Part III of The five muckrakes whose ideas built the Humane Society of the U.S.; see also Did Cleveland Amory write to Ann Landers? Yes!
Very likely no president of the Humane Society of the U.S. ever looked forward to telephone calls from either Ann Cottrell Free or Henry Spira, nine years younger, who emerged as a leading voice for animals at about the time Free stepped back.
Fighting to win
But each president of HSUS during their lifetimes took those calls, not because either Ann Cottrell Free or Henry Spira held direct authority within the HSUS board, was a high donor, or could leave HSUS a large bequest, even had either wanted to, but rather because both Free and Spira were known for delivering caustic criticisms containing invaluable strategic insight.
Both Ann Cottrell Free and Henry Spira had the knack of fighting to win, at a time when the prevailing posture of the humane cause had for generations been just trying to lose gracefully, in hopes of not alienating donors despite rarely making substantive progress.
Who was Ann Cottrell Free?
Ann Cottrell Free (1916-2004) was never closely associated with the Humane Society of the United States. Rather, she was a longtime close friend of Christine Stevens (1918-2002), founder in 1951 of the Animal Welfare Institute, a rival to HSUS for legislative influence during both organizations’ early years.
Stevens, wife of theatrical financier Roger Lacey Stevens, founding director of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., was much more closely connected with well-placed Democrats. The upper echelons at HSUS leaned Republican, and continued to do so until the subsidiary Humane Society Legislative Fund endorsed Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Behind the scenes
Political journalist Ann Cottrell Free was often the behind-the-scenes go-between whose tips enabled AWI and HSUS to coordinate strategies in advancing legislation including the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958, introduced by Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, signed into law by Republican president Dwight Eisenhower, and the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act of 1966, passed with strong bipartisan support.
Free, in short, was closely associated with all of the early political successes claimed by either HSUS or AWI. There was probably no one among the HSUS upper echelons during the organization’s first 50 years with whom Free was not personally acquainted and to whom Free did not at times deliver sharp-witted yet always helpful advice.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, Ann Cottrell Free debuted in journalism with the Richmond Times Dispatch in 1936, a time when relatively few women worked for newspapers and even fewer of them were well-bred, well-educated Southerners who had been award-winning equestrians.
On Easter Sunday 1939, Cottrell interviewed African American contralto Marian Anderson just after she delivered a free concert for 75,000 people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The Daughters of the American Revolution had banned Anderson from performing in Constitution Hall, so then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to perform at the Lincoln Memorial instead, with Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt in attendance. The event is remembered as one of the landmarks of the early U.S. civil rights movement.
Political reportage for the “women’s pages”
Relocating to Washington D.C. in 1940, Cottrell became the first full-time female national capitol correspondent for Newsweek, the Chicago Sun and the New York Herald Tribune.
Much of her work was “packaged” for publication on what were then called the “women’s pages,” especially frequent profiles of women who had won election or appointment to influential positions in government.
Yet amid the descriptions of how the women dressed and wore their hair was serious reportage about the hard issues of the era.
Post-World War II, Cottrell traveled in China as a special correspondent for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. She witnessed the ceremony that transferred India from British rule to the home government formed by Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and narrowly escaped the Moslem/Hindu riots that followed. Joining the Marshall Plan administration in 1948 as a special correspondent, Ann Cottrell reported on U.S. efforts to rebuild western Europe; interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt during the former First Lady’s successful effort to win the 1948 adoption of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights; and covered the last days of French rule in Vietnam for the Herald Tribune and other newspapers.
As a roving foreign correspondent, Ann Cottrell’s stories also included datelines from the Sinai desert, Iran, Palestine, Vienna, Paris, London, and Berlin.
James S. Free
Back in Washington D.C., Ann Cottrell met James S. Free (1908-1996), the longtime Washington D.C. correspondent for the Birmingham News, after she accidentally decked him ––a man much larger than she was––with a sharp elbow during a White House media scrum.
Favoring desegregation at a time when that was scarcely a popular or safe perspective in Birmingham, James S. Free told ANIMALS 24-7 shortly before his death that frequent menacing anonymous calls from the Ku Klux Klan never bothered him because he had become hard of hearing at an early age. He would politely ask the callers to repeat words, or put them on speaker so that others could listen too, and the callers would go away.
Married in February 1950, James and Ann Cottrell Free during the 1960s co-wrote a syndicated political column called Washington Whirligig.
Ann Cottrell Free also wrote for the Washington Star, Washington Post, Defenders of Wildlife, This Week, the North American Newspaper Alliance syndicate, and the Women’s News Service.
