Erik Hendricks, 71, for 27 years executive director of the Pennsylvania SPCA, died on January 30, 2015 of leukemia at Bryn Mawr Hospital, near Philadelphia.
“Born in Rochester, New York,” recalled the Pennsylvania SPCA web site, “Hendricks was a longtime resident of Haverford. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1966, he worked on the editorial staff of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, and later as manager of Colony Hotel facilities in Kennebunkport, Maine, and Delray Beach, Florida.”
Relocating to Philadelphia in 1976 to take a position with the Pennsylvania SPCA, the fifth oldest SPCA in the U.S., founded in 1869, Hendricks was the next year promoted to executive director.
The Pennsylvania SPCA was at the time almost exclusively focused on providing animal control service to Philadelphia. Hendricks introduced and repeatedly expanded low-cost spay/neuter services, lobbied vigorously and often for improved state animal welfare laws, was a national leader in hiring minority personnel, and gradually expanded the organization to operate six shelters in the greater Philadelphia area.
Survived three ouster attempts
Hendricks’ tenure was frequently controversial. He survived a hostile takeover attempt at the 1987 annual board meeting, after ending the longtime practice of allowing the use of impounded animals as blood donors before they were killed, and survived further hostile takeover attempts in 1988 and 1990, after opponents unsuccessfully tried to force him from office through a lawsuit.
Among those seeking Hendricks’ ouster were deer hunters, pigeon shooters, and animal rights activists urging the Pennsylvania SPCA to take more aggressive positions on a variety of issues involving animal use.
Stopped Hegins pigeon shoot
Frequently Hendricks’ personal perspectives were more in sympathy with those of the animal advocates arrayed against him than was reflected by the policy positions of the Pennsylvania SPCA board.
While Hendricks was not among the protesters who rallied annually against the Fred Coleman Memorial Pigeon Shoot held each Labor Day in Hegins, Pennsylvania from 1935 to 1999, he counted among his favorite accomplishments winning the 1999 lawsuit that extended Pennsylvania SPCA law enforcement authority statewide, thereby bringing the shoot to an end.
Hendricks’ most controversial position of all may have been defending throughout his tenure a policy against adopting out pit bulls and other dog breeds produced for fighting and baiting.
This was not unusual during the first two-thirds of Hendricks’ time at the Pennsylvania SPCA. Most animal shelters around the U.S. had similar policies. Most of the policies were uncontroversial and had been in effect for decades, often originating as part of successful campaigns during the first half of the 20th century to abolish and win legislation against dogfighting. The abolition of dogfighting in most of the U.S. was widely regarded as one of the great triumphs of the humane movement.
Shelter intake of pit bulls was negligible before the mid-1980s, when it surged to 2% of the dogs received at shelters, still well below the present 33% or more.
By the time the Pennsylvania SPCA hired Hendricks, U.S. dog attack fatalities per year had risen tenfold since the 1930-1960 time frame, when the U.S. averaged only one every two years. As in every 10-year bracket since 1844, pit bulls continued to account for half or more of all the fatal dog attacks that occurred, but effective breed-specific policies had kept the toll from attracting much public attention except from syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers.
Exploding shelter intake
By the last third of Hendricks’ tenure, however, much of the humane community had forgotten the reasons for the breed-specific policies.
Dogfighting, for nearly a century almost entirely a rural pursuit, had persisted along with moonshining and cockfighting as protection rackets helping to economically support the Ku Klux Klan.
Suddenly taken up by inner city drug dealers and popularized by rap musicians, dogfighting in the mid-1980s crossed from the white supremacist fringes of society into the black community.
Simultaneously, pit bull advocacy had emerged as a well-funded splinter cause, pushed at the edges of the animal rights movement by popular author Vicki Hearn, literary agent Jane Berkey, and others.
Parallel to all of that, several decades of successful spay/neuter outreach reduced shelter dog intake so much that no-kill sheltering began to appear to be a plausible goal––except that even as intakes of all other dog breeds dropped, pit bull intake rose to half or more of the dogs impounded or surrendered to inner city shelters, including those of the Pennsylvania SPCA.
Hendricks by 2000 came to believe that the Pennsylvania SPCA could either win legislation mandating sterilization of pit bulls, and thereby become able to make further progress in reducing shelter killing, or remain in effect an agency existing in large part to kill unadoptable pit bulls.
Citing frustration with the reluctance of the Philadelphia city council to adopt a breed-specific ordinance to curtail the backyard reproduction of pit bulls and other fighting dogs, Hendricks in December 2002 returned animal control duties to the city.
Philadelphia paid the Pennsylvania SPCA $790,000 to handle animal control in 2000-2001, but Hendricks estimated the actual cost of the program at several million dollars more.
“We don’t have the resources to continue to subsidize animal control, nor do we have the desire to continue to simply process thousands of animals on their way to death,” Hendricks told Philadelphia Daily News staff writer Gloria Campisi.
The Pennsylvania SPCA killed 3,500 pit bulls in 2000, 4,000 in 1999, and 3,200 in 1998, Hendricks said. Many of the dogs were suspected veterans of illegal fighting.
Pennsylvania SPCA again runs city shelter
After giving up the Philadelphia animal control contract, Hendricks intensified the Pennsylvania SPCA spay/neuter programs. Shelter killing in Philadelphia dropped from circa 20 dogs and cats per 1,000 human residents as of 1997 to fewer than 15 by Hendricks’ retirement, and has since then fallen below eight, but Philadelphia shelters are still receiving and killing more pit bulls than the shelters of almost any other city in the world. Philadelphia now spends $2.9 million a year to house impounded animals.
Following Hendricks’ retirement in 2007, successor Howard Nelson reversed the Pennsylvania SPCA pit bull policies, closed two of the organization’s shelters, and regained the city animal control housing contract, but resigned under board pressure in February 2009.
The Pennsylvania SPCA went through two other chief executives before hiring former Campbell’s Soup vice president of public affairs Jerry Buckley, the current executive director, in June 2012. Buckley succeeded Sue Cosby, who left to head the Philadelphia Animal Care & Control department.
Mother became author
Hendricks, after retiring, volunteered for Eldernet and Meals on Wheels and served for two years as president of the Main Line Meals on Wheels board.
He also served as editor for his mother, Tina Appleton Bishop, who published her first novel, The Heiress of Newfield, at age 90 in 2009. Bishop followed up with Open with Care (2010), Dress Her In Bed (2011), The Bleached Widow (2012), and That Deadly Summer Mystery (2013).
“Surviving Hendricks,” wrote Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Bonnie Cook, “are his wife of 34 years, Alice Haynsworth Hendricks; his mother, Tina Appleton Bishop; two daughters, Stephanie Haynsworth Hendricks and Katherine Appleton Hendricks; a brother; and nieces and nephews.”
Karel Minor says
Erik was a glorious SOB. Love him or hate him, agree with him or not, he was intellectually rigorous and politically deft. He could be a condescending prick, was an excellent partner to have in your corner, and was a dangerous foe. Needless to say, I learned quite a bit from him by example. He is truly a loss which will be felt- in no small part because he kept showing up at animal welfare gatherings like he was still on the job! RIP, Erik.
Jamaka Petzak says
Sounds like all of us on BOTH sides of the “pit bull issue”, and all of us who care about our fellow living beings of whatever species, owe Mr. Hendricks a debt of gratitude. May he RIP.