Virginia Handley, 68, was on March 20, 2014 found dead by a neighbor at her home in El Sobrante, California. Handley apparently died from natural causes.
A second-generation animal advocate, Virginia Handley and her mother Grace Handley cofounded the San Francisco-based Animal Switchboard information hotline in 1970, assisted by Elizabeth Keller, Action for Animals founder Eric Mills, and longtime Animal Welfare Association volunteer Gloria Chavarria. Together they shared advice about animal-related problems and referred callers to appropriate veterinary and humane services. Grace Handley, though handicapped for most of her life by having contracted polio, continued to direct Animal Switchboard until shortly before her death in 1990, at age 74.
Succeeding her, Chavarria continued Animal Switchboard until 2005, when Virginia Handley took over after 33 years as California coordinator and lobbyist for the Fund for Animals, beginning in 1972. Among the first employees hired by Fund founder Cleveland Amory, Virginia Handley remained with the Fund until it merged with the Humane Society of the U.S. in January 2005, six years after Amory’s death. She then served for seven months as California lobbyist for HSUS before returning to Animal Switchboard fulltime.
Virginia Handley and Norman Seaton, Ph.D., were married for 39 years, beginning in 1970, two years after Seaton cofounded the San Francisco Vegetarian Society. Seaton, 87, died in March 2009. Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Seaton became a vegan at age 12. As a laser researcher at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, Seaton refused to participate in projects of military purpose.
Sailing with the Greenpeace VII from San Francisco on July 12, 1975 to confront the Russian whaling ship Vostok off the Mendocino coast. Seaton “rigged speakers outside the wheelhouse and piped Gustav Holtz’s The Planets throughout the ship,” recalled Rex Wyler in Greenpeace: How A Group of Ecologists, Journalists, and Visionaries Changed The World (2004). The music became part of iconic videography of Greenpeacers racing motorized rafts between the Vostok‘s harpoon gun and the whales the Vostok was trying to shoot, and of Paul Watson standing on a fatally injured whale to try to keep the Vostok crew from pulling the whale aboard. Watson founded the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society two years later.
Recalled Dixie Mahy, who started the San Francisco Vegetarian Society newsletter in 1971, “I met Virginia around 1971 when Stan, my husband, & I became involved with Gladys Sargent, founder of Pets & Pals. Stan and I were co-chairs of the Pets & Pals San Francisco chapter for 25 years. Stan and Virginia were instrumental in reforming the San Francisco SPCA [in 1976] and establishing the San Francisco Animal Control & Welfare Commission, where both served as commissioners for many years.”
The San Francisco SPCA reform, sparked by exposés by television reporter Marilyn Baker, ousted leadership who had manufactured and sold decompression chambers to other shelters for use in killing homeless animals. That business had already ended when local attorney Richard Avanzino took over as president, but the SF/SPCA decompression chamber remained in use. Avanzino scrapped the decompression chamber as a first priority, introduced a low-cost dog and cat sterilization program, and in 1984 initiated a five-year plan to transition the SF/SPCA out of doing animal control work. The San Francisco SPCA turned animal control duties over to the city Department of Animal Care & Control in 1989, then introduced the Adoption Pact in 1994, which made San Francisco the first city in the U.S. to guarantee a home to every healthy and behaviorally sound impounded animal. Avanzino went on to become founding director of Maddie’s Fund, which he still heads, in 1998.
Marilyn Baker went on to found Orphan Pet Oasis, in Palm Desert, California, also known as the Humane Society of the Desert. She died on the job in 2001.
Virginia Handley acknowledged Gladys Sargent as her personal mentor in animal advocacy lobbying, but acknowledged Sargent’s history as an animal hoarder, too, whose case became a model for humane conference seminars on responding to hoarding.
