Career in show biz led to more than 35 years in animal advocacy
Bill Dyer, 83, who sought stardom in show business, but made his most enduring mark in animal advocacy, died on July 11, 2017 in Venice, California, his home for most of his life.
Born to immigrant parents in San Diego, a short drive south of Venice and Hollywood, Dyer met future actor, director, and photographer Dennis Hopper, two years younger, at Helix High School.
Starring together in a 1951 school production of the stage play Charlie’s Aunt, Dyer and Hopper upon graduation headed to Hollywood.
Rode in different directions
Hopper made his television debut in 1954, appeared with James Dean in the films Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956), directed the 1969 hit film Easy Rider in 1969, and continued to have posthumous success in several films released after his death in 2010.
Dyer sang in local night clubs, worked in the Las Vegas show “Ken Murray’s Blackouts” (1956), then sought his fortune in New York City.
Instead of landing Broadway stardom, Dyer was drafted into the U.S. Army, spending most of the next two years stationed in Frankfurt.
“After the Army,” recalled In Defense of Animals colleague Robin Dorman in an online biography, “Bill returned to New York City and did singing engagements that landed him on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show twice, which at that time operated out of New York.”
Aware that Hollywood was rapidly eclipsing Broadway as the hub of U.S. show business, Dyer eventually “returned to the West Coast,” Dorman recalled, “and began writing scripts, lyrics, organizing programs, and writing routine musical material” for a variety of television productions.
“Bill received three Emmy nominations,” Dorman recounted, for “The Big Event: An Evening with Diana Ross, and Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women.”
Dyer wrote a play, The Suicide (1980) which flopped on Broadway despite starring the renowned British actor Sir Derek Jacobi in his U.S. debut.
Dyer also wrote two musicals in partnership with Dick DeBenedictis, The Fellowship (1991), which flopped in West Hollywood, and Trolls, a modest success in a variety of theaters in both the Los Angeles area and New York City from 2001 to 2005.
“Animal rights became my cause”
But by 1980, as Dyer often recalled, “Animal rights became my cause and it took over my life.”
Recalled Last Chance for Animals founder Chris DeRose, “Bill was one of the original members of LCA,” founded in 1984, “and was always on the front lines of any action LCA took. He was in the mix of some of LCA’s biggest investigations, such as the case of notorious Class B dog dealer Barbara Ruggiero, who sold stolen family dogs for medical research.” Ruggiero and two associates, Frederick Spero and Ralf Jacobsen, were convicted of related offenses in 1991.
Remembered Dorman, “When Chris took Bill to his first vegetarian restaurant, which only served sun-dried food, Bill asked Chris, ‘Do we have to give up stoves, too?’ But, fortunately, stoves are still necessary and Bill became a vegan.”
Said Dyer, “Once you become an activist [on behalf of animals], it is inconceivable to eat them.”
“Even from his wheelchair”
Dyer also “was a great friend to PETA, assisting with many protests. He continued protesting well into his golden years, even from his wheelchair,” wrote People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals senior editor Lindsay Pollard-Post in an online remembrance.
But Dyer enjoyed his most memorable successes mostly on behalf on In Defense of Animals, an association that began, according to Dorman, when Dyer met IDA founder Elliot Katz at the second March for Animals in Washington, D.C. in 1996.
The event itself was a catastrophic flop, attracting fewer than 3,000 participants when tens of thousands had been predicted, and ending with sponsors threatening litigation over missing funds.
Katz asked Dyer to speak
But Katz, “in a great capacity of spirit, asked Bill to take his place and speak on the steps of the Capitol,” Dorman wrote.
Recalled Dyer, “Elliot gave a portion of his time over to me, which was very kind, very moving, and I spoke in front of thousands and focused on the young people who were there from all over the world and said how much I admired their expression of vegan power, our hope for the future.”
