by Mel Morse
Prentice-Hall Inc., 1968. 212 pages, hardcover.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Wrote Humane Society of the U.S. senior policy advisor Bernard Unti in June 2011, “Mel Morse, the HSUS president in the years 1968-1970, wrote a book in 1968 entitled Ordeal of the Animals. It is a nice period piece,” Unti assessed, “a snapshot of how the landscape looked right about that time. It was a composite work,” Unti said, “drawing on material drafted by core staff members like Patrick Parkes,” who were not credited.
Unti’s assessment, while accurate enough, understates the importance of Ordeal of the Animals in helping to shape the humane movement of modern times.
Who was Mel Morse?
Morse, 1905-1986, was for nearly 50 years among the most influential people in humane work, taking time out to train dogs for the U.S. military during World War II.
Postwar, Morse helped then-American Humane Association president Richard C. Craven to establish humane supervision of Hollywood screen sets. Later, as director of the AHA Rocky Mountains office, Morse helped the AHA to relocate from Albany, New York, to Denver.
Leaving the AHA to head the Marin County Humane Society in 1957, Morse in 1958 introduced the use of a computer to track dog licensing. This appears to have been the first use of a computer in humane work.
Morse & The Birds
I met Mel Morse in early 1962, when he doubled as the AHA set representative during the filming of The Birds in Bodega and Bodega Bay, where I was an eight-year-old local extra.
Morse had a strong personal presence. I have a clear mental image of him — a relatively tall, slender, taciturn older man with glasses & an owlish appearance, whose function was never clear, who didn’t seem to be very welcome around Hitchcock and the film crew, but was always there.
It was from Birds director Alfred Hitchcock that I first heard about the effects of pesticides on birds. He stood on the steps of historic Potter School in Bodega between shots one afternoon, pointing out to an assembly of extras and other local boys the absence of hawks amid all the wild birds who had been attracted by decoys set up as props. The hawks would have been feasting, if they had not all been killed by food chain accumulations of pesticides.
Hitchcock asked if any of us had BB guns (none did), and vigorously denounced boys who shot birds with BB guns for fun.
Morse was standing right beside Hitchcock, nodding approvingly, right through the whole tirade. But I don’t recall him saying a word. In hindsight, I wonder if Hitchcock made the speech to try to get on his good side — although I think it was sincere.
Opposed fur & hippies
Attentive to suffering inflicted on any species, as Ordeal of the Animals demonstrates with recitations of horror stories about the mistreatment of almost every sort of animal, Morse later in 1962 authored Marin Humane Society policies in opposition to wearing furs and the use of leghold traps, and in 1964 won passage of the first California county bylaw prohibiting the sale of pound animals for laboratory use.
This was five years before Morse alleged to the Pacific Sun, without offering supporting evidence, that the hippie movement was “associated” with dog and cat theft for sale to labs. Hippies were culpable for quite a lot in Marin County at the time, but pet theft for sale to labs was not among the documented hippie offenses.
In defense of coyotes
Morse also led the Marin Humane Society in actively opposing seal-clubbing and bullfighting, and in encouraging appreciation of wild pumas and coyotes, who were persecuted by local sheep ranchers until wildlife biologist Camilla Fox founded Project Coyote in 2008 and in partnership with the Marin County Department of Agriculture introduced the nonlethal Marin Livestock and Wildlife Protection Program.
Ordeal of the Animals includes a three-page impassioned defense of coyotes.
In addition, Morse encouraged Marin Humane to open one of the first low-cost sterilization clinics in California, though it debuted after his departure to briefly head HSUS.
The Helen Woodward Animal Center
Following his HSUS stint, Morse in 1972 helped Helen Whittier Woodward to found the San Dieguito Animal Care & Education Center in Rancho Sante Fe, California. Woodward died in 1983, at age 79, before construction of the complex was completed. Morse renamed the complex the Helen Woodward Animal Center in 1986, shortly before his own death.
Home of the internationally promoted Home 4 the Holidays adoption program, the recently rebuilt Helen Woodward Animal Center is today the teaching and training institution that Morse and Woodward envisioned but did not live long enough to accomplish.
Ordeal of the Animals presaged Man Kind?
Had Ordeal of the Animals been less a snapshot of animal issues as they stood in the mid-1960s, and more autobiographical, it would better speak to the present–not that it didn’t have considerable influence and prescience in shaping the evolution of animal issues. Though largely forgotten, Ordeal of the Animals appears to have been the most widely distributed book about animal advocacy published in the 15 years previous to Man Kind?, the 1974 best seller by Cleveland Amory that helped to spark the animal rights movement. Surprisingly directly ancestral to Man Kind?, Ordeal of the Animals covered much of the same material, structured in much the same way, even making similar use of sardonic wit.
Amory, however, had the advantage of timing, both in relating anecdotes and in publishing after the Vietnam War, when young activists were ready to move on to other issues. A longtime gossip columnist, Amory also understood how to lampoon the rich and powerful by name, in depth and detail. Morse–and his HSUS ghostwriters–by contrast often avoided naming names.