basett Cornwell, R.N., longtime president of the Dade County Branch
of the Florida League for Humane Progress.
Gillas herself began helping animals at about age 12, she
told ANIMAL PEOPLE in 1995, recalling that she first saw animal
hoarding about five years later, when she met a girl her own age who
had accumulated an impossible number of cats.
Gillas showed sufficient talent at ballet that in 1940 her
mother relocated to San Francisco to enable her to perform
professionally. Gillas danced primarily in the Spanish classical
style until the early 1950s, appearing in London and Paris as well
as throughout the U.S., also developing skill as a watercolorist.
A stenographer after her dancing career, Gillas may have
been among the first employees of the Humane Society of the U.S.,
formed in 1954, then worked for the National Audubon Society in New
York City, where in 1959 she founded International Defenders of
Animals. Relocating to Hialeah, Florida, in 1961, after a brief
marriage and divorce, Gillas merged her group into the Florida
League for Humane Progress and rented a dog breeding kennel and
grooming facility that she converted into an animal shelter.
A vegetarian representative at the first HSUS national
conference in 1963, Gillas a year later separated International
Defenders of Animals from the Florida League for Humane Progress and
by 1970 had expanded International Defenders to include 11
volunteer-staffed branch offices. Her essays against bullfighting,
vivisection, pet overpopulation, and coonhunting appeared in the
National Humanitarian and Voice of the Voiceless magazines, the
leading humane news media of the era.
International Defenders declined, however, when after the
1983 death of Gillas’ mother she accepted a position at a dog shelter
operated by Maryland Antivivisection Society president William A.
Snyder, who died in 1990. “I lived for four months, from February
1984 to May 1984 when I made my escape, in utter fear and misery,”
Gillas wrote to ANIMAL PEOPLE in almost identical words in 1996,
1998, and 2002. “There was no plumbing, no water,” and the other
resident staff “hated my whole being. Twice faulty wiring caused bad
fires in the quarters where my animals were and close to my room.”
Penniless, Gillas fled to Morgan Hill, California,
directing International Defenders from a San Martin post office box
as a one-person project until 1991 while housecleaning for a living.
After conflicts with other local animal rescuers, and with the
Humane Society of the Santa Clara Valley over their policy of killing
fighting cocks seized in police raids, Gillas bought a small house
in Hermitage, Missouri, and in 1995 formed the Humane Society of
Hickory County with Tom and Pat Nielson. Gillas left the group in
1996, believing that the Nielsons were incapable of running it
properly and feeling too weak from the onset of her terminal cancer
to adequately assist. Evicted from the rented humane society
premises in April 1997, the Nielsons allegedly left four dogs behind.
Gillas continued to do what she could for animals until her
death, chiefly as a prolific letter-writer, mostly to Hermitage
residents who kept their dogs chained outdoors. Her last message to
ANIMAL PEOPLE, days before she died, lamented that five years of
writing and the offer of $500 had not been enough to persuade one
neighbor to build a fence instead of chaining a dog named Frankie.
“As a teenager, Virginia dreamed of becoming rich and having
many material possessions,” wrote longtime acquaintance Anne Muller
of Wildlife Watch, “but she quickly grew out of that as she put
animals first. She never looked back nor regretted the many times
when she had to pawn valuables to buy food for all the unwanted,
abandoned animals in distress.”
Margaret “Mardy” Murie, 101, died on October 19 at her
ranch in Moose, Wyoming. Born in Seattle, raised in Fairbanks,
she was the first woman to earn a degree from the University of
Alaska, where she met her late husband, biologist Olaus Murie.
Considered instrumental in securing the creation of Grand Teton
National Park in 1929, in 1959 they persuaded U.S. President Dwight
D. Eisenhower to designate the 8-million-acre forerunner to the
19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which was renamed
and expanded in 1980. They were also credited with the leading role
in winning the 1964 passage of the Wilderness Act.
Ben Metcalfe, 83, died of a heart attack on October 14 at
home in British Columbia. Born in Winnipeg, Metcalfe at age 16
joined the Royal Air Force. Sent to India to help defend British
rule, Metcalfe and his pilot were influenced by Mohandas Gandhi to
drop their bombs on bare fields instead of on village targets. He
fought in earnest, however, against the Nazis in North Africa.
Chiefly a journalist after the war, Metcalfe in 1969 led the Don’t
Make A Wave Committee in protest against proposed nuclear testing in
the Aleutians, which threatened several bird sanctuaries, and
briefly chaired the group after it reorganized in 1970 as Greenpeace.
Vasilina Alpaun, 25, the last resident of Ushakovskoye
village on Vrangel Island off the northern Chukotka peninsula of
Siberia, was on October 15 killed on her doorstep by a polar bear.
Ushakovskoye was evacuated in 1997, when Vrangel was made a polar
bear reserve, but Alpaun decided she preferred the company of polar
bears to that of people and returned to her former home. Reserve
workers heard her scream when the bear attacked, but arrived too
late to save her.
O. Jeune Gibson, 69, of Spana-way, Washington, died
during heart surgery on October 26 in nearby Tacoma. Among the first
subscribers to ANIMAL PEOPLE, Gibson started a private cat shelter
after retiring from teaching and counseling at Pierce Community
College in 1996, and in 1998 founded the local cat rescue group
Purrrsons United for the Rescue, Rehabilitation, and Relocation of
Bryan Richards, 39, of Peabody, Massachusetts, reportedly
drowned on October 18 after saving his 8-month-old Labrador retriever
from a whirlpool beneath the Franconia Falls near Lincoln, New
Hampshire. His wife saw him go under, but a four-day search failed
to find his remains.