1963 history sidestepped controversies that revitalized the cause
By the end of the era in humane work that William Alan Swallow most thoroughly chronicles in Quality of Mercy (1963), an era coinciding with the 40-year career of Swallow’s longtime close associate Eric H. Hansen (1903-1965), most mainstream U.S. humane societies did little more than kill dogs and cats in ever-increasing volume––albeit not happily, and under grim duress.
During that time external pressures gradually transformed the ideal of saving animals’ lives with the notion that administering “humane euthanasia” was the best that could be done for most animals arriving at shelters, whether or not the animals were suffering.
Along the way the focal activity of the U.S. humane movement shifted from promoting moral education and preventing cruelty wherever it occurred, as had been the focus from the formation of the American SPCA by Henry Bergh in 1866, to providing animal care and control service to cities and counties, in competition with private contractors who chiefly sold impounded animals for laboratory use.
Humane workers and movement leaders accurately assessed that dogs and cats would suffer less from being “put to sleep,” as euthanasia was euphemistically described, than from being used in multiple surgeries in “wet labs” used to train medical personnel, or in painful experiments and product testing.
Lack of alternatives
Laboratory animals in the U.S. had no legal protections at all before the passage of the federal Laboratory Animal Protection Act of 1966, later expanded into the Animal Welfare Act of 1970.
But the lack of perceived alternatives to “putting animals to sleep” gradually transformed the formerly vital, upbeat, and fast-growing humane movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries into a frustrating pursuit whose workers endured some of the highest rates of alcohol and drug abuse, relationship failure, and suicide of any U.S. industry. Humane societies also paid some of the lowest wages, with the least fringe benefits.
Administrators & empire-builders
Eric H. Hansen was neither an animal exploitation industry plant, nor uninterested in animals of all species. But Hansen was the first nationally influential leader of the humane cause in the U.S. who reached prominence by pursuing a career path. Swallow, his sidekick, was likewise a careerist.
Hansen and Swallow were administrators and empire-builders, not social revolutionaries. Neither had more than transient contact with the U.S. humane movement founders whom Swallow wrote about, and neither was involved during the pre-World War I rapid growth phase, when the founders passed on but the founding vision remained intense. Hansen and Swallow were politely concerned on behalf of every sort of animal, but passionate, it appears, about none. Their aspirations were so much confined to the practical that it is hard to discern any difference between their moral perspective and that of the average mid-20th century American.
Hansen and Swallow were interested in wildlife, for example, to the extent of rolling back the former opposition of the American Humane Association and Massachusetts SPCA to sport hunting, to instead partner with pro-hunting groups in pushing for the creation of “wildlife refuges” where hunting was regulated.
Hansen and Swallow were also interested in farm animals, to the extent of forming “livestock conservation” programs within the American Humane Association and Massachusetts SPCA, whose major functions seem to have been promoting an “Old McDonald’s Farm” image of the meat industry.
Swallow does not indicate that he and Hansen ever actively challenged the introduction of factory farming, which the British author Ruth Harrison (1920-2000) named and exposed in Animal Machines (1964), just one year after Swallow published The Quality of Mercy.
Humane Slaughter Act
The major humane legislative accomplishment of the Hansen/Swallow era, much touted by Swallow, was passage of the 1959 Humane Slaughter Act. Never well-enforced, the Humane Slaughter Act essentially codified the mechanized slaughter practices of the biggest meatpacking companies, helped to put small village slaughterhouses out of business, and has been largely unenforced since USDA budget cuts and procedural changes began sharply reducing the slaughterhouse inspection force during the 1980s.
Hansen and Swallow addressed the welfare of laboratory animals, too. In 1958, recalled Christine Stevens in Animals And Their Legal Rights (1990), they won the first successful U.S. cruelty prosecution of a lab animal supplier. But Swallow for some reason so little recognized the importance of that as to make no mention of it in his book––or perhaps he felt it might be too controversial.
The Hansen/Swallow approach to humane education is particularly indicative, since it continues to predominate today.
As well as heading the Massachusetts SPCA, Hansen during the same years headed the American Humane Education Society, begun by Massachusetts SPCA founder George Angell in 1882 and formally incorporated as a Massachusetts SPCA subsidiary in 1889.
Bands of Mercy
Under Angell, the American Humane Education Society concentrated for about 30 years on forming schoolroom humane education clubs called the Bands of Mercy.
“More than 265,000 Bands of Mercy were organized before they fell before the advanced methods of education,” claims The Quality of Mercy, adding that “They have their successors in the Society’s Junior Humane groups.”
Jack London Clubs
Not exactly. After Massachusetts SPCA founder George Angell died in 1909, successor Frances Rowley in 1913 organized a Bands of Mercy convention in Kansas City that drew 25,000 children plus 15,000 parents and teachers. Walt Disney and his sister Ruth are believed to have attended.
