Editorial: The late Tom Lantos: a Wilburforce for our time

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2008:


Outspokenly critical of the policies of U.S. President George
W. Bush, the late House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Tom Lantos
was nonetheless praised by Bush after his February 11, 2008 death
from esophageal cancer as “a man of character and a champion of human
rights. As the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress,” Bush
added, “Tom was a living reminder that we must never turn a blind
eye to the suffering of the innocent at the hands of evil men.”
Bush, like most other Washington D.C. eulogists and
obituarists for national news media, omitted that the “suffering of
the innocent” of deep concern to Lantos included the suffering of
animals, and that Lantos championed animal rights as well as human
rights for most of the 27 years he served in the House of

Born on February 1, 1928 to Jewish parents in Budapest,
Hungary, Lantos was 16 when the Nazis occupied the city in 1944.
He fought with the underground, was captured, escaped from a forced
labor camp but was recaptured and severely beaten, and promptly
escaped again. Lantos’ second escape attempt brought him under the
protection of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who used his
authority to issue visas to help thousands of Hungarian Jews to
escape abroad, but disappeared soon after World War II and is
believed to have died in Russian custody.
Lantos emigrated to the U.S. in 1947, on a scholarship to
attend the University of Washington in Seattle. His childhood
sweetheart Annette and her mother had escaped from Hungary to
Portugal, with a Portuguese passport produced with Wallenberg’s
help. Lantos married Annette in 1950, brought her to the U.S., and
for 30 years raised a family with her and taught economics at San
Francisco State University.
Human rights activism inspired Lantos, a Democrat, to seek
election to Congress in 1980. His first legislation was a bill to
make Wallenberg an honorary U.S. citizen, if Wallenberg had somehow
survived, in the hope that the citizenship designation might shake
loose information about what had become of him.
Lantos founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1983,
at the beginning of his second of 14 terms. Annette Lantos two years
later founded the Committee of 21, which won the release of 21
prisoners of conscience from the Soviet Union.
Neither Lantos was to that point deeply involved in animal
advocacy, but when Annette learned that dogs were cruelly captured
and killed for human consumption in the Philippines, she took the
opportunity to raise the matter to then-Philippine rulers Ferdinand
and Imelda Marcos. “They said they were working to bring about laws
to prohibit these practices in Manila, but that it would be almost
impossible to control in the outlying districts,” Annette recalled
in 1991 to Animals’ Agenda writer Phil Maggiti. “Starting with that
little success, I became very committed to doing whatever I could to
alleviate the plight of animals.
“I had long realized that animals are not always treated
properly,” Annette Lantos continued, “but with that realization
came an effort to protect myself from the painful reality of animal
Tom Lantos sponsored the House version of a bill to ban
leghold trapping in the 99th Congress, began often co-sponsoring
pro-animal legislation, and in 1986 first tried to organize the
Congressional Friends of Animals caucus. It finally came together
with the help of Christopher Shays (R-Connecticut) in 1991.
“When we came to Washington D.C. in 1981, some of our best
friends in Congress would bark or meow when anyone brought up the
subject of animal rights,” Lantos told Maggiti. “But they’re not
barking or meowing now. This is a serious issue, one that people
are beginning to perceive as lying at the very roots of the kind of
world we are creating.”
Tom Lantos had earned 100% on every Humane Society of the
U.S. Humane Scorecard since the publication started in 1993.
Though increasingly well respected in Congress, Lantos had
relatively little seniority during his first six terms, and was then
part of the minority party after the Republicans took control of the
House in 1994.
Frustrated in most attempts to introduce pro-animal
legislation during the 1990s, Tom and Annette Lantos helped to
restore the prestige of the Washington Humane Society in 1996,
after WHS received much bad publicity during a troubled 1995, by
allowing their bichon frise mix Gigi to serve as “honorary chairdog”
of the WHS “Bark Ball.”
Two years later, Lantos’ senior aide Geraldine O’Connor
filed a lawsuit that helped to bring about reform and eventual
administrative stability at the Peninsula Humane Society.
In both situations Lantos showed that he understood the
importance of encouraging progressive trends in humane work, and was
unafraid to risk his political reputation by standing alongside
people he believed were trying to take their organizations in the
right direction.
Lantos again showed his awareness of basic humane issues when
in October 2004 he opened an exhibit promoting animal adoptions at
the San Mateo County History Museum. His appearance ensured that the
event received news coverage and was treated as important.
Meanwhile, Lantos had learned how to get things done with
quiet words to the right people, as in October 1998, when he
prevailed upon then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to order a
30-day moratorium on implementing a USDA Wildlife Services plan to
trap and kill feral cats, skunks, raccoons, and foxes who were
accused of killing endangered shorebirds in the Redwood Shores area
of Redwood City.
This scarcely ended the issue, but helped to generate the
dialog among partisans of the birds and the cats that in 2004
occasioned the formation of Project Bay Cat. Organized by Homeless
Cat Network “cat manager” Cimeron Morrissey, Sequoia Audubon
Society conservation committee chair Robin Winslow Smith, and Foster
City management analyst Andra Lorenz, Project Bay Cat sterilized 77%
of the cats living along the ecologically sensitive Bay Trail within
a year, reduced the cat population near the trail by 35%, and
became a nationally acclaimed model for cooperation among birders and
cat defenders.
Lantos also used quiet words as “an advisory board member of
Concern for Helping Animals in Israel for over two decades, along
with his wife Annette,” recalled CHAI founder Nina Natelson. “When
CHAI sought to send an animal ambulance to a shelter in Israel, the
finance ministry demanded taxes and customs duties equaling the price
of the vehicle. When appeals to officials and demonstrations went
unheard, Tom Lantos sent a letter to every member of the Knesset,”
the Israeli parliament, “and at last the ambulance was allowed in
duty and tax free.”
In another incident, Natelson remembered, “Although one
city planner set aside land for an animal shelter, the mayor would
not allow the land to be used for that purpose.” Annette Lantos
intervened, and “That afternoon, a delegation from the Mayor’s
office appeared on the shelter’s doorstep to let them know they could
start building.
“When CHAI sought to sponsor a conference on the link between
violence toward people and toward animals, and the importance of
humane education in reducing violence,” Natelson added, “Tom Lantos
contacted the Minister of Education on our behalf. The Ministry
agreed to co-sponsor the conference with us, and sent out a letter
and a poster about the event to school principals, encouraging them
to send educators to it, and offering credit to teachers who
attended, which translated into a salary increase for them. The
well-attended event received much media coverage and resulted in the
Knesset Education Committee deciding that humane education must be
introduced into the school system.”

