I was working full-time at Columbia University and studying for my B.A. when the animal rights movement exploded onto the national scene. It was during the mid-1970s and early 1980s.
My first encounter with the movement happened in 1979 in the late Professor Samuel Devons’ class on the Art of Scientific Experiment. There I witnessed four or five students criticize the contentions of another student who was presenting a paper extolling the benefits of animal research which, during those days, was generally accepted by almost everyone. I was amazed by the boldness of this group and their willingness to openly display their lack of respect for the ideas the student presented, if not the student himself. They were ignoring the usual manners for classroom conduct as though they didn't exist. For his part, the targeted student held his ground and was dismissive if not condescending. Though I didn't know it at the time, I was witnessing, a microcosm of the war between the animal rights movement and animal research with both sides prepared for battle and neither side yielding an inch. This is the scene that has been playing out on the national (and international) stage ever since with both sides giving everything they’ve got to win.
The war was on. But it would not affect me personally until the mid-1980s when my friend Julie Beckham, who attended the Columbia School of International Affairs and was more conservative that I on certain issues, suddenly became a vegan from out of the blue. She then said to me: “You’re supposed to be the great liberal. How is it, then, that you continue with these nutritional habits that cause so much suffering to animals?” She was right and I knew it. Within a few days I had joined the vegan camp.
I quickly learned about Alex Pacheco and Ingrid Newkirk at PETA and
"It has become increasingly clear that the single most important element preventing human beings from building societies in which they can live in harmony and benefit
one another by the productive living of their lives,
is their mistreatment and abuse of the
nonhuman species of the planet."
other animal rights organizations like the Doris Day Animal League (as I believe it was called then) and In Defense of Animals.
My outrage grew the more I learned about how cruelly animals were being treated, and soon I was joining picket lines in protest against animal cruelty in fur manufacture, food production, circuses, and animal research. I wrote countless letters opposing animal abuse and cruelty that occurred in places as diverse as Burger King, the EPA, and Georgetown University. The Washington Post and The Chronicle Review both published letters of mine, the latter in which I denounced the efforts in 2002 by Frankie Trull and the late Senator Jessie Helms to exclude protections for mice, rats, and birds in the Animal Welfare Act. Tragically, their efforts were successful.
Because of letters I wrote in support of PETA campaigns, PETA invited me to become a correspondent for a PETA column replying to questions from the public. I accepted and for a short while was an active PETA correspondent. I should mention that I do not support PETA’s present euthanasia program and have communicated that fact to PETA and hope, with enough pressure, they will eventually change direction. I remain, nevertheless, a great admirer of all that PETA has accomplished and continues to accomplish on behalf of animals.
Over the years I have had no hesitation in writing directly to the perpetrators and supporters of animal abuse to denounce their activities and work like TV sportscaster Bryant Gumbel in 2001 for his support of Foie Gras, nutritionist Dr. Andrew Weil for minimizing the dangers of eating meat in a 2010 Huffington Post article, and Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel for his callousness and support of the use of animals in scientific research on the Charlie Rose show, also in 2010.
It was also in 2010 that on my own initiative I wrote to all seven Deans at Vassar College and corresponded with Dean Begemann and Dean Chenette (who, like me, is a composer) in an effort to convince them that alternatives existed to a deer cull program they were planning. Vassar had hired the notorious and to what I believe is the cowardly professional deer-kill organization, White Buffalo, to implement the plan. The strategy was to condition the deer to feed at a specific location at night so that White Buffalo riflemen could lie in wait and kill them. Dean Begemann replied with a list of reasons for the cull, all of which I responded to with facts and logic showing the excuses were baseless and suggesting we should keep in mind Albert Schweitzer’s famous words that “Compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to humankind.” I also wrote to Dean Chenette informing him that I was also a composer and reminding him that compassion lies at the heart of all serious music. I urged him to stand up against the Vassar cull. He replied with a response justifying the cull program. Many people were involved in trying to stop the Vassar deer-kill operation but we were unsuccessful. However, no such effort is wasted and adds to the consciousness necessary for ending human cruelty and abuse to animals.
In 2005, upon learning of animal experiments and abuses of baboons being conducted at Columbia University, I wrote a detailed 3 page letter of objection which I mailed to every trustee at Columbia. I also voiced these objections to Columbia professors I knew personally through my previous employment at Columbia such as Nobel Prize winner Robert Mundel, in the Economics Department, and C. Lowell Harriss, Professor Emeritus in Economics. (Professor Harriss is since deceased. I stayed in touch with him up to the end of his life as a friend. He was a very wonderful person.) I attached a personal note to several of these trustee letters, though I was unacquainted with any of them, such as to Evan Davis to whom I wrote the following: “As a person who has been awarded the Wildlife Conservation Society's Conservation Award, you surely have considerable compassion and respect for the lives of animals. Please reflect deeply on the leadership role Columbia could play if it instituted a policy that disavows all cruelty towards animals in any form whatsoever, drawing up a set of principles to guide such a policy. This would have profound repercussions that rippled all across the country, setting the standards for academic and relevant institutions and putting government funding agencies on notice that a moral component must be a part of its funding policies. Thank you very much.”
In regard to trustee letters, several years earlier, in 1996, I found myself on the picket line outside of Rockefeller University picketing along with In Defense of Animals campaign director Barbara Stagno (who would become my colleague and friend) in an effort to bring down animal researchers Alan D. Miller and Victor J. Wilson who were conducting some very cruel and highly invasive brain research on cats. As a part of this effort, I wrote a lengthy letter to the entire Board of Trustees of Rockefeller University illustrating the kinds of cruel experiments Miller and Wilson were conducting. My letter made enough of an impact on one of the trustees, the late Brooke (Mrs. Vincent) Astor, who, upon receiving it, had her personal assistant telephone me for additional information. The campaign was eventually successful in closing down the Miller/Wilson laboratory. I have always believed that Brooke Astor made her views known about these experiments in terms that were impossible for any official at Rockefeller University to ignore and that my letter played its part in the position that she took.
It has become increasingly clear to me that the single most important element preventing human beings from building societies in which they can live in harmony and benefit one another by the productive living of their lives, is their mistreatment and abuse of the nonhuman species of the planet. In order to communicate this message, I have done a considerable amount of writing related to the subject which includes my books The Protein Myth: Significantly Reducing the Risk of Cancer, Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes While Saving the Animals and Building a Better World and The Cruel Science: Animal Research from Aristotle to othe 21st Century. Another book, The Voice in the Stone, a novel about the German Dominican Priest, Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) does not focus on animal rights issues. Nevertheless I believe he is important to the animal rights movement because he was one of the few Christian church leaders who believed that animals and human beings possessed the same life force (“God gives to everything alike.”)
The above account details some of the highlights of my life as an independent writer on Animal Rights.
David Irving sings from his opera The Witch.