“Gladys’ hoarding case was before I started with her,” Handley told ANIMALS 24-7 editor Merritt Clifton in 2005. “She had a shelter for a while and prided herself on not turning any animal away. She was the most successful lobbyist on any issue in Sac and was there for 50 years. There is not one animal law in the California books passed between 1946 and 1996,” when Sargent died at 96, “that she did not help to pass. Her first bill was to ban the coloring of Easter chicks. Others included the California Humane Slaughter Act; prohibiting injuring animals in schools, including at science fairs; banning decompression and nitrogen gas chambers; the first bill requiring cats to be spayed before adoption; banning steel-jawed bear traps; requiring that injured strays receive emergency vet care; and introducing pet shop standards. She stopped attempts to introduce greyhound racing in California three times, kept the trophy hunters from the bighorn sheep and the mountain lions for many years, and killed many bills to remove protection for them and the kangaroos, alligators, pythons, and elephants.
“I took two of her dogs over the years,” Handley continued. “She meant well, but she also had a lot of cats at her house, and was a terrible housekeeper, and terribly cheap, even though she had millions. She left her money to Pets & Pals, and bought their shelter, a kennel that used to belong to the biggest laboratory animal dealer in California, whose place was full of stolen animals and dead bodies.”
Action for Animals founder Eric Mills gave Virginia Handley the same credit she gave to Sargent. “In my opinion,” said Mills, who knew them both well, “Virginia was the single best animal activist in California, ever. And a great personal friend and mentor. I used to transport Virginia, Gladdie, and Rose Lernberg back and forth to the state capitol in my ’69 VW bug, all of them shouting at each other the whole way.”
“In 1978,” recalled Animal Legal Defense Fund founder and general counsel Joyce Tischler, “soon after I moved to San Francisco, I began to volunteer at the Fund for office in my free time. Virginia Handley ran the office and everybody who had anything to do with animals in the State of California knew Virginia. She was the hub. The Fund office was a wonderful hodgepodge of literature about animals, whether from the Fund or other groups, photos of animals and movie stars hugging animals, desks and tables for volunteers to work at, and over a dozen filing cabinets full of documents and information on every possible subject relevant to animals. Remember, this was before computers or the Internet. It was a great place to hang out and everybody active in animal rights or animal protection showed up there at one time or another.
“I liked volunteering at the Fund office,” Tischler continued, “and Virginia became something of a mentor to me. Of course, she had such a lack of ego that if I told her that, she would have scoffed at the notion. She was a free spirit who was totally dedicated to her work, and she had a wonderful sense of humor. The Fund paid her a pittance, yet Virginia never complained. She was a veritable storehouse of information on every conceivable animal related issue, and she shared it freely. Indeed, Virginia shared everything freely; ignoring the standard competitiveness of animal protection groups, she was selfless to a fault. You often hear animal activists say, ‘I do it all for the animals,’ but Virginia honestly lived that ethic.
“What Virginia loved most,” Tischler said, “was lobbying for animal protection in Sacramento. Virginia was a founder of PawPac, the California political action committee for animals, one of the first of its kind,” formed in 1980. “Virginia was the backbone of PawPac, serving on its board until her death. She and Eric Mills had finished getting out a mailing for PawPac just days before she died.
“In late 1978 or early 1979,” Tischler remembered, “Virginia told me that she had recently met another attorney who was interested in animal rights, and asked if I wanted to meet him. Since I had never met another attorney who shared my interest, I jumped at the chance. That attorney was Larry Kessenick. Soon after we met, we advertised in the local legal newspaper, inviting other attorneys interested in animal rights to meet with us at the Fund office, the use of which Virginia happily offered––gratis. That was the start of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.”
Offered In Defense of Animals founder Elliot Katz, “Let us not forget the energy, pleasure and fun she brought to us at gatherings through her dancing and singing. Virginia Handley was the complete package as a human being.”
Developing an acting career relatively late in life, Virginia Handley played award-winning leading roles in community theatre productions of The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams, and Blithe Spirit, by Noel Coward. She also performed in radio theatre, and was for 10 years a eader for Broadcast Services for the Blind. Her last stage role appears to have been in a 2011 Ross Alternative Works Summer Festival production of “In a Pickle” by Karen Hartline, directed by Alex Kuskulis.