In Defense of Animals gave Dyer the opportunity he needed to intervene on behalf of the feral goats of Santa Catalina Island, who had come with Spanish colonists at an unknown time between the arrival of explorer Juan Cabrillo in 1542 and the abandonment of Spanish and native settlements on the island circa 1830.
War on goats
The Catalina Island Conservancy declared war on the goats circa 1989, hoping to eradicate a population estimated at circa 3,000 before the year 2000. More than 10 years of shooting, including from helicopters, purportedly brought the goal within sight before Dyer and the brush-clearing firm Goats R Us won authorization to remove 121 goats alive during October and November 1999.
But Goats R Us owner Terri Holleman had prior commitments to other projects in December and January 2000, forcing suspension of the evacuation with an estimated 86 still at large.
Declaring an urgent need to exterminate the remaining goats before the spring birthing season, the Catalina Island Conservancy sent sharpshooters, who killed 63. Goats remained on the island until the last were removed alive in 2001.
Six years later, in 2007, Catalina Island residents attributed a devastating wildfire to the loss of the goats, who formerly controlled the growth of tindery forest understory.
The goat extirpation left Catalina Island still occupied by about 300 bison, also slated for death by the Catalina Island Conservancy.
The bison were descended from a herd of 14 introduced to the island in 1924 during the filming of the 1926 western film The Vanishing American, starring Richard Dix. The herd was later supplemented and built up as part of a commercial beef ranch operated by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr.
Negotiating the opportunity to evacuate as many as 150 bison before the rest were culled, Dyer assembled a team who managed to move 106 bison to the mainland by November 2003. The bison were resettled on the Cheyenne River Reservation and the Standing Rock Reservation, both in South Dakota, to become part of the Lakota Sioux herd, with the help of International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros president Karen Sussman.
Sussman, unfortunately, ran into trouble in 2016 for alleged mass neglect of the wild horses in her care.
The Catalina Island Conservancy meanwhile opted for controlling the bison population with contraceptives rather than massacre. Corralled near the town of Avalon, the bison are now among the island’s major tourist attractions.
Dyer had much less success in a running series of conflicts with the management of the Leisure World retirement colony and golf course in Seal Beach, California, over recurring attempts to poison cottontail rabbits.
“In 1992,” Dyer recalled, “an offer to relocate rabbits from Leisure World was rejected by the California Department of Fish and Game. Yet for $40,000, the cost of building one putting green, all of the rabbits could have been trapped, sterilized, and released.”
Eight years later Dyer and In Defense of Animals offered to relocate the rabbits to a privately owned 40-acre site near Lake Elsinore, but that offer was also rejected.
Dyer blamed the alleged overabundance of rabbits at Leisure World on “the killing of red foxes and coyotes, who are natural predators of rabbits, at the nearby U.S. Naval Weapons Station and wildlife refuge.”
The red foxes and coyotes were purportedly targeted to protect the endangered clapper rail.
Los Angeles Zoo elephants
Also long campaigning on behalf of the Los Angeles Zoo elephants, Dyer first conflicted with the zoo management in 1992, when he blamed lack of adequate preparation by then-zoo director Mark Goldstein, DVM, and supervising veterinarian Ben Gonzales for the death of an elephant named Hannibal.
Allegedly over-sedated, Hannibal fell in a transport crate during preparation for a move to the Mexico City Zoo, and over the next 21 hours essentially suffocated––or died of heart failure––under his own weight.
Dyer recalled the Hannibal case to media in depth and detail after another Los Angeles Zoo elephant, Gita, 48, died under somewhat similar circumstances on June 10, 2006.
Suffering for years from foot bone disease and arthritis, Gita fell back on her haunches on June 9, 2006. A zoo staff member saw her sitting in the unnatural position at around nine p.m., but veterinary personnel were not alerted until about eight hours later.
“This is a tragic day that could have been avoided had Gita been sent to the natural habitat of a sanctuary, away from the concrete cramped quarters at the L.A. Zoo,” Dyer told Los Angeles Times staff writer Anna Gorman.
