Pioneer of neuter/return transformed & healed wounds within the animal advocacy community
AnnaBell Leinbach Washburn, 90, “seen as the matriarch of an entirely new way of thinking within the animal rights movement” in the words of longtime friend and Alley Cat Allies founder Becky Robinson, died on August 12, 2017 in New York City.
More philanthropist than philosopher, and more a behind-the-scenes influence than a front-line activist, though she personally trapped hundreds of feral cats for sterilization, AnnaBell Washburn became involved in animal issues in the early 1980s.
Promoted positive animal advocacy messaging
The then-still-young animal rights movement was at the time focused on animal use in laboratories, deeply alienated from traditional animal welfare work. Traditional animal welfare work had become grudgingly and unhappily centered on impounding and killing owner-surrendered litters of unwanted puppies and kittens, due to lack of resources for preventing births and promoting adoptions.
Most of the public message expressed by both animal rights and animal welfare organizations tended to be negative. Both directions of pro-animal activism were widely perceived as hostile toward humanity.
AnnaBell Washburn not only pioneered neuter/return feral cat control, both in the U.S. and abroad, but did so in a manner uniting the polarized animal rights and animal welfare communities around positive messages and caregiving action. Her work not only helped volunteers to sterilize millions of feral cats, but also helped the humane community as a whole to expand and extend spay/neuter capacity, and to extend use of the neuter/return technique to controlling street dog populations in the developing world.
Quick to credit others
None of the techniques that AnnaBell Washburn helped to introduce, validate, and popularize originated with her, as she was always quick to point out. Yet for more than 30 years she made many of the introductions that helped innovations she discovered here and there through her legions of acquaintances to become common practice.
Recalled Urban Cat League president Mike Phillips, DVM, “This capable heroine to forgotten felines was born Anna Bell Leinbach in Reading, Pennsylvania on February 22, 1927,” the daughter of Gertrude H. and Howard M. Leinbach, M.D.
“Before cats occupied her thoughts and actions, AnnaBell’s family was primarily oriented to the appreciation of canines,” Phillips said.
Earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1948, where she participated in student drama, “AnnaBell showed her inherent mettle by moving alone to New York City to seek her fortune,” Phillips continued.
Befriended black girl from Mississippi
Still interested in theatrics, AnnaBell Leinbach won some summer stock roles, but eventually focused on completing a master’s degree in speech pathology from Columbia University.
“As fellow residents of International House, AnnaBell and the yet unknown superstar of the opera world Leontyne Price became great friends and even sang duets in I-House performances,” Phillips wrote.
Price, who grew up in Laurel, Mississippi, the daughter of a millhand and a midwife, “rose to international acclaim in the 1950s and 1960s, and was one of the first African Americans to become a leading artist at the Metropolitan Opera,” summarized Wikipedia.
Pan American Airlines
“After graduation, AnnaBell was hired to join the elite teaching staff of the legendary John Robert Powers School,” Phillips added. “A credit to her own unique and effortless charm, the school,” begun by the founder of the first modeling agency in New York City, “had the reputation of turning out the most interesting, articulate and appealing young women to be found anywhere.
“With this sterling endorsement on her resume, AnnaBell was subsequently recruited by the quickly expanding Pan American Airlines. Her assignment was to devise an enhanced training program to imbue their growing number of international stewardesses with poise and refinement.”
In that capacity AnnaBell Leinbach in 1957 instructed Hope Ryden, 1929-2017, who left PanAm in 1958 after a year and a half as a PanAm flight attendant, going on to distinction as a documentary film maker, author, and photographer mostly on subjects pertaining to animals, nature, and the civil rights movement.
Continued Phillips, “Pan Am executive Stanley Washburn Jr. fell in love at first sight, as elevator doors opened one day to reveal the delightful AnnaBell, and they were married on March 26, 1966. Stanley’s father was the well-known foreign correspondent of the same name and his mother was related to the Astors.”
Already a high achiever, AnnaBell Leinbach in becoming AnnaBell Washburn married into a family of high achievers. At least 13 Washburns had held political office since the American Revolution, with others politically prominent, including her brother-in-law C. Langhorne Washburn, who served as finance director for the Republican National Campaign Committee, the Republican National Finance Committee, and the unsuccessful 1964 presidential campaign of former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller.
Stanley Washburn Jr. ‘s grandfather, Cadwalder A. Washburn (1818-1882), before serving two terms in Congress and two years as Governor of Wisconsin, cofounded the Minneapolis Milling Company, which later became General Mills.
