Henry Spira, 71, died in his sleep on September 12, 1998 from esophageal cancer, after an uncomplaining three-year battle.
Encouraging Peter Singer to expand a 1973 essay on why animals should enjoy rights into the book Animal Liberation, while taking a night course from Singer, Spira virtually created the animal rights movement by leading his classmates in converting the ideas they had discussed into political action.
Along the way, Spira learned that more than 100 years of antivivisectionism hadn’t ever stopped a cruel experiment. He changed that with the 1976-1977 campaign that persuaded the American Museum of Natural history to end 18 years of sex experiments on maimed and disfigured cats.
Out of that campaign came Animal Rights International, which as New York Times writer Barnaby J. Feder remembered, “rarely consisted of more than Mr. Spira himself and a part-time aide,” working out of Spira’s New York City apartment, on a total budget of less than the top executive salaries at most national animal protection organizations.
In 1980 Spira convinced Avon and Revlon to quit animal testing. Other cosmetics firms followed. Aware that further progress could come only when makers and regulators of products with more stringent safety standards were satisfied that non-animal tests were better, Spira next approached Procter & Gamble. In 1984, P&G agreed to phase out animal testing as rapidly as possible, and agreed to fund the development of alternatives. P&G has since spent more than $300 million in the effort, more than all other institutions combined, and before Spira’s death had cut its own use of animals in half while tripling in size.
Except for monitoring fulfillment of the P&G deal, and speaking out against the ongoing boycott of P&G called later by organizations which wanted a piece of the victory, Spira thereafter focused on improving farm animals’ lives and promoting vegetarianism.
Later achievements included pressuring the USDA to abolish a requirement that imported cattle be face-branded, and winning an agreement from the McDonald’s restaurant chain to require suppliers to meet basic standards for animal welfare.
At his death, Spira was negotiating stronger terms with McDonald’s and seeking a similar agreement from Wendy’s International. These were the forerunners of many agreements negotiated in recent years to improve animal welfare conditions for farmed animals.
Spira addressed other issues as he saw the opportunity. In September 1995 he learned from an anonymous letter about an invitation-only bird shoot that was soon to be held to benefit the charity Helen Keller International. Spira spent a weekend designing protest ads for newspapers, sent samples to the Helen Keller executives, and won cancellation of the shoot within 48 hours.
Aware his time was short, Spira in late 1996 published Campaign Strategies For Activists, a collection of papers documenting how he got things done working alone where big groups couldn’t make headway, and cooperated with Peter Singer as Singer produced two biographies of him, the 1997 video Henry: One Man’s Way, and the book, Ethics Into Action, issued in August 1998.
All three were assembled to share strategic wisdom accumulated during an activist career that was distinguished and influential even before Spira discovered animals.
Meeting Singer and inheriting a cat someone left with him at about the same time in 1973, Spira “began to wonder why we cuddle some animals and put a fork in others,” he often remembered. Putting down his fork one night, he became an instant vegan.
Spira had always acted decisively any time he saw a way to reduce what he described as “the universe of suffering.”
Born in 1927, in Antwerp, Belgium, and known as Noah throughout childhood, Spira spent some time in England, but when his father moved to Panama in 1937, Henry, his sister, and their mother were sent to live with relatives in Hamburg, Germany. Thus Spira, who was Jewish, endured Krystalnacht, the night of rioting in November 1938 that commenced the pogroms of World War II.
The family joined Spira’s father in Panama soon afterward, then emigrated to New Jersey.
Spira’s first cause was seeking the creation of a Jewish homeland. He studied carpentry to help build Israel, but before he could go there, his outlook broadened into a more general concern with human rights. He became a merchant seaman, lost his union card
in 1952 as an alleged leftist, and was drafted. The U.S. Army sent him to Berlin, assigned to “Troop Information and Education,” i.e. indoctrinating soldiers in the American way. That gave him the chance to interview refugees from East Germany.
Spira drew a dishonorable discharge in 1954 for purported “subversive and disloyal activities,” later changed to an honorable discharge, just as he developed serious doubts about his early hopes for Soviet Communism.
Back in the U.S., Spira worked on the General Motors assembly line in Linden, New Jersey, then resumed sailing as a ship’s electrician, participated in union activism in both venues, and between voyages did freelance investigative reporting for The Militant, the newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party, under the pseudonym Henry Gitano.
From June to December 1956, Spira covered Martin Luther King’s 1956 anti-segregation boycott of the bus system in Montgomery, Alabama. He covered a similar boycott in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1957, then returned to New York to persuade unions, especially the United Auto Workers, to support desegregation.
In 1958-1959, Spira took on abuses of civil liberties by the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover in particular, at the height of Hoover’s clout. The FBI tried hard to discredit Spira, but his research and character withstood the test– even after he traveled to Cuba late in
1959 to report on the transformations underway after the Communist takeover under Fidel Castro.
On April 1, 1961, two weeks before the CIA-directed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, Spira exposed how the CIA was training Cuban exiles to invade in Guatemala. Many lives and much embarrassment for U.S. president John F. Kennedy might have been spared had the White House taken note that Castro knew the attack was coming.
Spira caught up with Martin Luther King again in 1963-1964, traveling with the Freedom Riders to cover King’s Mississippi voter registration campaign for The Independent and The Californian.
From 1964 into 1966, Spira helped lead a drive to reform the flagrantly corrupt National Maritime Union as editor of a newspaper for dissident sailors, The Call for Union Democracy. But a 1965 voyage to Guinea aboard the hospital ship S.S. Hope inspired him to
change careers again and become an award-winning teacher of English and journalism at Haaren High School in Spanish Harlem.
Spira taught from 1968 until 1982, when he retired to focus on animal rights.
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