Then-zoo director John Lewis initially denied that Gita had been neglected, but Dyer argued otherwise, and was eventually vindicated by an official investigation.
“I’m glad they’ve admitted the truth after lying to the public so long about this,” Dyer told Amanda Covarrubias of the Los Angeles Times. “It’s tragic that she was left alone. I can’t imagine the psychological and physical suffering she was going through. For ten hours and 15 minutes she was down, unattended.”
Moving Ruby to PAWS
The death of Gita added momentum to ongoing efforts by Dyer and In Defense of Animals elephant campaign leader Catherine Doyle to have Ruby, the last African elephant at the Los Angeles Zoo, moved to the Performing Animal Welfare Society elephant sanctuary near San Andreas, California.
“We finally got Ruby sent to PAWS,” exulted IDA founder Katz after the move was accomplished in May 2007.
In September 2006, meanwhile, Dyer conceded that a 38-year-old Indian elephant named Tai did not appear to be stressed when painted and exhibited in Los Angeles as “installation art” by a British “graffiti artist” who calls himself Banksy. Banksy was in June 2017 identified by a variety of celebrity media as Robert Del Naja, 43.
“Why couldn’t he build an elephant out of papier-mache?”
Asked Dyer of Los Angeles Times reporter Carla Hall, “If this man is an artist, then why couldn’t he build one out of papier-mache?”
Ed Boks, then-general manager of Los Angeles Animal Services, had issued a permit for the exhibition, but eventually ordered that “the elephant be completely scrubbed down to bare skin and that a child-safe face paint be used” for any repainting. Instead, the elephant, rented from a company called Have Trunk Will Travel, was returned to the exhibit without paint.
“It’s better than being painted,” said Bill Dyer. “There’s a huge crowd here,” he added to Hall from the scene, “and it’s very hot and I feel very sorry for the elephant.”
Dyer also advocated for Los Angeles to adopt legislation and animal control policies in pursuit of a “no kill” goal, but his first accomplishment toward that end backfired when in March 2000, the Los Angeles City Council adopted what Dyer called “the nation’s strongest spay/neuter ordinance.”
The ordinance boosted the licensing fee for unaltered animals from $30 to $100,” creating a substantial incentive for owners of intact animals to evade licensing. The ordinance also provided fines of up to $500 for owners of intact animals found running at large, a disincentive for the owners to either identify the animals with tags or microchips, or reclaim them.
“Francis of Assisi would have trouble in this town”
“I would love to see the new [animal services] general manager standing with the mayor and declaring an end to the killing of animals in our city,” Dyer told Hall of the Los Angeles Times after Boks resigned in 2009, the fourth general manager to head Los Angeles Animal Services in less than a decade.
But Dyer acknowledged that given the history of activist opposition to all recent general managers of Los Angeles Animal Services, “Francis of Assisi would have trouble in this town.”
Boks was eventually succeeded by Brenda Barnette, who remains in the position, albeit under more-or-less continuous criticism from media including at times ANIMALS 24-7.
Dyer also helped to win passage of West Hollywood ordinances banning fur sales and declawing cats, replacing the word “owner” with “guardian” in the city animal control ordinance, and prohibiting the sale of commercially bred dogs and cats.
Pet store ordinances
The latter ordinance, adopted in February 2010, was among the first of dozens now in effect around the U.S. and Canada, which allow pet stores to display only dogs and cats from animal shelters.
Meant to encourage adoptions of shelter animals, these ordinances also appear to have backfired, coming into effect coincidental with a national decline in adoption volume and soaring sales of dogs and cats by breeders using online advertising.
Meanwhile, rather than display and assume the liability associated with helping to rehome pit bulls from animal shelters, many pet stores have simply stopped offering any dogs or cats for sale or adoption from their premises.
In his last years Dyer encouraged the formation of the National Museum of Animals & Society in Los Angeles, fulfilling an ambition he had often voiced.