Introduced to Animal Welfare Institute founder Christine Stevens (1918-2002) by then-U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey in the mid-1950s, Free in 1963 received the Albert Schweitzer Medal from the Animal Welfare Institute, one of the highest honors in animal welfare, for reporting that rallied public opinion behind passage of the Humane Slaughter Act (1958), and helped to win passage of the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act (1966), amended in 1970 into the farther reaching Animal Welfare Act.
During the same years, Ann Cottrell Free interviewed and befriended Rachel Carson (1907-1964), while Carson was writing Silent Spring (1962), credited as the rallying cry of the late 20th century environmental movement.
After Carson’s death, Ann Cottrell Free in a nationally distributed magazine article initiated the campaign that brought the 1966 dedication of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine.
Ann Cottrell Free authored three books, including Forever the Wild Mare (1965); Animals, Nature and Albert Schweitzer (1982); and No Room, Save in the Heart (1987). At her death she was writing a memoir of her time in China.
Free’s oral history Telling Their Story is All I Can Do is part of Columbia University’s animal advocacy oral history collection.
Free was also involved to some extent in hands-on humane work, having in 1986 co-founded the Vieques Humane Society on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico.
Ann Cottrell Free died in October 2004, eight years after James S. Free.
Who was Henry Spira?
Henry Spira (1927-1998) all but invented the late 20th century animal rights movement, largely in outspoken counterpoint to what he saw as the ineffective strategies then pursued by HSUS and the other major animal advocacy charities.
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 led his classmates in converting the ideas they had discussed into political action.
Along the way, Spira learned that more than 200 years of antivivisection activism had not ever stopped a cruel experiment. Spira changed that with a 1976-1977 campaign that persuaded the American Museum of Natural history to end 18 years of sex experiments on maimed and disfigured cats.
Big gains on a tiny budget
Out of that campaign came Animal Rights International, which as New York Times writer Barnaby J. Feder remembered, “rarely consisted of more than Spira himself and a part-time aide,” working out of Spira’s New York City apartment, on a budget of less than the top executive salaries at HSUS.
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 $400 million in the effort, more than all other institutions combined, and has cut its own use of animals in half while tripling in size.
Turned to focus on farmed animals
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.
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 Kristallnacht, 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,” which meant, Spira recalled, “indoctrinating soldiers in the American way.”
That gave Spira 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, which he eventually edited 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.
Reported on Castro’s Cuba
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 a CIA-directed invasion of Cuba failed 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 Spira 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.
Spira died in his sleep on September 12, 1998 from esophageal cancer, after a three-year battle during which he seldom complained about his painful condition, but often complained about the failures of animal advocacy organizations, especially HSUS, to learn from experience.
Nine rules of conduct
The Spira prescription for success included nine rules of conduct, amounting to an admonition to play hard but play fair:
Try to understand public opinion. Stay in touch with reality.
Select vulnerable campaign targets.
Set acheiveable, meaningful goals.
Don’t divide the world into saints and sinners.
Seek dialog. Position issues as problems with realistic solutions.
Maintain credibility. Don’t exaggerate or hype the issue.
Develop a realistic, practical, doable campaign strategy.
Be ready for confrontation via escalating public awareness if your target proves unresponsive.
Quartz magazine business reporter Chase Purdy recently lauded Humane Society of the U.S., Mercy for Animals, Compassion Over Killing, and Vegan Outreach, whose formation Spira personally encouraged in his last year of life, for having “figured out an ingenious way to change the food system, without having to plead or fight directly with meat and egg companies.”
But with due respect to all of those organizations, and many others contributing to recent gains on behalf of farmed animals, Spira was the master strategist whose insights have been posthumously channeled.
“The time is ripe for action”
Wrote Spira two days before he died, “The time is ripe for action. There is escalating interest in the nine billion victims of factory farming and the health and environmental consequences of meat eating.
“The inertia from decades of thoughtless, habitual meat-eating is being overcome. Together we can create the critical mass to inspire the public to consider the meatless lifestyle and challenge the abuses of factory farming.
“Work on all fronts”
“If we are to succeed, we must work on all fronts. This will include keeping up the pressure on the fast food and supermarket industries so that more corporations join in the pioneering efforts [to produce and market successful plant-based alternatives to animal products, and to ensure that animals who are raised for food are kept without suffering.]
“We must continue to work with governments.
“Above all,” Spira emphasized, “we need to measure our success by results—by increasing the numbers of vegetarians and part-time vegetarians and by the number of farm animals whose lives are improved.
The will & resources
“The animal protection and vegetarian movements have already demonstrated the will and resources to influence public thinking,” Spira concluded.
“Campaigning on behalf of farm animals, we can work with other constituencies dedicated to improving food safety, protecting the environment and small farmers.
“Working together, we can improve the quality of life for all. We hope that both the grassroots groups and national organizations will take advantage of present trends and brainstorm with the goal of turning words into action. The time has never been better. Let’s seize the opportunity!”