Editorial by Merritt Clifton
Last night, honoring Martin Luther King Day, ANIMALS 24-7 posted as our lead feature What animal advocates owe to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., examining the enormous influence King had on Henry Spira (1927-1998), in particular, who more than anyone else inspired and rallied the rise of the late 20th century animal rights movement.
The King family
We appreciated also the contributions of King’s widow, Coretta Scott King; the ongoing contributions to animal advocacy of his son Dexter Scott King; and King’s influence on Cesar Chavez (1927-1993), who though better known as a labor leader and civil rights activist, was a longtime vegetarian who spoke out for animals, too.
We unfortunately omitted mention of Bill Moyer (1933-2002), a longtime aide to King at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who co-founded the Movement for a New Society and later founded the Social Movement Empowerment Project.
Moyer during his last dozen years tried hard to share his strategic experience and insights with animal advocacy leadership. His influence on the thinking of some of the many animal advocacy leaders he met with is much more evident posthumously than it ever was during his lifetime.
We might also have mentioned Nelson Mandela, another leader profoundly influenced by Martin Luther King Jr., who in 1994 was elected first president of post-apartheid South Africa.
Retiring in 1999, at age 81, Mandela withdrew gradually from public life, gracefully surrendering most of his titles and affiliations before his death in December 2013, at age 95.
To the end, however, Mandela remained patron-in-chief of the National Council of SPCAs, a post he clearly cherished and had held for nearly 20 years.
Was hunter, not veg
Mandela was not deeply involved in animal issues. He reportedly shot both an impala and a blesbok in 1991 as a guest of KaNgwane (Bantustan) conservation officials.
Neither was Mandela a vegetarian, though he had prominent vegetarian friends, including the chef Bakshi Vemulakonda, formerly director of catering for Air India, and the spiritual leader Chinmoy Kumar Ghose (1931-2007).
But Mandela had a sincere appreciation of animals.
Recognizing that animals do not recognize human political boundaries, Mandela in 2001 opened a gate to allow 40 elephants to pass from Kruger National Park in South Africa to an adjoining area in Mozambique, as part of the creation of the 13,510-square-mile Gaza-Kruger-Gonarezhou transborder park, also including Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe.
Mandela later attended the release of a troupe of baboons who had been kept in a laboratory into the Shambala Game Reserve. The baboons had been rehabilitated by the late Rita Miljo (1931-2012), founder of the Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education, against the advice of the National Council of SPCAs and South African wildlife officials that they could not be returned to the wild.
“The greatest gift: a more humane society”
“In time,” Mandela said, “we must bestow on South Africa the greatest gift––a more humane society.” The Cape Town-based Humane Education Trust made extensive use of the quote in support of the South African national humane education program, introduced in 2003.
Unfortunately, the U.S. humane movement today lags as far behind in welcoming, recognizing, and celebrating the contributions of people of African descent as our society as a whole did in Martin Luther King Jr.’s lifetime.
Worse, much of the U.S. humane movement today is part-and-parcel of advancing pit bull proliferation, one of the most enduring legacies of the Ku Klux Klan––and is often actively alienating African Americans by misappropriating terminology from the civil rights movement in defense of pit bulls, and by making outreach efforts to black communities primarily to try to rehome more pit bulls, even as pit bulls kill and disfigure black people, children especially, disproportionately often.
Black children at risk
Relative to numbers, a black child is today about three times more likely than a white child to be killed by a pit bull. This was not always the case, even when Klansmen terrorized neighborhoods undergoing racial integration by releasing pit bulls out of the backs of panel vans and pickup trucks to attack anyone of dark skin until whistled back at the first sound of approaching sirens.
This tactic, unfortunately, was seen in Calgary, Alberta––reputedly the most pit bull-friendly city in Canada––as recently as 2009, where two elderly men and two female children were mauled in a series of apparently racially motivated incidents.
Pit bull attacks, neglect, violent abuse, and misuse in dogfighting have since the 1990s often been associated with inner city “gangbangers,” though all continue to occur most often in mostly white low-income neighborhoods.
During Martin Luther King Jr.’s lifetime, by contrast, pit bulls were rarely seen anywhere that black people lived. Dogfighting in most of the U.S. was an artifact of history, persisting almost entirely in the Deep South and a few other enclaves of Klan political influence, where the “dogmen” could pay off Klan-controlled law enforcement agencies to look away.
The Klan and Klan splinter groups had been even more deeply involved in dogfighting and pit bull breeding a generation earlier. As recently as the early 1930s, Klan chapters masquerading as fraternal lodges would openly advertise dogfights, cockfights, and pigeon shoots.
From bedsheets to bike gangs
As overt racism became less and less respectable, along with cruelty to animals, the ads became more discreet. By the 1970s, as the Klan itself faded, the Klan connection was barely visible. The Klan itself had largely morphed into motorcycle gangs and skinheads.
Younger generations of racists had fled to the west and Pacific Northwest, pursuing twisted dreams of building a white supremacist empire that would stretch from Utah to Alaska.
