Editorial by Merritt & Beth Clifton
Two nights ago, in advance of Martin Luther King Day, ANIMALS 24-7 posted as our lead feature Four black leaders who built the humane movement, profiling William Key, John W. Lemon, Richard Carroll, and Frederick Barnwell Rivers.
Those four forgotten black men between 1898 and 1945 probably reached more people in person, as employees of the American Humane Education Society, than any humane educators before or since. That their names are not better remembered in the humane and animal rights movements is a travesty.
Last night, for the fourth consecutive year, ANIMALS 24-7 reposted What animal advocates owe to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
This article, among our most-read-and-requested offerings ever, examines the enormous influence that Martin Luther King Jr. had on Henry Spira (1927-1998), in particular, who more than anyone else inspired and rallied the rise of the animal rights movement in the late 20th century.
The King family
ANIMALS 24-7 appreciated also the contributions of King’s widow, Coretta Scott King; the ongoing contributions to animal advocacy of his son Dexter Scott King; and King’s influence on Cesar Chavez (1927-1993).
Chavez, though better known as a labor leader and civil rights activist, was a longtime vegetarian who spoke out for animals, too.
We unfortunately omitted mention of Bill Moyer (1933-2002), a longtime aide to King at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who co-founded the Movement for a New Society and later founded the Social Movement Empowerment Project.
Moyer during his last dozen years tried hard to share his strategic experience and insights with animal advocacy leadership. His influence on the thinking of some of the many animal advocacy leaders he met with is much more evident posthumously than it ever was during his lifetime.
We might also have mentioned Nelson Mandela, another leader profoundly influenced by Martin Luther King Jr., who in 1994 was elected first president of post-apartheid South Africa.
Retiring in 1999, at age 81, Mandela withdrew gradually from public life, gracefully surrendering most of his titles and affiliations before his death in December 2013, at age 95.
To the end, however, Mandela remained patron-in-chief of the National Council of SPCAs, a post he clearly cherished and had held for nearly 20 years.
Was hunter, not veg
Mandela was not deeply involved in animal issues. He reportedly shot both an impala and a blesbok in 1991 as a guest of KaNgwane (Bantustan) conservation officials.
Neither was Mandela a vegetarian, though he had prominent vegetarian friends, including the chef Bakshi Vemulakonda, formerly director of catering for Air India, and the spiritual leader Chinmoy Kumar Ghose (1931-2007).
But Mandela had a sincere appreciation of animals.
Recognizing that animals do not recognize human political boundaries, Mandela in 2001 opened a gate to allow 40 elephants to pass from Kruger National Park in South Africa to an adjoining area in Mozambique, as part of the creation of the 13,510-square-mile Gaza-Kruger-Gonarezhou transborder park, also including Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe.
Mandela later attended the release of a troupe of baboons who had been kept in a laboratory into the Shambala Game Reserve. The baboons had been rehabilitated by the late Rita Miljo (1931-2012), founder of the Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education, against the advice of the National Council of SPCAs and South African wildlife officials that they could not be returned to the wild.
“The greatest gift: a more humane society”
“In time,” Mandela said, “we must bestow on South Africa the greatest gift––a more humane society.”
The Cape Town-based Humane Education Trust made extensive use of the quote in support of the South African national humane education program, introduced in 2003.
Unfortunately, the U.S. humane movement today lags as far behind in welcoming, recognizing, and celebrating the contributions of people of African descent as our society as a whole did in Martin Luther King Jr.’s lifetime.
Worse, much of the U.S. humane movement today is part-and-parcel of advancing pit bull proliferation, one of the most enduring legacies of the Ku Klux Klan––and is often actively alienating African Americans by misappropriating terminology from the civil rights movement in defense of pit bulls, and by making outreach efforts to black communities primarily to try to rehome more pit bulls, even as pit bulls kill and disfigure black people, children especially, disproportionately often.
Black children at risk
Relative to numbers, a black child is today about three times more likely than a white child to be killed by a pit bull.
This was not always the case, even when Klansmen terrorized neighborhoods undergoing racial integration by releasing pit bulls out of the backs of panel vans and pickup trucks to attack anyone of dark skin until whistled back at the first sound of approaching sirens.
This tactic, unfortunately, has already been seen in use in the U.S. as recently as January 2019.
It was seen in Calgary, Alberta––reputedly the most pit bull-friendly city in Canada––in 2009, where two elderly men and two female children were mauled in a series of apparently racially motivated incidents.
Pit bull attacks, neglect, violent abuse, and misuse in dogfighting have since the 1990s often been associated with inner city “gangbangers,” though all continue to occur most often in mostly white low-income neighborhoods.
During Martin Luther King Jr.’s lifetime, by contrast, pit bulls were rarely seen anywhere that black people lived. Dogfighting in most of the U.S. was an artifact of history, persisting almost entirely in the Deep South and a few other enclaves of Klan political influence, where the “dogmen” could pay off Klan-controlled law enforcement agencies to look away.
The Klan and Klan splinter groups had been even more deeply involved in dogfighting and pit bull breeding a generation earlier.
As recently as the early 1930s, Klan chapters masquerading as fraternal lodges would openly advertise dogfights, cockfights, and pigeon shoots.
From bedsheets to bike gangs
As overt racism became less and less respectable, along with cruelty to animals, the ads became more discreet.
By the 1970s, as the Klan itself faded, the Klan connection was barely visible. The Klan itself had largely morphed into motorcycle gangs and skinheads.