Father fought the Ku Klux Klan
Colonel Stanley Washburn Sr., after rising rapidly through the officer ranks of the U.S. Army as a military intelligence specialist, served 46 years as a foreign correspondent, including covering more than 100 battles as a war correspondent, chiefly for the New York Times and Chicago Daily News, before his death at age 72 in December 1950.
Stanley Washburn Sr. interrupted his journalistic career briefly in 1924 to run for local office in New Jersey. Then strong in the region, the Ku Klux Klan endorsed Washburn Sr. on condition that he fire his Catholic secretary, a man named McGrath. When Washburn Sr. refused, the KKK turned on him. Washburn Sr. lost the election, but was nearly as much praised for having stood up to the Klan as for his writing.
Joined Pan Am just out of Yale
Stanley Washburn Jr., upon graduating from Yale in 1931, “worked as system promotions director for Pan Am Airways – providing promotion of the airline’s passenger service on three continents in the company’s earliest stages,” according to the biography he used on the dust jacket of many of the books he wrote later in life.
Pan Am, incorporated by Air Corps Majors Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, Carl A. Spaatz, and John H. Jouett in March 1927, had only begun flying in June 1927, after Juan Trippe joined the company.
Trippe formed a short-lived subsidiary, the Pan American Airship Company, for which Stanley Washburn Jr. may have been a pilot [references are ambiguous], but the company never actually flew airships commercially, and by 1931 was already operating the “flying boats,” called clippers, that first made Pan Am renowned worldwide.
Washburn Jr. “learned to fly in the Naval Reserve in Pensacola, Florida,” his own dust jacket biographies state. As Naval Reserve air cadet training in Pensacola began in 1935, Washburn Jr. would not have been flying heavier-than-air craft during his early years with Pan Am, but he soon was flying for Pan Am. He was identified as a Pan Am pilot in press coverage of his first marriage in 1937, to Nina Phillips, who like AnnaBell Leinbach was the well-educated daughter of a medical doctor.
Washburn Jr. and the former Nina Phillips had three children together by 1946. The marriage lasted 17 years. Remarried to financier Louis Engel, Nina Phillips Engel became prominent in health care advocacy, dying in December 2014 at age 100.
Followed father into journalism
Roughly coinciding with his marriage to Nina Phillips, Washburn Jr. followed his father into journalism, as a sideline to his Pan Am work, contributing articles about aviation to the Saturday Evening Post, Liberty, Argosy, The Elks (magazine of the Elks club), and Defenders of Wildlife, and eventually the Air & Space magazine published by the Smithsonian Institution. His first books included the 1941 anthology history of aviation Bamboo to Bombers and, with Ermin L. Ray, Are You Fit To Be a Pilot! Now In Your Own Home You Can Test Your Physical Fitness To Pilot a Plane, also published in 1941.
After World War II broke out, Washburn Jr. switched military service affiliations, and “was a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Forces and served as a member of the Air Transport Command during World War II,” his dust jacket biographies add.
Temporarily grounded in 1942 in Gold Coast, the British colony that in 1957 became Ghana, Washburn Jr. “got the idea for a rocker-roller balance board,” according to Wikipedia, when “he saw children balancing on a plank atop a sawed-off tree-round. He later saw children balancing on such materials in India when he flew there in the war.”
The difficulty and risk of injury associated with such improvised balance boards, Washburn Jr. saw, came when the board and fulcrum rotated parallel to each other.
“Upon returning home, Washburn Jr. created his own version in his wood shop as a gift for his daughter,” continues Wikipedia.
By 1952 Washburn Jr. had developed a “Bongo Board” that would roll and rotate enough to become a challenge for the “rider” without presenting a high risk of injury. Forming the Bongo Corporation in 1953, Washburn Jr. mass-produced the boards in two sizes for about 30 years.
By 1956 the Bongo Board had already evolved from toy, primarily, to training device for skiers, surfers and skateboarders, though the smaller size of Bongo Board continued to be sold in toy stores.
From Nimbo to New Horizons in Education
As his marriage disintegrated, more-or-less parallel to the growth of Pan Am and the Bongo Corporation, Stanley Washburn Jr. wrote perhaps his most popular book, Nimbo…The Little White Cloud That Turned Black, an explanation of weather systems for children, illustrated by Clara Jo Stember. It remained a school library staple for decades.
At Pan Am, meanwhile, Washburn Jr.’s work “entailed promotion of Pan Am’s first passenger jets and corresponded with such things as the Miss Universe Pageant, Pan Am’s jet North Stars, and the world champion steel band featured in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and in a unique concert at Carnegie Hall,” said an obituary published in 2005 by the Vineyard Gazette, of Martha’s Vineyard.
Washburn Jr. also authored New Horizons in Education: The Benefits of Study Abroad (1961), which helped to popularize student exchange programs. Flying exchange students around the world was also, incidentally, profitable for Pan Am, though many of the flights were made at substantial discounts.
After Washburn Jr. married AnnaBell Leinbach, they divided their time among a home on United Nations Plaza in New York City, a summer home in Edgartown, Massachusetts, and a winter home in the Virgin Islands.
Retiring from Pan Am circa 1973, Washburn Jr. focused on turning the notes and news coverage he had inherited from his father into a three-volume history of Russian involvement in World War I and a biography of Nogi Mareuke, 1849-1912, a Japanese general and former governor of Taiwan under Japanese occupation.
Upon the death of the Japanese emperor in 1912, Nogi Mareuke and his wife committed hari-kiri, or suicide by ritual disembowelment. This made them emblems of loyalty and honor to the generation of Japanese military leaders who promoted the invasion of China in 1936 that precipitated World War II in the Asian theater, the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 that brought the U.S. into the war, and led eventually to the suicides of hundreds of young officers in kamikaze attacks on U.S. warships.
To this day Nogi Mareuke, remembered as a war criminal in Taiwan, remains an exemplar to the Japanese right.
Snowboarding & police corruption
Frequent skiing weekends at Stratton, Vermont led Washburn Jr. circa 1990 to collaboration with Brew “Vew” Moscarello to develop the Yew-Do balance board used in snowboard training.
Meanwhile, AnnaBell Washburn in 1985 served on a jury that exonerated former New York City police officer Joe Sanchez of corruption charges brought against him after he had repeatedly exposed corruption involving fellow officers and higher-ups.
When Sanchez was not reinstated to the New York City police department, AnnaBell took up his cause. Sanchez went on to work in private security and as a prison guard, before writing four books about battling police corruption: Latin Blues, True Blue: A Tale of the Enemy Within, Red Herring, and Yellow Streak.
But AnnaBell Washburn’s major interest, from 1980 on, was animal advocacy, beginning with founding the Pet Adoption & Welfare Service (PAWS) of Martha’s Vineyard, for which she eventually received a Presidential Citation from President George H. W. Bush.
Learned about TNR in 1984
Recalled Alley Cat Allies cofounder Louise Holton, who later founded Alley Cat Rescue, “In 1984 AnnaBell attended a conference of the World Society for the Protection of Animals and heard Peter Neville from the United Kingdom, who studied feral cats for many years, speak about the success of TNR in Britain,” where the neuter/return method had caught on after successful trials in Kenya and South Africa.
Picked up Mike Phillips, DVM, “AnnaBell immediately recognized TNR as the humane solution she had been seeking to help the cats who were reproducing exponentially on Martha’s Vineyard. Over the next four years, with a handful of volunteers, they completed TNR on 200 feral cats.”
Extended TNR to the Virgin Islands
But that was just the beginning.
“After learning that feral cats inhabited three large resorts on Virgin Gorda, in the British Virgin Islands,” wrote Phillips, DVM, the Washburns “enlisted James N. Ross, chair of the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, and raised the funds for an annual TNR pilgrimage there starting in 1986. During the first four years of the project, the TNR of 361 cats was completed on the island, while also providing invaluable training for Tufts’ senior veterinary students in spay/neuter surgery.”
AnnaBell Washburn’s neuter/return projects remained obscure for about five years, as were previous large-scale neuter/return projects begun by Walt Disney as early as 1954, and by National Catholic Animal Welfare Society founder Helen Jones at an unknown date probably predating the 1977 transition of the organization into the International Society for Animal Rights.
In India, longtime Blue Cross of India chief executive Chinny Krishna had begun experimenting with neuter/return of street dogs as early as 1966, but that work also continued in obscurity.
“Face for the movement”
But, Phillips DVM continued, “Seemingly overnight in July 1990, AnnaBell Washburn became a face for the fledgling movement advocating humane care for feral cats in the United States,” which expanded into encouragement of neuter/return street dog control in the developing world as well.
“That month,” Phillips DVM remembered, “an article by Ellen Perry Berkeley recounting her TNR work at Martha’s Vineyard, MA was published in Cat Fancy magazine. Although the article also mentioned the work of many other groups and individuals around the country doing TNR, some already for 20 years, the focus of the article was on AnnaBell.
“Though TNR was already a proven-effective method abroad, in America neutering of street cats to humanely reduce their numbers was relatively uncommon, without a name, and had no standardized approach,” Phillips DVM summarized. “The Cat Fancy article was a watershed moment, fostering clarity on why and how TNR works, and showcasing what one person with conviction could do to implement it.”
Formation of Alley Cat Allies
Recalled Holton to ANIMALS 24-7, “I immediately reached out to both women, as I had been working on a feral cat colony in Adams Morgan, Washington D.C., and had discovered the bias and animosity toward feral cats by the animal movement at that time.
“AnnaBell called me right away after receiving my letter, and with Stanley drove down to Maryland to meet me. AnnaBell was ecstatic that I was thinking of starting the first national organization to promote and advocate TNR, Alley Cat Allies,” incorporated in 1991, helped to national prominence by the North Shore Animal League America.
“In 1997,” having left Alley Cat Allies, “I founded Alley Cat Rescue,” Holton added. “AnnaBell and I continued our friendship and she helped financially to start ACR. Over the years we often spoke together on panel discussions about TNR and developed an amazing friendship and bond. She called me at least twice a month over the years, and we had a lot of laughs about our work and the initial reaction to TNR by major groups.
“One chief executive of a national animal group, when he heard AnnaBell was doing TNR, said to her, ‘Oh, so you have become a cat hoarder.’ I shared with her how I had been called many things on my rounds to debate TNR, with folks from major animal organizations saying I was ‘dumping’ cats, and that my TNR was illegal, and calling me all kinds of names as well.
“We both held on to our firm belief that what we were doing was ethically right and moral,” Holton said, “and that they would all learn this in the future. Which in fact become true as one by one over the years, they changed their minds and started advocating for TNR.”
Took cats on vacation
“She shared funny stories,” Holton added, “of her and Stanley leaving to vacation on Martha’s Vineyard and the battle they had rounding up her dozen cats, many feral, in their apartment in New York City to go with them to the Island.
“I visited her in New York City after she had suffered a stroke, and she had had a bad day and did not really remember me,” Holton said. “But we chatted and I had breakfast with her. Then in 2015 a miracle happened. My phone rang and I saw it was AnnaBell’s phone number. At first I was afraid to answer the phone, expecting the worst. But I picked up and it was the old AnnaBell calling me! She had just received a copy of my Feral Cat Colony Management handbook,” published in 2002, “and she was calling to congratulate me on the book and say how much she enjoyed it! We chatted a long time. But a week later when I called her again, she was back to struggling with her memory and said, ‘Well if you say you are a friend, you must be a cat person!’”
Walter Cronkite & flying cats
Added Becky Robinson, “She knew Betsy and Walter Cronkite, who also had a home and boat on Martha’s Vineyard. I remember she recruited Walter to serve as emcee or keynote at a PAWS fundraiser. She and Stanley would rent a big moving truck before going to their summer residence at Martha’s vineyard. They moved all their cats, a dozen or more, in this truck from New York City with a big chair in the back for AnnaBell and the cats.”
When traveling back and forth from the Virgin Islands, AnnaBell Washburn herself recalled in a videotaped interview, Washburn Jr. flew them and the cats in his Piper Commanche.
“AnnaBell was very much the quiet, humble beyond words, stoic person,” Robinson said. “She had a stroke a few years ago, but did very well with the therapy and while she never spoke long on the phone, she was so delightful and upbeat, and worked hard to regain her pitch-perfect speech.”
Concluded Phillips, DVM, “Feral cat advocates couldn’t have dreamed up a more eloquent spokesperson to champion their cause. Over a lifetime of service, AnnaBell’s ebullient enthusiasm has served well to motivate support from others, for her many charitable and philanthropic pursuits. With husband Stanley, they became a dynamic team, and even their vacations were devoted to benefitting animals.
“The legacy of AnnaBell’s work includes so many wonderful results, some singular and others immense in magnitude. Perhaps most poignant,” Phillips, DVM assessed, “was the validation that her visibility gave to so many isolated individuals who had already been neutering street cats, even before any kind of organized movement. Many others were made aware for the first time, of a proven-effective approach they could present when lobbying for the humane treatment of free-roaming cats.”