Who will inherit the animal rights movement?
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2006:
Shouting through a bullhorn on the steps of the American
Museum of Natural History in New York City throughout the summer of
1976, competing for attention with the U.S. Bicentennial celebration
and the near-bankruptcy of New York itself, the late Henry Spira
embarrassed the American Museum of Natural History into cancelling a
series of cruel sexuality experiments on brain-damaged cats. Never
before had anti-vivisection activists stopped research that was
already funded and underway.
Inspired by philosopher Peter Singer, who wrote much of his
1974 opus Animal Liberation as Spira’s house guest, Spira had
already researched the 3,000-year recorded history of animal
advocacy. Spira found that he could not identify any specific time,
place, or issue that marked a definitive defeat for the cause of
animals in the court of U.S. public opinion. Spira could not find
record of any elected leader speaking in favor of animal suffering,
as opposed to abstract and sanitized defenses of hunting, trapping,
animal agriculture, and animal research that almost always included
paens to sportsmanship, good husbandry, and not “sacrificing”
Spira felt perplexed and frustrated that animal advocates had
not achieved more after the 1966 passage of the Laboratory Animal
Welfare Act and the 1971 expansion of the act into the much broader
ranging Animal Welfare Act of today. The time had come, he
believed, for animal advocates to seize the moment, press their
issues, and not let up.
Spira’s American Museum of Natural History campaign is
remembered as the beginning of the animal rights movement. But
Spira’s own organization, Animal Rights International, supplied
impetus rather than institutional direction. Early institutional
support came from groups founded somewhat earlier, all then still
under the direction of their founders, all quick to recognize the
value of establishing a young, new, and different identity from the
mainstream humane cause.
The National Catholic Animal Welfare Society in 1977 became
the International Society for Animal Rights. Other “charter members”
of the animal rights movement included the Fund for Animals, Friends
of Animals, United Action for Animals, the Animal Protection
Institute, and the Animal Welfare Institute, whose often updated
1968 volume Animals & Their Legal Rights discussed “animal rights” in
practical terms well before anyone tried to philosophically separate
“animal rights” from “animal welfare.”
The International Fund for Animal Welfare, American SPCA,
Humane Society of the U.S., and American Humane Association were
keenly interested observers. Each took advantage of animal rights
movement support, yet maintained a discreet distance from positions
and postures that they thought might offend Middle American donors.
Five years later, a 1981 conference organized by Farm Animal
Reform Movement founder Alex Hershaft either imminently preceded,
inspired, or otherwise commemorated the debuts of PETA,
Trans-Species Unlimited, Mobilization for Animals, and the Animals’
Agenda magazine. Most other organizations now associated with “animal
rights” started in the next five years. After 1986 the take-off
phase of the cause had effectively ended. The no-kill movement would
rise in the mid-1990s, and farm animal advocacy at the start of the
21st century, but those causes would be built by much more
specifically focused organizations.
In large part the animal rights movement rose as a cause of
generalists, responding to an ideological narrowing among
traditional humane societies during the preceding generation, as
many were reduced by economically stabilizing but politically
inhibiting animal control contracts to doing little more than killing
homeless dogs and cats.
The animal rights movement tended toward preoccupation with
laboratory issues, partly because labs mostly exist on the college
campuses where young causes draw much of their support. But
opposition to wearing fur, sport hunting, and the meat industry
were also ubiquitous themes.
Kim Bartlett, editor of Animals’ Agenda 1986-1992, and
Merritt Clifton, Animals’ Agenda news editor 1988-1992, began
publishing ANIMAL PEOPLE in October 1992. A national economic
recession and excessive diversion of funding into the 1990 “March for
the Animals” in Washington D.C. had forced some winnowing and
consolidation of animal rights groups. Several prominent early-phase
groups had already collapsed. Some of the groups that would lead the
no-kill movement had formed, but had not yet won national
Twenty-six leaders listed in our December 1992 “Who gets the
money?” feature headed groups that were either closely identified
with the rise of the animal rights movement or-like IFAW, the ASPCA,
HSUS, and AHA-had enjoyed institutional growth that could be
attributed to it. Seven of those 26 leaders are now deceased, four
are retired, one was fired, one dropped out of the cause, 12 still
head the same organizations, and one now heads an organization that
split off from her former affiliation.
Of the 12 people who still head the same organizations, 11
were founders or cofounders. None came to their present positions
Approximately half of the general animal advocacy and
anti-vivisection group leadership in the U.S. have been on the job 20
years or longer. None of the 20-year leaders are under age 50. Most
of the rest are between 40 and 50–whereas, heads of major
dog-and-cat charities currently range from mid-thirties up, and
heads of leading farm animal advocacy and vegan or vegetarian groups
range from early twenties up.
Fifty-plus is not necessarily old for an animal advocate.
Henry Spira was 49 when he picked up his bullhorn. The late
Cleveland Amory founded the Fund for Animals at 49, and supplied
inspirational leadership for 30 years. The late Christine Stevens
founded the Animal Welfare Institute at age 33 and remained on the
job until just before her death at 84.
However, the 27% mortality rate among the national animal
advocacy group leaders of 1992 suggests that significant transitions
are just ahead. Some of the 50-something animal advocacy group
leaders of today will undoubtedly still be in their present posts 15
years from now, and do not plan to leave except feet first, but
others are prudently seeking successors.
The institutional perils of succession are well-known and
many. One is that the personality who makes a good second-in-command
does not always have the vision and charisma to lead. Another is
that successors in waiting can become tired of waiting, and either
jump to other organizations or attempt to back-stab the person whose
position they hope to fill.
Activist organizations, across the spectrum of causes,
frequently collapse or become ineffective because the personal traits
that make a successful campaigner rarely coincide with the traits
that are needed to manage a staff and a budget.
Many of the most inspired and effective individual
campaigners, like Spira, never build large organizations, or even
try, because they prefer to work alone. Conversely, some of the
most capable organization builders rarely initiate campaigns, or win
them, though they might be quick to grab credit with well-timed
Within the animal cause, hands-on humane societies usually
achieve transitions of leadership relatively successfully. There are
some spectacular failures, and instances of revolving-door
leadership, typically resulting from micro-management by boards of
directors, but there is an established path to the top. Shelter
managers work their way up from floor staff; executive directors
usually start as humane educators, publicists, or fundraisers.
Executives at smaller organizations typically advance by moving to
Because hands-on humane work includes thousands of
organizations, there is a large pool of experienced staff among whom
leadership talent may be identified. Executive directors may be
recruited from outside the field, as many of the most innovative
were, but they tend to be recruited for specific skills, and to be
supported by experienced shelter managers.
Advocacy group leadership is quite a different matter. Most
animal advocates are not employed in the cause. Most people who are
employed in advocacy causes are not animal advocates. There are
relatively few animal advocacy groups with a payroll, and there is
relatively little opportunity for career-building by moving from
group to group. What opportunity exists tends to be in moving from
the more confrontational breaking-edge organizations to those that
try to represent the pro-animal perspectives of Middle
America-notably, HSUS, the ASPCA, and American Humane.
HSUS collects legacy
As the animal rights movement has grown, evolved, and
matured, many once radical ideas have become sufficiently well
accepted by the mainstream that many former animal rights radicals
are now comfortably employed by HSUS in particular.
Positioning itself as the alleged “reasonable alternative” to
the animal rights movement under former presidents John Hoyt and Paul
Irwin, HSUS today is headed by Wayne Pacelle, who more-or-less grew
up in the animal rights movement at Animals’ Agenda and the Fund for
Animals. One might argue that one of the most significant legacies
of the animal rights movement is that Pacelle has been able to bring
aboard younger leaders such as Coalition Against the Fur Trade
founder J.P. Goodwin and Compassion Over Killing founders Myun Park
and Paul Shapiro, while increasing public support. Just as Spira
argued 30 years ago, the American public will respond positively to
animal advocacy leaders who take forthright stands, especially on
uncomplicated issues involving obvious animal suffering.
The typical awkwardness of advocacy group leadership
transitions can be overcome. Pacelle is the sixth HSUS president
since 1954. His two immediate predecessors had overlapping tenures
of more than 25 years apiece as president and vice president.
Of the first organizations to associate themselves with the
animal rights movement, the Animal Protection Institute has retained
donor support through three leadership transitions. Friends of
Animals and the Animal Welfare Institute have each changed leadership
Conversely, Trans-Species Unlimited, the International
Society for Animal Rights, United Action for Animals, and Animal
Rights International variously lost identity and donor support
through relocations and name changes, or through passing to dormant
leadership. All still exist, but with just a fraction of the
influence that they enjoyed at peak.
The Fund for Animals took a different approach to succession,
merging into the Humane Society of the U.S. after a transitionary
interlude between Amory’s death and the retirement of Marian Probst,
his longtime assistant and successor as board president.
In the long run, merger may be the most logical solution to
the succession problem for most of the remaining broad-spectrum
animal rights groups. The distinctions that the founders and present
leaders perceive among them are mostly not perceived by donors, who
typically confuse their campaigns and names in calls to ANIMAL
PEOPLE. The role of the broad-spectrum groups was to win mainstream
attention for animal issues and to provide many different portals of
entry for newcomers during the growth phase of the movement. Now
that the movement is an enduring theme in public discourse, the
ongoing cause of animals may be better represented by fewer but
larger organizations at the national advocacy level.
There will continue to be a niche and need for special-focus
charities such as Alley Cat Allies and the International Primate
Protection League, just as there is a niche and need for specialty
stores in the age of Walmart. But that raises a further succession
issue. Under new leadership, some of the present broad-spectrum
groups may evolve in the direction of emphasizing whatever they do
best, becoming specialists instead of generalists. This may be a
successful institutional survival strategy, but might not fulfill
the intent of donors in leaving estates to charities that discontinue
the programs that attracted the bequests.
On the other hand, continuing to try to be all things to all
donors may be the way to do the least for animals.
Spira warned in a 1976 guest column for a long defunct
newspaper called The Humane Family that the anti-vivisection movement
had become moribund by continuing to campaign for generations on the
topics that attracted their early support, accumulating estates by
harping on familiar themes, without educating donors about how the
issues were changing, opening new topics, or advancing new
strategies. He anticipated that the animal rights movement would
challenge the established anti-vivisection societies to start using
their assets or lose their support.
At least a dozen once well-endowed anti-vivisection societies
quietly vanished as the animal rights movement gained momentum.
Self-interested mismanagement typically killed them, just when they
could have become most successful, if the founders’ heirs had
combined their forebears’ motivation with the flexibility to
restructure, revitalize, and adapt.