Henry Spira in the 1970s with the cat, Savage, that triggered his interest in animal advocacy
19 June 1927|
|Died||September 12, 1998
|Cause of death||Esophageal cancer|
|Alma mater||Brooklyn College, New York|
|Occupation||Teacher, animal rights advocate|
|Organization||Animal Rights International|
|Parents||Maurice Spira and Margit Spitzer|
Working with Animal Rights International, a group he founded in 1974, Spira is particularly remembered for his successful campaign in 1976 against animal testing at the American Museum of Natural History, where cats were being experimented on for sex research, and for his full-page advertisement in 1980 in The New York Times that featured a rabbit with sticking plaster over the eyes, and the caption, "How many rabbits does Revlon blind for beauty's sake?"
Spira was born in Antwerp, Belgium to Maurice Spira and Margit Spitzer Spira. Maurice and his father had worked in the diamond trade; his mother's father, in Hungary, had risen to become chief rabbi of Hamburg. The family was comfortable financially; Henri had a nanny and was educated at a French-speaking lycée. When he was 10, his father went to Panama, and the rest of the family moved to Germany to live with Margit's family. Spira joined a Jewish youth group and began to learn Hebrew.
His father sent for them in 1938; he had opened a store selling cheap clothes and jewellery, mostly to sailors, and Germany was an increasingly unsafe place for Jews. Henry was sent to a Roman Catholic school run by nuns, where lessons were conducted in Spanish, until his father ran out of money and could no longer afford the fees. He spent the next year working in his father's store.
New York and Hashomer Hatzair
When he was thirteen, in December 1940, the family set sail for New York via Havana on the SS Copiapo. His father worked in the diamond industry there, and they rented an apartment on West 104th Street. Henry was sent to public school. He continued to study Hebrew – paying for lessons himself with vacation jobs – had his Bar Mitzvah ceremony, and wore a kippah.
In 1943, while at Stuyvesant High School, he became involved with Hashomer Hatzair, a left-wing, non-religious, Zionist group that helped to prepare young Jews to live on kibbutzim in Palestine. There were summer camps, where they were taught how to farm, lots of hiking, and lessons about the equality of men and women. Peter Singer writes that the anti-materialism and independence of mind that Spira learned from his time with Hashomer Hatzair – where he went by his Hebrew name, Noah – stayed with him for the rest of his life. He decided to leave home when he was sixteen, taking lodgings and an afternoon job in a machine shop, and attending school in the mornings.
He become a merchant seaman in 1945, but he was blacklisted as a security risk in March 1952, during the McCarthy era, because of his involvement in left-wing politics; his presence on an American merchant vessel was "inimical to the security of the U.S. government," he was told. He later told Peter Singer, "I just figured it was part of the game: Fight the system and they get even with you."
He was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving in Berlin in 1953-54. Peter Singer writes that Spira was also involved in the civil rights movement, and reported on Fidel Castro's rise to power in Cuba for The Militant, a left-wing newspaper. After two years in the Army, he worked at the General Motors factory in Linden, New Jersey on the assembly line. In 1958, he graduated as a mature student from Brooklyn College in New York, and in 1966 began teaching English literature in a New York high school, teaching students from the ghettos.
Spira told The New York Times that he first became interested in animal rights in 1973 while looking after Savage, a friend's cat: "I began to wonder about the appropriateness of cuddling one animal while sticking a knife and fork into another."
Around the same time, he read a column by Irwin Silber in The Guardian, a left-wing newspaper in New York (now closed) about an article on 5 April 1972 by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer in The New York Review of Books. Singer's article was a review of Animals, Men and Morals (1971) by three Oxford philosophers, John Harris and Roslind and Stanley Godlovitch. Singer declared the book a manifesto for "animal liberation," thereby coining the phrase.
Spira got hold of Singer's article and felt inspired: "Singer described a universe of more than 4 billion animals being killed each year in the USA alone. Their suffering is intense, widespread, expanding, systematic and socially sanctioned. And the victims are unable to organize in defence of their own interests. I felt that animal liberation was the logical extension of what my life was all about – identifying with the powerless and the vulnerable, the victims, dominated and oppressed."
In 1974, he founded Animal Rights International (ARI) in an effort to put pressure on companies that used animals. He is credited with the idea of "reintegrative shaming", which involves encouraging opponents to change by working with them – often privately – rather than by vilifying them in public. Sociologist Lyle Munro writes that Spira went to great lengths to avoid using publicity to shame companies, using it only as a last resort.
In 1976, he led the ARI's campaign against vivisection on cats that the American Museum of Natural History had been conducting for 20 years, intended to research the impact of certain types of mutilation on the sex lives of cats. The museum halted the research in 1977, and Spira's campaign was hailed as the first ever to succeed in stopping animal experiments.
Another well-known campaign targeted cosmetics giant Revlon's use of the Draize test, which involves dripping substances into animals' eyes, usually rabbits, to determine whether they are toxic. On 15 April 1980, Spira and the ARI took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, with the header, How many rabbits does Revlon blind for beauty's sake? Within a year, Revlon had donated $750,000 to a fund to investigate alternatives to animal testing, followed by substantial donations from Avon, Bristol Meyers, Estée Lauder, Max Factor, Chanel, and Mary Kay Cosmetics, donations that led to the creation of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing.
Other campaigns targeted the face branding of cattle, the poultry industry, and fast food giant KFC, with an ad that combined a KFC bucket and a toilet. Spira took a photograph of a primate who had been imprisoned for months in a Bethesda Naval Hospital chair to the Black Star Wire Service, which sent the picture around the world. It was shown to Indira Gandhi, India's PM, who cancelled monkey exports to the United States, because the photograph suggested the U.S. Navy was violating a treaty with India that forbade military research on animals.
Nevertheless, Spira was an advocate of gradual change, negotiating with McDonald's, for example, for better conditions in the slaughterhouses of its suppliers. He proved especially adept at leveraging the power of the larger animal welfare organizations, such as the Humane Society of the United States, to advance his campaigns.
- Feder, Barnaby J. (26 November 1989). "Pressuring Perdue", The New York Times.
- Feder, Barnaby J. (15 September 1998). "Henry Spira, 71, Animal Rights Crusader", The New York Times.
- Munro, Lyle (2002). The Animal Activism of Henry Spira (1927-1998), Society and Animals, Vol 10, Number 2, pp. 173–191(19).
- Singer, Peter (2000). Ethics into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.
- Spira, Henry (1985). "Fighting to win", in Peter Singer (ed.). In Defence of Animals. Blackwell.
- Spira, Henry and Singer, Peter (2006). "Ten Points for Activists," in Peter Singer (ed.). In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave. Blackwell, introductory note by Peter Singer, pp. 214-215.
- Animal Rights International. "Thirty three years of measurable change", accessed 15 June 2012.
- Francione, Gary (1995). Rain without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement. Temple University Press, chapter 3.
- Animal Rights International. In Memoriam.
- Henry Spira: The Vegan.com Interview