“Had a front-row seat for four decades with this larger-than-life man.”
In Defense of Animals founder Elliot Katz passed away on March 24, 2021, at age 86, his former wife told me, survived by their two daughters, a grandchild, and his brother.
I had a unique relationship with Elliot. It wasn’t merely that I was his closest colleague and friend in the movement, but he revealed a diametrically different side of himself to me than his movement persona of being intractable, demanding, volatile, etc., largely fueled by the intensity of his drive to end speciesism.
I came to know an altogether different man in our four decades of friendship–sensitive, loving, supportive, and even tender. When I asked him why he so rarely displayed that side of himself publicly, he shared that a piece I wrote inspired him to start In Defense of Animals, and that led to a sense of trust that made him comfortable in being himself with me.
“Restless to find his true calling”
Born in New York City, Elliot was a 1958 graduate of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Even then, he challenged practices he believed to be needlessly cruel. He established a successful veterinary practice, but his fertile mind was restless to find his true calling. He then spent some time at Esalen in Big Sur, California, studying under Fritz Perls, the Esalen resident guru/psychiatrist and founder of Gestalt therapy.
Elliot then became immersed in Zen Buddhism at a Zen Center in the San Francisco Bay area, followed by establishing City Celebration, an organization to help immigrants retain their indigenous art forms.
“A force in the arts scene”
Indeed, Elliot was a force in the Bay Area arts scene. City Celebration was literally just that: a celebration of the Bay Area’s diversity, arts, and progressiveness. I attended many of the events, and the embrace of both immigrants and their art forms enriched performers and audiences alike. He predictably clashed with the board of directors, and it didn’t end well for Elliot. Still, he left an indelible imprint on Bay Area arts.
Elliot first became involved in animal advocacy after that, forming Californians for Responsible Research to protest against laboratory conditions at U.C. Berkeley. He then founded In Defense of Animals in 1983.
“Hardly blind to Elliot’s shortcomings”
I was hardly blind to Elliot’s shortcomings, and did what I could to assuage them. My lament is that he couldn’t share the side of him I knew with others. That was Elliot, however, a complex and contradictory man. What isn’t in question was the depth of his commitment, support of the grassroots, and myriad achievements through In Defense of Animals, a group of limited size and resources.
His two major passions were vivisection and his “baby,” the Guardian Campaign, which focuses on changing the language of animal ownership to that of “guardianship.”
Indeed, of nearly a dozen times I consulted for him, one was specifically focused on initiating that campaign. His belief, shared by me, is that as long as other beings are considered “property” under the law, our progress will be limited to the margins.
One of his happiest days was when the entire state of Rhode Island changed their humane statutes to use the word “guardian.” Elliot realized that didn’t move the bar in the larger legal realm, but he saw it as seed-planting.
Our temperaments were as different as different can be. Many times when consulting for IDA, I would insist that he leave the office, and remarkably he would comply. If it weren’t for our bond, largely inexplicable, that would have resulted in my early demise! His only condition was that nothing occurred in his absence that I didn’t personally approve, as he was a quintessential micromanager/perfectionist.
“Good isn’t good enough”
When working in the civil rights and anti-poverty causes, I wrote a piece in which the salient point is that good isn’t good enough when lives hang in the balance, and Elliot was ecstatic over it. It wasn’t that Elliot felt it justified his overbearing treatment of staff and others, but he believed that it shed light on it.
He felt the suffering of other beings as acutely as anyone I ever knew in the movement, and although he often asked me to help temper his intensity, it was so fierce that my efforts were to no avail. In our personal time together, however, he manifested all the positive attributes that eluded him in other settings.
Interpersonal conflict was Elliot’s constant companion. I often joked with Elliot, and a big smile would appear on his face when I said, “Elliot, just imagine what you could achieve if you weren’t your worst enemy.”
“Elliot detested walking in place”
My piece all those years ago that inspired Elliot, and was the initiation of our enduring friendship , was something like “Complacency is Another Word for Complicity,” as most of all Elliot detested walking in place. It was actually fun to consult for him, as he had an insatiable thirst for innovation and a keen tactical mind.
Yes, Elliot was flawed, which he freely acknowledged. Everything considered, I feel privileged to have had a front-row seat for four decades with this larger-than-life man.
Despite Elliot’s limitations in interpersonal relations, what I know for certain is that our beloved animal family is far the richer for his presence on this Earth. He was a warrior’s warrior and a friend, and even when I served in other social justice movements, his support was unfailing. Imperfections and all, I’ll miss him.
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