Instead of moonshining, they cooked meth. Instead of bedsheets, they wore tattoos. But they took dogfighting with them.
Prison gangs then spread dogfighting and the use of pit bulls to guard drugs into the black community.
No real wizards
Had the Grand Imperial Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan devised a plot to leave a deadly legacy to do the maximum possible damage to black people, they could not have concocted a more diabolical plot.
With the proceeds from dogfighting in decline for generations, there was no longer any reason to keep it as an exclusive franchise, while unleashing pit bulls amid crowded housing projects and multi-family small framehouses full of little kids was a surefire way to kill and maim many more children, faster, than the Birmingham Bomber (who killed four black schoolgirls in 1963) ever dreamed of.
But the Grand Imperial Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan were never really wizards at all. There was no big plot to what they did. They could not have anticipated that pit bulls rehomed by humane societies would kill more black children from 2010 to the present than were killed by all dog attacks combined during the time the Klan controlled dogfighting and actively used pit bulls to intimidate black people.
The U.S. humane community does from time to time honor black celebrities who help to promote animal adoptions, albeit that this tradition has degenerated from singer Eartha Kitt’s promotions for the North Shore Animal League into the recent use by other organizations of imagery featuring convicted dogfighter Michael Vick to push pit bulls.
But the U.S. humane community remains conspicuously reluctant to hire and advance black personnel.
Lloyd Tait, VMD
Reviewing the original edition of Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians & Staff in August 2004, I noticed immediately and approvingly that it was “dedicated to Lloyd Tait, VMD.”
Tait, who in 1968 became the ASPCA’s first director of shelter medicine, “was everything one could imagine in a friend and mentor,” recalled Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians & Staff editors Lila Miller and Stephen Zawistowski. “Irascible, supportive, quixotic, and fiercely dedicated to animal welfare, he laid the early foundation for the formal practice of veterinary medicine in the ASPCA shelters.”
Tait was later for many years a traveling consultant for the World Society for the Protection of Animals, contributing to humane advances in street dog and feral cat population control from the Caribbean islands to eastern Europe to Sri Lanka.
Tait joined the ASPCA staff soon after former ASPCA Brooklyn shelter director George Watford, long ago retired, as the second nationally prominent humane worker of African descent. Miller joined the ASPCA staff in 1977. She became the third nationally prominent humane worker of African descent––and, after nearly 40 years, is still perhaps the youngest.
Some black guests were visible at the Humane Society of the U.S.’ annual Expos in Daytona Beach in May 2014 and New Orleans in April 2015. Almost all, however, were either employed outside the humane cause or were visitors from Africa.
African-American vegetarian and vegan advocates were visible at the AR 2014, 2015, and 2016 animal rights conferences in Los Angeles and Alexandria, Virginia, including one banquet speaker, but none appeared to represent any part of the animal sheltering or animal rights advocacy communities other than the vegetarian/vegan sector.
Since Miller was hired, a few other people of African ancestry have become prominent in shelter work, perhaps most notably longtime National Animal Care & Control Association board member Keith Robinson, but chiefly in the realm of public service, where affirmative action hiring has long been required by law. A convention of Afro-American executive directors of humane societies could probably be held around one small table, and would still have empty chairs.
Neither the first edition of Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians & Staff, nor the second edition, published 10 years later, makes mention of the ethnicity of either Tait or Miller, but it needs to be mentioned, because when two of a tiny handful of people of any particular background make contributions to humane work of the magnitude they have, the rest of the humane community should be sitting up, taking notice, and looking for more talent from the same source.
No random accident
It is highly unlikely that Tait and Miller became who they are, doing what they have done for decades, by random accident.
It is also tedious and tiresome that we are still attending national conferences where it is suggested, based on long-ago surveys of Afro-American students in agricultural veterinary schools, that African-Americans are somehow less emotionally attached to animals than anyone else.
Any survey of agricultural veterinary students would almost certainly find less emotional attachment to animals than among companion animal veterinary students, and would probably find less than among the general public. This is simply not relevant. It is time to stop looking for differences and excuses, and start looking for Afro-Americans to hire and train.
Abundant qualified talent
The veterinary profession itself offers abundant qualified talent. Harvard first graduated a black veterinarian in 1889; the University of Pennsylvania in 1907. The Tuskegee Institute has graduated entire classes of black veterinarians annually since 1949. Indeed, the percentage of veterinarians of African-American descent has edged up slowly, from about 2% at Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination to 2.5% today, but––except at the ASPCA––black shelter veterinarians barely exist.
Attentive readers may note that this is not the first time I have said this. The above editorial is adapted from an article I published initially in January 1993; much of it is word-for-word identical to an opinion column I published, alongside my review of the first edition of Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians & Staff in August 2004; alongside my review of the second edition in August 2014; and only some dates have changed since ANIMALS 24-7 posted it previously in 2016.
By January 2017 these words should have long since become historical artifacts. The message should no longer have currency.
Instead, it is still time for the humane community to stop looking for differences and excuses, and start looking for black Americans to hire, train, and promote into positions of influence. It will never be too late.
Please help us continue speaking truth to power: