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Peter Singer’s Ethics Into Action is a biography of Henry Spira, an animal advocate who campaigned successfully against a variety of issues, starting with animal testing. An inspiring account, the book would be of particular of interest to those beginning in animal advocacy. What follows is a summary of the book’s account of Spira’s venture into reducing animal suffering and the tactics he used for 23 years to do so. Not written about here, the book includes detailed descriptions of Spira’s campaigns, as well as a couple of shocking interpersonal dramas of people tangential to Spira’s life that would be entertaining to anyone. 


Timeline of Spira’s animal advocacy

Timeline of Henry Spira’s animal advocacy based on the biography. The Perdue campaign was unsuccessful, and the book was written when Singer and Spira were waiting to see McDonald’s response. Besides these two outliers, Spira’s quick and regular successes are impressive. 


Spira’s start

Henry Spira had been involved with socialist groups and reported on the civil rights movement as a journalist, but until age 45, he had never given animal rights a thought. In 1973, a friend going abroad left him with a cat, and a little while later he happened upon an article in the paper that mocked a recent book review Peter Singer had written. The critique provided a summary of Singer’s view that the suffering of animals mattered, which sparked Spira’s interest and prompted him to get a copy of the newspaper with Singer’s full article and read it. Soon after, Singer happened to be teaching a continuing education class in New York. Spira attended the course, afterwards drawing together a group of students interested in organizing something that would help animals.

In his time outside of being a high school teacher, which he would retire from in 1982, Spira led the group in planning a campaign against cat experiments being performed at the American Natural History Museum. These NIH-funded experiments planned to destroy cats’ senses and determine any changes in sexual behavior. Only some of the surgeries were actually carried out, one of which was the destroying of their sense of smell. Although the experiments used less than 10 cats a year, their absurdity made Spira hopeful for a win that would create momentum in the animal movement, even if it did not directly help many animals. From the book, the wellbeing of the cats was not clear to me, though Henry’s ads do not shy away from words like “torture.” Henry’s language was intense, but the facts he presented were reliable; Henry researched his targets thoroughly, frequently relying on government documents and FOIA requests. One ad in the book that Henry helped organize says the cats were kept in cages, so they were plausibly quite unhappy, although the impact of the surgeries or the likelihood that they were performed with anasthesia remain unknown to me.

Spira’s campaign against the cat experiments was successful, and this campaign followed the strategy that most of his future campaigns would. 


Spira’s strategy

Spira’s campaigning process started with writing to the target and asking to set up a meeting. These notes often included suggestions that demonstrations or advertisements would begin if the group did not cooperate. If the target didn’t respond, he might try to talk to executives in person, sometimes by buying shares and attending shareholder meetings. If still they didn’t want to cooperate, Spira would start publicly campaigning, usually beginning with an entertaining ad that called on readers to write to an executive or government official. Later, there might also be public protests. In the case of the American Museum of Natural History, these lasted for over a year and took place weekly. Because public opinion mattered so much for his approach, he selected issues that most people would be opposed to. 

Spira would try to frame the cooperation positively and create something that the target could pride itself on (for instance, being a pioneer in animal testing alternatives.) Besides this, a large part of the incentive to cooperate was avoiding negative publicity. This meant he preferred targets that cared about their reputation. It also meant that targets needed to trust that if they cooperated, he would halt the negative publicity. To maintain this trust, Spira would show public appreciation towards targets that cooperated and would not later launch another campaign on them. Spira’s reputation for being fair and honest seemed to help him get meetings. Tactical differences led to strife in the already grudge-filled community when PETA continued a campaign towards Proctor & Gamble after they had cooperated with Spira. 

Spira was the one making all final decisions for his campaigns, but he had plenty of people to talk to and strategize with, including the author, Peter Singer. Along the way, Spira made many friends that would help him select targets, make ads, and generally plan campaigns. Besides these advisorial roles, he also had people helping him out as volunteers. 

For many of his campaigns, he organized coalitions that included large animal organizations. The biography notes that organizations with some differences of opinion still supported him because he had been successful. He would also ask for these organizations to contact their supporters during campaigns and urge them to write to someone or join a protest. 


Lessons from Spira’s successes

The importance of coalitions and unity are often emphasized by advocates across causes, but other lessons from Spira’s approach are preached less frequently. 

For one, Spira was able to complete campaigns successfully within a few years, which might provide a baseline for the amount of time that should be spent on similar endeavors. Theoretically, to win some harder asks, you may have to campaign for longer than a few years; however, the momentum built with shorter campaigns, the ability to do more short campaigns in a given timespan, and the confirmation that your strategy is working are all compelling reasons to work in timespans of a few years. In particular, the book references large demands other advocates would make, like those of ending all animal testing, that even the most passionate contenders could not achieve. While it might seem obvious to make your goal more reasonable, the length of a campaign may also give you a clue as to whether you should continue with your ask and strategy.

Additionally, within two years of learning about the plight of animals, Spira was able to start leading successful campaigns. Surely his zeal was unique, but his quick pivot into animal protection later in life can serve as inspiration for those wanting to get involved but feeling late to the party.

Strikingly, Spira campaigned for seven years while teaching high school, and after retiring, had no other paid staff. In fact, Spira was suspicious of animal organizations that constantly fundraised, seeing that incentives to maintain large staffs and the bureaucracy that resulted from them may have distracted from the goal of helping animals. Either way, Spira’s successes proved the possibility of frugal wins for animals. 






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Thanks for this summary, a really interesting read!

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