Younger generations of racists had fled to the west and Pacific Northwest, pursuing twisted dreams of building a white supremacist empire that would stretch from Utah to Alaska.
Instead of moonshining, they cooked meth. Instead of bedsheets, they wore tattoos. But they took dogfighting with them.
Prison gangs then spread dogfighting and the use of pit bulls to guard drugs into the black community.
No real wizards
Had the Grand Imperial Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan schemed to leave a deadly legacy to do the maximum possible damage to black people, they could not have concocted a more diabolical plot.
With the proceeds from dogfighting in decline for generations, there was no longer any reason to keep it as an exclusive franchise, while unleashing pit bulls amid crowded housing projects and multi-family small framehouses full of small children was a surefire way to kill and maim many more of those children, faster, than the Birmingham Bomber (who killed four black schoolgirls in 1963) ever dreamed of.
But the Grand Imperial Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan were never really wizards at all. There was no big plot to what they did.
The Klan could not have anticipated that pit bulls rehomed by humane societies would kill more black children from 2010 to the present than were killed by all dog attacks combined during the time the Klan itself controlled dogfighting and actively used pit bulls to intimidate black people.
The U.S. humane community does from time to time honor black celebrities who help to promote animal adoptions.
Yet this tradition has degenerated from singer and actress Eartha Kitt’s promotions for the North Shore Animal League into the recent use of imagery featuring convicted dogfighter Michael Vick by the Humane Society of the U.S. in ads pushing pit bulls.
Meanwhile the U.S. humane community remains conspicuously reluctant to hire and advance black personnel.
Emmogene James, a longtime North Shore Animal League senior staff member, is among the very few exceptions of the past 30 years.
Lloyd Tait, VMD
Reviewing the original edition of Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians & Staff in August 2004, ANIMALS 24-7 noticed immediately and approvingly that it was “dedicated to Lloyd Tait, VMD.”
Tait, who in 1968 became the American SPCA’s first director of shelter medicine, “was everything one could imagine in a friend and mentor,” recalled Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians & Staff editors Lila Miller and Stephen Zawistowski.
“Irascible, supportive, quixotic, and fiercely dedicated to animal welfare,’ Miller and Zawistowski wrote, “he laid the early foundation for the formal practice of veterinary medicine in the ASPCA shelters.”
Tait was later for many years a traveling consultant for the World Society for the Protection of Animals, contributing to humane advances in street dog and feral cat population control from the Caribbean islands to eastern Europe to Sri Lanka.
Tait joined the ASPCA staff soon after former ASPCA Brooklyn shelter director George Watford, long ago retired, as only the second nationally prominent humane worker of African descent since Barnwell.
Miller, who on January 1, 2019 announced her retirement, joined the ASPCA staff in 1977. Despite her seniority and title, Miller appears to have never been listed on IRS Form 990 as one of the ASPCA’s ten most highly paid personnel. At her retirement Miller remained perhaps the youngest black person in a leadership position with any of the several dozen largest humane societies in the United States.
Some black guests are occasionally visible at national humane and animal rights conferences. Almost all, however, are either employed outside the humane cause, or are visitors from Africa. Those appearing at the podium are most often celebrity athletes or entertainers.
Since Miller was hired, a few other people of African ancestry have become prominent in shelter work, perhaps most notably longtime National Animal Care & Control Association board member Keith Robinson, long ago retired. Most of these black people, however, have worked in the realm of public service, where affirmative action hiring has long been required by law.
A convention of Afro-American executive directors of humane societies could probably be held around a card table, and would still have empty chairs.
Neither the first edition of Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians & Staff, nor the second edition, published 10 years later, makes mention of the ethnicity of either Tait or Miller.
Yet it needs to be mentioned.
When two of a tiny handful of people of any particular background make contributions to humane work of the magnitude they have, the rest of the humane community should sit up, take notice, and look for more talent from the same source.
No random accident
It is highly unlikely that Tait and Miller became who they are, doing what they have done for decades, by random accident.
It is also tedious and tiresome that we are still attending national conferences where it is suggested, based on long-ago surveys of Afro-American students in agricultural veterinary schools, that African-Americans are somehow less emotionally attached to animals than anyone else.
Any survey of agricultural veterinary students would almost certainly find less emotional attachment to animals than among companion animal veterinary students, and would probably find less than among the general public. This is simply not relevant. It is time to stop looking for differences and excuses, and start looking for Afro-Americans to hire and train.
Abundant qualified talent
The veterinary profession itself offers abundant qualified talent. Harvard first graduated a black veterinarian in 1889; the University of Pennsylvania in 1907. The Tuskegee Institute, a historically black university, has graduated entire classes of veterinarians annually since 1949.
Indeed, the percentage of veterinarians of African-American descent has edged up slowly, from about 2% at Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination to 2.5% today, but––except at the ASPCA––black shelter veterinarians barely exist.
Attentive readers may note that this is not the first time ANIMALS 24-7 has said this. The above editorial is adapted from an article originating in January 1993. Much of it is word-for-word identical to an opinion column published alongside a review of the first edition of Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians & Staff in August 2004, and alongside a review of the second edition in August 2014.
ANIMALS 24-7 posted previous editions of it, as it now stands with only minor updates, in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019.
By January 2020 these words should have long since become historical artifacts. The message should no longer have currency.
Instead, it is still time for the humane community to stop looking for differences and excuses, and start looking for black Americans to hire, train, and promote into positions of influence. It will never be too late.
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