Recognizing “The Link”

Recognizing the importance of educating fellow members of
Congress as well as the public about the sociological significance of
cruelty toward animals, Lantos and 20 other Representatives on May
25, 2000 introduced House Concurrent Resolution 338, urging
“greater attention to identifying and treating individuals who are
guilty of violence against animals, because of the link between
abuse of animals and violence against humans.”
The resolution also asked federal agencies “to further
investigate the link between cruelty toward animals and violence
against humans.”
Though not carrying actual legislative weight, House
Concurrent Resolution 338 may have marked a political turning point.
Since then, Congressional actions harmful to animals have chiefly
advanced by stealth. Pro-animal legislation has won increasingly
prompt and prominent support, on topics including cockfighting and
horse slaughter, which formerly were staunchly defended by senior
members of key committees.
Also in 2000, Lantos made his first attempt to pass the the
Captive Wildlife Safety Act, to regulate interstate commerce in
exotic and dangerous cats. Promoted by actress and Shambala Preserve
sanctuary operator Tippi Hedren, the Captive Wildlife Safety Act
became law in December 2003.
Nine months into 2005, Lantos’ major pro-animal achievement
for the year appeared to have been blocking repeated attempts by
then-House Resources Committee chair Richard Pombo to open the
Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge to public visits, at
possible risk to one of the largest seabird breeding colonies on the
West Coast.
Three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, however, Lantos and
Congressional Friends of Animals co-chair Christopher Shays
introduced legislation, now in effect, to require the Federal
Emergency Management Agency to withhold grant funding from
communities that fail to develop pet evacuation and transport
standards. More regional and state animal disaster relief plans have
been developed in the two and a half years since than were produced
in all the preceding years since then-Humane Society of Missouri
chief executive Eric Hansen began trying to advance animal disaster
relief planning in February 1937.
Lantos in 2007 was among three members of Congress who wrote
to National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell urging league
action against the involvement of players in dogfighting, soon after
the arrest of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick on
dogfighting-related charges. Lantos and Representative Chris Smith
(R-New Jersey) also wrote to Chinese ambassador Zhou Wenzhong,
urging China to accept offers of help from the Humane Society of the
U.S. and other organizations to help introduce kinder and more
effective methods of animal control. ‘The focus of any new policy
should be on rabies vaccination, pet neutering, and pet guardian
education, not a historically ineffective limitaton on the number of
dogs per household,” Lantos and Smith recommended.
Lantos’ last piece of pro-animal legislation was a July 30,
2007 resolution against the annual Atlantic Canadian seal hunt,
co-authored by Shays and unanimously passed by the House of
Representatives. “This deeply inhumane practice is far beneath the
dignity of the people of Canada,” said Lantos. “There is no real
good reason to let this needless slaughter continue, and every
reason to put it to a stop. We call on the Canadian government to
suspend the hunt in the waters off the east coast of Canada now and
“At every turn,” recalled Humane Society of the U.S. senior
vice president for legislation Mike Markarian, “Tom Lantos insisted
that animal protection was not only a just cause but urgent. Lantos
will posthumously receive the Joseph Wood Krutch Medal, the highest
honor awarded by HSUS. Annette and Gigi undoubtedly will share that
In terms of background and influence on animal advocacy,
Lantos might be mentioned with fellow Holocaust survivor Alex
Hershaft, who founded the Farm Animal Reform Movement and encouraged
the formation of many other leading organizations in the early 1980s,
and with Henry Spira, who survived Krystalnacht in 1938. Lantos
likewise came to animal advocacy through human rights activism.
But another apt comparison might be with a politician of a
far distant time and place whose concern was also for all who
suffered: William Wilberforce, the 19th century British lawmaker
who was instrumental in abolishing slavery and passing the first
British humane law, and was remembered in the 2007 film Amazing
Lantos was a fabulous model of how people should care about
animal rights as well as human rights, and of how people who have
been persecuted themselves may become more sensitive to the plight of
others, including animals.

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.