Eccentric midwife to the animal rights movement
AKRON, Ohio––Nellie Saiom Shriver, among the most dynamic early orchestrators of the late 20th century animal rights movement, died on January 12, 2023 at the Copley Nursing Health Care Center in Copley, Ohio.
“I don’t know how much time I have,” Nellie Shriver, Saiom to friends, emailed to longtime friend Alex Hershaft on December 27, 2022. “I have neuropathy in my legs and breast cancer.”
Many old animal rights movement friends made pilgrimages to her bedside during her terminal illness.
Named after her mother
Born Nellie Bertsch in Akron, Ohio, on August 24, 1942, third in a family of seven children, Nellie/Saiom was named after her mother, Nellie S. Bertsch, a poet and longtime first grade teacher who died at age 88 in 2004.
Her father, Leonard M. Bertsch, was a Harvard law school graduate, spent three years in Korea after World War II as a political analyst and policy advisor to the U.S. government, was described by media as “an ardent foe of communism,” and was active in support of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in opposition to racial segregation.
Leonard M. Bertsch died at age 66 in 1976.
Catastrophic family Fourth of July
Nellie Bertsch at age nine may have attended a 1951 Fourth of July celebration at which her cousin Louise, 14, her friend Sylvia Strange, 13, and her uncle, Paul Bertsch, 45, rowed out into an artificial lake Leonard Bertsch owned near Akron to set off fireworks.
A skyrocket exploded in the boat. The boat capsized. Leonard Bertsch rescued Louise, who ran a mile to call the local fire department for help, while Leonard dived, locating both Sylvia and Paul Bertsch underwater.
Unfortunately, Sylvia slipped from Leonard’s grasp and drowned. Leonard managed to bring Paul Bertsch to the surface, but Paul was pronounced dead after failed efforts by sheriff’s deputies to revive him.
The firefighters’ boat meanwhile also capsized, without loss of life.
Stepson influenced vegetarianism
Writing poems as early as 1955 that she later published, Nellie Bertsch became Nellie Shriver through a 1965 marriage to a man named Ross Shriver. The marriage lasted 10 years. She raised two step-children from that marriage, David and Julia.
Nellie Shriver was later briefly married a second time.
“She told me that one of Ross’s children, a boy, was instrumental in her going vegetarian. He was fishing, and she objected. He challenged her by saying that she ate fish,” close friend Lynn Manheim told ANIMALS 24-7.
Following her father into civil rights advocacy, Nellie Shriver, still in Akron, where she spent most of her life, was elected in 1965 to the board of the Akron Area Civil Liberties Union, along with David Gill of Canton, also later a longtime animal advocate.
Nina Natelson, who in 1984 founded Concern for Helping Animals in Israel, recalled to ANIMALS 24-7 that one of Nellie Shriver’s sisters “told me Saiom was a concert-level pianist who worked a full-time job the whole way through college,” majoring in political science, who “also cooked her mother’s meals and took care of her.”
Corrected another sister, Susie Cull, of Columbus, Ohio, “She gave much of her earnings then and in her first job after college to our parents. But she did not cook for or take care of our mother.”
Cull mentioned that Nellie Shriver earned a B.A. in history from Ohio State University in 1964, and “later took some classes at the University of Akron.”
Kent State University
Active in opposition to the Vietnam War, Nellie Shriver, though not present, may have known people who at or near Kent State University on May 4, 1970, when National Guardsmen fatally shot two anti-war demonstrators and two students not involved in the protest who were hit by stray bullets at some distance away.
But friends consulted by ANIMALS 24-7 do not recall that Nellie Shriver ever spoke or wrote about the shootings.
According to Susie Cull, “Nellie was opposed to and demonstrated against the Vietnam War, but she was not involved with the Kent State University demonstrations,” the outcome of which did, however, profoundly affect and influence the entire direction of the anti-war movement.
Nellie Shriver in October 1972 directed a voter registration drive for the Kent State University chapter of “McGovern for President,” in support of anti-war Democratic candidate George McGovern.
Oscar Mayer & Charlie the Tuna
Meanwhile, Nellie Shriver had founded the American Vegetarian Union, whose members in September 1971 picketed the 4-H livestock exhibit at the Ohio State Fair in Columbus.
Then, in December 1972, Nellie Shriver took on the Oscar Mayer hot dog company, and in February 1973, with that running battle still underway, now identified as “a coordinator for the American Vegetarian Association Inc. in Akron, Ohio,” went after Star-Kist over “Charlie the Tuna” television commercials, in which the cartoon tuna tried to be hooked.
“One of her press releases got a mention in Johnny Carson’s monologue,” recalled Lynn Manheim.