Rowley also started the Jack London Clubs to seek the abolition of animal use in entertainment, inspired by the London book Michael, Brother of Jerry, published in 1917, a year after London’s suicide. The Jack London Clubs claimed 750,000 members, at peak.
Angell Memorial Hospital
However, Rowley incurred enormous debt in building Angell Memorial Animal Hospital, opened in 1915, dominating the Massachusetts SPCA program ever since. Financially hobbled for more than a decade even before the Great Depression, the Massachusetts SPCA allowed the Bands of Mercy to disappear and the Jack London Clubs to fade, though they still existed at least on paper as late as 1963.
The Massachusetts SPCA nonetheless continued as ambitious an advocacy program as Rowley could sustain, even passing an anti-trapping referendum in 1930 that was never enforced by the Massachusetts Department of Wildlife.
4-H & Future Farmers
Hansen and Swallow ended all that. Whatever crusading spirit remained from the Bands of Mercy was wholly lost in the post-1942 amalgamation of the Junior Humane group programs with activities of the 4-H Clubs and Future Farmers of America.
“Humane education” for George Angell and Frances Rowley was synonymous with moral education. Post-Hansen and Swallow, “humane education” mainly meant teaching dog and cat care. Animal use industry influence has subsequently made merely raising moral questions about animal use and abuse in classrooms more controversial than most “humane educators” dare to attempt.
It may be indicative that the Hansen-era Massacusetts SPCA innovation most often mentioned and praised in The Quality of Mercy was the formation of a public relations department––which Swallow directed.
As a public relations pioneer, however, Swallow seems to have consistently overlooked the most newsworthy aspects of much that he mentioned in passing.
In 1922, wrote Swallow, “the Pennsylvania SPCA pioneered with radio station WIP in broadcasting the first humane education program ever to go out over the airwaves.”
Why did so many decades elapse before animal advocates again made use of broadcast media?
Walt Disney Inc. probably did a better job of broadcast humane education than the mid-20th century humane movement could have. Yet inability to match the appeal and impact of Dumbo, Bambi, Lady & The Tramp, 101 Dalmatians, et al does not explain why few humane organizations made much use of electronic media before the debut of social networking
Another big missed opportunity seems to have been much less obvious and is still almost completely missed. The Humane Society of Missouri, founded in 1870, in 1885 took on the mission of protecting children as well, Swallow recounted, and tried to reduce the incidence of both children and animals being killed in street accidents by promoting driver education.
The American Humane Association child protection division later saved thousands of childrens’ lives with a long-running “Wear white at night” campaign, in which many other charities and companies participated, and the Humane Society of the U.S. in 1957 made a brief attempt to study and try to prevent roadkills of wildlife, but the original idea of preventing roadkills through driver education fell by the wayside and has not been revived in a sustained manner by any animal advocacy organization.
Swallow casually mentioned other squandered opportunities every few pages, without ever identifying them as such.
Mobile lost momentum
“In the State of Alabama, the Mobile SPCA was founded in 1885,” Swallow wrote. “The Society received nationwide attention in 1892 arising from the arrest and conviction of a groom for using a cruel overcheck rein. At the time it was said to be the first such conviction in the world.”
Seventy years later, the Mobile SPCA was still hoping to acquire the funds to open an animal shelter and 110 years later, that 1892 conviction remained the only humane accomplishment of note in Mobile, whose pounds and shelters killed 70 dogs and cats per year per 1,000 human residents, the worst record of any U.S. city. Only in the early 21st century have the Mobile animal care and control statistics descended toward the U.S. norms.
Yet another chance was missed almost on Hansen and Swallow’s doorstep. The Rhode Island SPCA and Children’s Society, founded in 1871, leased shelter space until 1925, when it opened a shelter funded, Swallow wrote, “by the estate of a Negro lady, Sarah E. Gardiner of Newport, whom the Society had helped from time to time in removing stray cats.”
The Rhode Island SPCA and Children’s Society, like the slightly older American SPCA, MSPCA, and Women’s Humane Society of Philadelphia, was begun by pre-Civil War antislavery crusaders, who built on the remnants of the dissolved antislavery societies to which they formerly belonged.
The bequest by Sarah Gardiner suggests that positive relations with Afro-Americans continued through the first 25 years of the 20th century, when the Ku Klux Klan became so strong in New England that it briefly controlled the legislatures of Maine and New Hampshire.
Why are the once strong black roots of the humane movement not rediscovered, celebrated, and re-established?
