Sen. Byrd and his dog Trouble.
I feel loss and sadness, both on a personal and professional level, with the news of the passing of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, 92. Sen. Byrd was a remarkable man—a man who grew up in poverty in rural West Virginia, who ran successfully for the state legislature in the 1940s, and then got elected to Congress in 1952. He served several terms before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1958, and has served in Congress without interruption for 58 years—longer than any federal lawmaker ever and even longer than the corporate life span of The Humane Society of the United States. During his tenure, he went to school at night and got both an undergraduate college degree and a law degree. Beyond the classroom, he had a passion for the study of history, including the history and procedure of the Senate. He passed on its traditions to the hundreds of Senators who served with him, carrying a copy of the American Constitution in the pocket of his suit or sport coat.
As a teenager, he butchered hogs. But later in life, he came to love animals in a profound way, especially his beloved Billy Byrd, a Maltese. While he voted for the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act in 1958, it was during the last decade of his career in office that he truly made his mark on animal welfare, his love nourished by his relationships with his dogs and his conscience pricked by cases of cruelty, especially in livestock agriculture. He worked to increase funding for enforcement of all major animal protection laws, to halt the slaughter of American horses, to crack down on animal fighting, and to reform industrialized agriculture. He took to the floor of the U.S. Senate time and again during the last decade, arguing in only the way he could, from a perspective of Christian conviction and responsibility, for the proper care and decent treatment of all creatures.
Today, as a tribute to his extraordinary and impactful work in our field, I excerpt some of the most memorable lines from his Senate speeches.
About his dog Billy, who died in 2002 (source):
“If I ever saw in this world anything that was made by the Creator's hand that is more dedicated, more true, more faithful, more trusting, more undeviant than this little dog, I am at a loss to state what it is. Such are the feelings of many dog owners.”
About the extreme confinement of animals on factory farms (source):
“Our inhumane treatment of livestock is becoming widespread and more and more barbaric. Six-hundred-pound hogs—they were pigs at one time—raised in 2-foot-wide metal cages called gestation crates, in which the poor beasts are unable to turn around or lie down in natural positions, and this way they live for months at a time.
“On profit-driven factory farms, veal calves are confined to dark wooden crates so small that they are prevented from lying down or scratching themselves. These creatures feel; they know pain. They suffer pain just as we humans suffer pain. Egg-laying hens are confined to battery cages. Unable to spread their wings, they are reduced to nothing more than an egg-laying machine.”
About the inhumane treatment of farm animals (source):
“It is one thing to determine as a culture that it is acceptable to raise and rear and then eat animals. It is another thing to cause them to lead a miserable life of torment, and then to slaughter them in a crude and callous manner. As a civilized society, we owe it to animals to treat them with compassion and humaneness. Animals suffer and they feel. Because we are moral agents, and compassionate people, we must do better.”
About cruelty to animals (source):
“Animal cruelty abounds. It is sickening. It is infuriating. Barbaric treatment of helpless, defenseless creatures must not be tolerated even if these animals are being raised for food—and even more so, more so. Such insensitivity is insidious and can spread and is dangerous. Life must be respected and dealt with humanely in a civilized society.”
“Let us strive to be good stewards and not defile God's creatures or ourselves by tolerating unnecessary, abhorrent, and repulsive cruelty.”
About animal fighting (source):
“Pitting animals against one another and causing them to fight just so that we can witness the bloodletting presents a clear moral choice for us. There can be no confusion on this issue. As decent people, we must act to stop it.”
From a stirring speech in 2007 where Sen. Byrd condemned dogfighting (source):
“The immortal Dante tells us that Divine Justice reserves special places in hell for certain categories of sinners. I am confident that the hottest places in hell are reserved for the souls of sick and brutal people who hold God's creatures in such brutal and cruel contempt.”