The concept that animals should be endowed with certain basic rights, as an extension of human rights, was first proposed by British social reformer Henry Salt in his 1892 essay Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress. The concept was revived in 1965 by British playwright and social reformer Brigid Brophy in an editorial in the prestigious London Sunday Times.
In the early 1970s, a group of young philosophy post-graduate students and others at England’s Oxford University became intrigued by Brophy’s editorial. They collected 13 essays into a book titled Animals, Men & Morals.
In 1973, a member of the group published a review of that book in the prestigious New York Review of Books. Because of the positive public reaction to the review, he was invited to teach a course on animal rights at New York University. Two years later, he expanded his lesson plan into a book – Animal Liberation, which argues for equal consideration of the interests of all sentient beings.
The author – Peter Singer – was born in 1946, in Melbourne, Australia, to Jewish parents who had escaped Nazi persecution in Austria in 1938. Peter went on to write many more books on ethics, but Animal Liberation is generally credited for introducing the concept of animal rights to the U.S.
One of Singer’s students at New York University was a tough merchant marine seaman, union organizer, and civil rights activist, who viewed the struggle for animal rights as a logical extension of his own human rights activism.
In 1977, he applied the tactics he learned in the labor and civil rights movements to shut down outrageous cat blinding experiments at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Two years later, he was instrumental in repealing New York State’s Pound Seizure Law, which forced shelters to turn over unwanted cats and dogs for medical research and training.
By 1981, his powerful Coalition to Stop Draize Rabbit Blinding Tests prevailed on Revlon, Avon, Bristol-Meyers, and other cosmetic companies to donate millions of dollars to develop animal-free alternatives to these cruel practices. He also led a smaller Coalition to Stop the LD-50 Test, which measures the lethality of a substance by feeding increasing amounts to a group of animals, until 50 percent of the animals die.
A truly grassroots activist, he always worked alone, with occasional help from his many individual and organizational admirers. His successful record of ending cruel practices of major corporations transformed animal rights from a philosophical concept to a force to be reckoned with.
That pioneer animal activist was Henry Spira, born in 1927 to a Jewish family in the diamond trade in Antwerp, Belgium. The family escaped to New York City in 1940, a couple of years before the onset of the Holocaust. We lost Henry to esophageal cancer in September of 1998.
Although I had stopped eating animals in 1961, I didn’t really associate with other vegetarians or fathom the inherent nutritional or environmental benefits. Attending the 1975 World Vegetarian Congress in Orono (ME) was a deeply emotional, life-changing experience for me. There were hundreds of people of different nationalities, races, religions, genders, ages, dress, and economic stations. But they were all vegetarians. I felt that I had finally found my people and my place in life. I knew instantly that I would devote the rest of my life to animal advocacy.
In the following year, I launched the Vegetarian Information Service to produce and disseminate information on the ethical, health, and environmental benefits of plant-based eating. I also arranged a couple of small conferences. Some of the conference attendees had read Animal Liberation and were looking for a home to actualize their new-found ideology. I was impressed by their enthusiasm and our common conclusion that animals should not be used for food.
In August of 1981, I organized a conference in Allentown (PA) to explore opportunities for cooperation between vegetarian and animals rights advocates. That conference, is generally viewed as the birthplace of the U.S. animal rights movement.
It led to the formation of several national animal rights organizations, including PeTA and FARM (Farm Animal Rights Movement), as well as some that are no longer operating. It consummated an ideological marriage between the animal rights advocates inspired by Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and vegetarian activists recruited by the World Vegetarian Congress. The vegetarian activists had to make one small adjustment – we had to go vegan.
I have since organized 28 other national animal rights conferences and led 40 more years of vegan advocacy programming with FARM.
I am Alex Hershaft, author of this blog and survivor of the infamous Warsaw Ghetto, a Nazi concentration camp where an estimated 400,000 Jews were murdered, including most of my family.