Wrote Mike McGrady for Newsday, “It may be taps for Charlie the Tuna. The end. The Star-Kist people deny everything, but then they haven’t heard yet from Nellie Shriver. Sometime soon they’re going to hear from Nellie, and unless I miss my guess, they may then decide the hell with Charlie, finally listen to his insanely suicidal whimperings, and stick him in a can with the other tuna.
“The Oscar Mayer meat people already have heard from Nellie Shriver,” McGrady continued. “Nellie heard the famous Oscar Mayer meat jingle on the radio and actually started to think about it: ‘Oh, I’d love to be an Oscar Mayer wiener. For if I were an Oscar Mayer wiener, everyone would be in love with me.”
McGrady recounted several rounds of Nellie Shriver vs. Oscar Mayer, in which she came across as perhaps eccentric but sincere, while the various Oscar Mayer spokespersons just looked foolish.
Debated National Live Stock & Meat Board president
McGrady asked Nellie Shriver about other offensive television commercials not involving animals.
“I find those other ads offensive,” she responded. “Particularly any ad that shows a woman having an orgasm over the whiteness of her wash. But a person has to choose one road to go down at a time.”
Apparently deciding Nellie Shriver had become too much a media darling, National Live Stock & Meat Board president David H. Stroud accepted her challenge to debate on several national radio and television broadcasts.
Identified on the air as president of yet another organization she founded, American Vegetarians Inc., Nellie Shriver thumped Stroud successfully enough that the National Live Stock & Meat Board in April 1973 responded by distributing a printed rebuttal, A Conservative View of Vegetarianism, by meat board “director of nutrition research” William G. Sherman.
The heavy-handed response brought Nellie Shriver the opportunity to testify at a June 5, 1973 Congressional hearing about truth in nutritional labeling of food products.
Said Nellie Shriver, “In spite of all that must be listed on the package, ingredients need not be disclosed. The $40 billion meat industry remains untouched. For instance,” she argued, “there ought to be a lot more in the labeling about DDT residue in meat and insecticides used in growing goods. The present regulations are only a small first step.”
By January 1975, Nellie Shriver was seeking equal time from broadcast media to rebut USDA spot announcements promoting meat consumption. About 100 independent radio and television stations used her pre-recorded rebuttals, she told United Press International, but she did not have any picked up by national broadcast networks.
World Vegetarian Congress
Nellie Shriver made her most significant and enduring contribution to animal and vegan advocacy eight months later.
In an online memoir entitled “How the 1975 Vegetarian Congress in Maine paved the way for today,” Maine journalist and vegan advocate Avery Yale Kamila wrote that the two-week World Vegetarian Congress, opened at the University of Maine in Orono on August 16, 1975, “has been called by historians ‘the most important gathering of vegetarians in the United States of the 20th century.’”
Continued Kamila, “The significance of the 1975 congress comes from the publicity it generated for meat-free eating, the alliances it forged among vegetarian activists, and the organizations its attendees went on to create.”
Mentored Alex Hershaft
“I met Saiom,” the name Nellie Shriver used after the mid-1990s, “at the 1975 World Congress,” recalled Farm Animal Rights Movement founder Alex Hershaft, “when I decided to spend the rest of my life stopping the use of animals for food.
“She became my mentor for the next year, and we stayed in touch for the rest of her life.
“Right after the Congress, Jay Dinshah,” cofounder with his wife Freya of the North American Vegan Society, “placed us both on the North American Vegan Society board,” Hershaft remembered, “then fired us both, as Saiom was an independent operator, and I followed her.
“The Congress was my very first exposure to vegan activism,” Hershaft wrote. “In early September of 1975, I received a call from Nellie/Saiom.
“She alerted me that the owner of a vegetarian restaurant near the White House was desperately looking for help in arranging a public vegan Thanksgiving dinner.
“This would be my very first opportunity to fulfill my new commitment to vegan advocacy. I was ready. I organized and I publicized. I even staged a comedy routine with my 9-year-old daughter and recruited a vegan runner from Philadelphia to win the local Turkey Trot foot race.
“When I asked the restaurant owner whatever gave him the extraordinary idea of a public vegan Thanksgiving dinner, he let on that it was a phone call from a young woman who told him that a new vegan activist was desperately looking for a restaurant.
“My mentoring had just begun,” Hershaft said. “That first public vegan Thanksgiving dinner back in 1975 gave birth to a new tradition and hundreds more similar events through the years and throughout the U.S.”
Turned to organization-building
But just as Nellie Shriver ushered Hershaft, a soft-spoken Holocaust survivor, into his leading role as farmed animal and vegan advocate, and primary organizer of influential national animal rights conferences, the first of which was held in 1981, she also began to step back somewhat from her own leading role, coinciding with the terminal illness and death of her father.