The Quality of Mercy includes one account which superficially sounds as if history might have repeated itself. The San Francisco SPCA, recalled Swallow, “in 1954 founded the Northern California SPCA and initiated a Department of Field Services for counseling and advising cities and counties on appropriate and humane kenneling of impounded animals. A year later the SF/SPCA also founded the Western Humane Education Society, intending to further humane education throughout the western states.”
These initiatives appear at a glance to have presaged the outreach efforts that were reinvigorated by the San Francisco SPCA after an agreement with the city Department of Animal Care & Control in 1994 made San Francisco the first U.S. city to end population control killing of dogs and cats.
The San Francisco turnabout
Swallow did not spell out exactly what the San Francisco SPCA sought to promote as “appropriate and humane kenneling” and humane education in 1954-1955, but it was not what the San Francisco SPCA later came to stand for, and was not popular with the public.
By 1976, when Adoption Pact author Richard Avanzino was elected San Francisco SPCA president, the society was nearly bankrupt, the Western Humane Education Society had apparently vanished without a trace, and the chief activity of the organization was killing animals in a decompression chamber, which Avanzino scrapped on his second day.
Avanzino went on to head the national no-kill advocacy organization Maddie’s Fund from 1998 to 2015.
Hansen and Swallow were scarcely the only leaders of the mid-20th century animal welfare movement who lacked vision. Indeed, since their time, the Massachusetts SPCA has cut program outreach by more than half, though it remains among the most affluent hands-on humane societies in the world.
The MSPCA is still helping humane work in Morocco via the American Fondouk Association. The MSPCA is also still aiding humane work in Turkey via the Alice Manning Trust. But the International SPA that the MSPCA sponsored from 1959 to 1981 was spun off as the World Society for the Protection of Animals, after a merger with programs of the Royal SPCA and the Humane Society of the U.S, and is now called World Animal Protection.
The MSPCA is not visibly more ambitious in Massachusetts, where it now operates shelters and animal hospitals in Boston, Centerville, Methuen, and Nantucket, down from 11 facilities at peak, including had nine adoption centers and law enforcement offices.
But the recent contraction of the Massachusetts SPCA, forced by steep financial losses, especially in 2008, resulted in part from the zombie-like posture of the organization decades earlier, followed by decades of administrative conservative even as the humane movement itself grew by leaps and bounds and split into the multitude of parallel and allied movements that it includes today.
Praised “lethal rooms,” omitted s/n
Swallow, for example, praised the incorporation of “lethal rooms” and gas chambers into the design of various then-new shelters, many of which are still in service.
Yet, though The Quality of Mercy was published 40 years after the American Veterinary Medical Association endorsed the surgical sterilization techniques for dogs and cats that are still most commonly used today, and six years after the late Alice Herrington founded Friends of Animals to promote low-cost surgical sterilization as an alternative to dog and cat population control killing, The Quality of Mercy made not even one mention of dog and cat birth control in any form.
Saw animal cemeteries as future of humane work
The penultimate chapter discussed establishing “Animal Cemeteries and Rest Farms for Horses” as a major activity of “the nation’s animal protection agencies,” without an apparent trace of self-conscious irony.
The brief last chapter, “Projection into the Future,” lamented that because of scarce funding, “The movement…can therefore draw only on those who are genuinely interested in animal welfare to such extent that they are willing to forego material success in favor of ethical satisfaction.”
Didn’t learn from travel
Yet alleged lack of material success does not seem to have inhibited Swallow himself from undertaking extensive travel abroad to study humane work in England, France, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Turkey, and Morocco.
This was not easy when world travel was done chiefly by steamship, required taking months away from regular work, and cost about 10 times more per trip than today, in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Swallow was not necessarily just junketing. A serious humane executive might have had good reason to visit these nations. There was and is a crying need for humane organizations of wealth to assist humane work in the underdeveloped world. That includes sending staff from time to time to see in person just what needs to be done and how best to help.
Yet Swallow himself mentioned nothing learned or taught in his travels, which seem to have been mainly to vacation spots. He wrote briefly about the Massachusetts SPCA outreach to Morocco, cited the Massachusetts SPCA aid to Turkey in a single sentence, and said not a word about anything else seen or done abroad.
Confused institutional goals with humane progress
The perquisites and compensation standards for humane executives have risen markedly since Swallow’s time. The organizations that Swallow profiled now pay, among them, more than 50 salaries in excess of triple the U.S. median household income.
Despite that, it may be no surprise that most of the impetus to recent progress has come from organizations which were either founded well after Swallow wrote, or which Swallow neglected to mention.
The ultimate value in reading and reviewing this more-than-50-year-old self-celebration is in seeing through the prism of history how far wrong mainstream perspectives can be, especially when institutional goals, such as achieving financial security, are confused with authentic humane progress.