Most of her animal advocacy activity, from then on, focused on helping others to build organizations––especially Hershaft, and later, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals founder Ingrid Newkirk..
Relocating to Washington D.C., Nellie Shriver and American Vegetarians colleagues Don Wilson, Billy Mick, and Emma Wood in 1976 recruited “animal liberationists, world hunger activists, and disease fighters” to produce “a network of UNTURKEY or vegetarian dinners around the country,” offering a stipend of “$5.00 a week and room and board” for those willing to help.
How well that worked seems not to be documented by accessible media.
Became disciple of Sathya Sai Baba
By then, though, Nellie Shriver had drifted into vehement opposition to lawn-mowing, possibly influenced by Sathya Sai Baba (1926-2011), the Indian guru, among many, most closely associated with the growth of the late twentieth century animal rights movement.
When exactly Nellie Shriver encountered the teachings of Sathya Sai Baba, eventually taking the name Saiom in his honor, is unclear. She appears to have first used the name “Saiom” in print in 1991, but is known to have been a Sai Baba disciple at least a decade earlier, possibly after a visit to India.
“She traveled to India sometime in the 1970s,” Lynn Manheim told ANIMALS 24-7. “I’m pretty sure it was there that she met Sai Baba.”
“God sent a fruit fly”
The only clue that Nellie/Saiom offered in print, so far as ANIMALS 24-7 has discovered, was a 1998 remark that, “Once, 20 years ago, I was criticizing the Jains re the masks that some of them wear to avoid inhaling bugs, and immediately God sent a fruit fly up my nose.”
Wrote Richard Cohen of the Los Angeles Times/Washington Post wire service on July 9, 1976, “Shriver does not mow her lawn.. In fact, she says her lease specifically states that she does not have to mow the lawn. Instead, she lets Bijou out on the lawn and lets her go to work. Bijou is a guinea pig.
“Every day,” Cohen continued, “Bijou goes through about four square feet of lawn.”
“Liberated” guinea pig
Explained Nellie Shriver, “I wouldn’t recommend that everyone use guinea pigs. They are prey to dogs and cats when they are out of their environment,” but she had received Bijou when someone “liberated” her, Cohen reported, “from a laboratory where she was about to play a central role in an experiment.”
Followed up Tom Vesey of the Washington Post on May 10, 1984, “It’s springtime in the suburbs, and as lawnmower blades are honed for the slaughter, Nellie Shriver has a word or two on plants’ rights: Shriver lives in a Takoma Park house surrounded by lawn that shows no sign of tending. She refuses to trim it for fear of hurting the grass.
“Tall clumps of vegetation poke through soil otherwise pounded bare by pet dogs; green moss has spread in the yard’s corners, wild violets and oak saplings have sprung up and ants have made their hills.
Fruitarian who ate potatoes & peanuts
“Shriver, 42, is a fruitarian,” Vesey explained, “one of an undocumented number of people who subsist on fruits and nuts because they believe plants feel pain and should not be killed or injured.”
But Nellie Shriver acknowledged being only “an aspiring fruitarian because I only eat about 80% percent fruit. I eat potatoes and peanuts,” she confided.
“The reason I stopped mowing the lawn,” Nellie Shriver told Vesey, “was that I accidentally killed a toad. I took a couple of his legs off with a mower and he suffered quite a bit before he died. That was about 12 years ago.”
In earlier versions of the story Nellie Shriver said it was her stepson from her former marriage who accidentally hit the toad, and was traumatized.
Fought lawn-mowing in court
“Shriver was living in Ohio at the time,” Vesey recounted, “and the Akron Board of Health declared her lawn a hazard to the public.
“Shriver got an injunction preventing the city from cutting her lawn,” attorney Beverly Rose told Vesey, “and when the city cut the lawn anyway, she filed a civil rights suit in U.S. District Court. Rose said that ended in a ‘small monetary settlement’ for Shriver.”
Most mentions of Nellie Shriver published before she became Saiom Shriver center on her opposition to lawn-mowing, but she remained active for animals on a variety of fronts, including as an early volunteer for PETA.
“Saiom almost never missed a weekend work party,” then-PETA employee David Sickles of Akron told ANIMALS 24-7, “except when she woke up in the morning and told us that Sai Baba told her not to come,” apparently by telepathy, since Sai Baba and Saiom Shriver are not known to have ever met or talked in person after their initial encounter in India.
Occasionally Nellie/Saiom Shriver reappeared in public roles, usually getting results.
Remembered Ian MacAllen of the Red Sauce America web site on October 27, 2021, “Introduced to test markets around 1980 was the Burger King veal parmagiana sandwich.
“One of PETA’s early actions, along with Nellie Shriver, president of the American Vegetarians organization, was the Boycott Burger King Coalition,” organized “to protest the restaurant’s veal. As many as 70 different groups formed the coalition to protest outside of the Burger King restaurants selling the veal sandwiches,” MacAllen wrote.
“Sales of the sandwich fell by as much as 85%. By 1983, the veal parmagiana sandwich was removed from all but a few menus.”
Nearly 20 years later, in 2002, Burger King introduced the BK Veggie sandwich, becoming the first nationwide fast food chain to make a vegetarian burger a permanent addition to its menu. The BK Veggie was superseded by the BK Impossible burger in 2022.
Stopped Pribilof seal hunt
In April 1981, meanwhile, Nellie Shriver was identified by United Press International as spokesperson for the Animal Rights Coalition, lobbying in opposition to commercial seal hunting in the Pribilof Islands off Alaska, an animal advocacy target since 1900.
She won that battle. Commercial sealing in the Pribilof Islands ended in 1985.
On July 15, 1985, Nellie Shriver stepped up as spokesperson for members of 25 U.S. and Canadian animal rights groups who staged a multi-day occupation of the National Institutes of Health headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland to protest chimpanzee head-smashing experiments done in the name of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania.
The experiments were stopped.
Her last documented public protest, now as Saiom Shriver, was against population control deer-culling at the Cleveland Metroparks Bedford Reservation in 1997.
Returned to poetry
Saiom Shriver in her last 20 years returned to poetry, posting more than 4,000 poems to various web sites, while lamenting that the collapse of an Italian poetry web site lost 5,000.
Old friends offered many memories.
“Nellie narrowly escaped being murdered by a man who was almost certainly a serial killer,” Lynn Manheim recalled and David Sickles affirmed.
“Nellie always carried a notebook in which she jotted down ideas, info, etc.,” Manheim added. “She made sure to grab her briefcase with the notebook when she was escaping from the killer!
“She was a spectacular publicist,” Manheim continued. “She had voluminous notes and contact information for all the major and minor networks and programs and shared them freely, recommending contacting this one or that about whatever issue we may have been working on at the time. She was such a regular caller to Larry King’s radio program that he knew her by name. She always talked about animal issues on his show.
“When David Sickles and I visited her in the hospice in October 2022,” Manheim mentioned, “she had a laptop and was doing some kind of animal rights post. During that visit she had me tell her sister Suzy about Kaporos,” the ritual in which some Hasidic Jewish men swing live chickens over their heads while reciting a prayer, “and about my current volunteer work in the Anonymous for the Voiceless Cubes. I had just driven 17 rescued Kaporos chickens to Pittsburgh and Ohio sanctuaries, having asked for that assignment specifically so I’d be able to visit David and Nellie.
“She believed strongly in astrology,” Manheim finished, “and always wanted to do people’s charts. She also believed in reincarnation, so was not afraid to die.”
Said Dudley Giehl, author of Vegetarianism: A Way of Life (1979), identified by many sources as possibly Nellie/Saiom Shriver’s oldest friend, “She was an inspiration to so many people. I was a vegan when I met her, but she was the one who encouraged me to extend my animal rights work to doing radio and TV shows.
“Some of the earliest shows I did with her,” Giehl remembered, “were the Today Show on NBC and WGBH (Boston Public TV)—arranged, of course, by her. She also arranged for me to do a TV program in Chicago and a newspaper interview in the Akron Beacon Journal.
“She was truly unique in so many ways”
“I subsequently arranged to do newspaper interviews and TV and radio programs on my own—only after the Saiom’s encouragement,” Giehl acknowledged.
“But, no one could manage to arrange doing big name shows, like Saiom. I remember going to Philadelphia to watch her taping the Mike Douglas Show in Philadelphia, where she was on with Carol Channing, Adele Davis and Richard Harris. Saiom stood out from the celebrities on the show as humble and sincere; she just had to be herself to win over the people watching.
“Saiom’s charm and power of persuasion had its limits,” Giehl ended. “I never had an interest in becoming a follower of Sai Baba, and I failed to be convinced that I should never mow my lawn; but, despite all her idiosyncrasies, Saiom touched many lives in so many ways.
“She was truly unique in so many ways—mostly good—and will be missed by so many people in the animal rights community.”
Giehl also forwarded a tribute from yet another of Nellie/Saiom Shriver’s longtime activist friends, former New York State Humane Association director Lia Albo:
“Nellie Shriver was one of the first animal rights activists I met in the late 70s. Kind, caring, gentle soul, Nellie was ahead of her time. She hoped that the miseries that befall animals in countless ways would forever cease. Her loving efforts were rooted in her spiritual beliefs. I remember her fondly.”
Please donate to support our work: