One of the most inspiring speeches I've read in the field of animal protection was Robert Chenoweth's address in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as chairman of the board of the freshly minted Humane Society of the United States, to assembled members in 1955.
"We felt, first of all, that there was a great vacuum, at the national level, in humane work," said Chenoweth. "The American humane movement needed an organization that would tackle the problems which, because they were national, were beyond the views and the powers of any local society," such as particularly inhumane slaughterhouse practices, dog theft and dealing for research, and interstate dogfighting networks. That was The HSUS's mission then, and it is the same mission now, except that our mission now extends beyond our borders and onto the global stage.
Chenoweth's address was a cri de coeur about the circumstance of animals in our society and the need for a professional, organized, and passionate organization of individuals to take on problems at their source and to change the national discourse. His inspired vision, and that of the man who led the organization day to day, Fred Myers, was that the nation needed a group that would strike at the root causes of animal welfare problems. While animal-care and rescue was vital, we could not rescue our way out of the overall crisis involving animals. There were forms of institutionalized cruelty that could only be changed through public policy, education and awareness efforts, and changes in corporate behavior.
Last night, at an event for The Bond in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I met a woman who heard and watched Chenoweth deliver that address. At the time, Holly Reynolds was 38, and she had trekked to Grand Rapids from her home in Louisiana. Now, she's 93, and it was a joy to meet her. Outrage about cruelty burns intensely in her still, and she asked me about puppy mills, factory farming, and even a captive chimp named Candy, who has been held captive for decades at an amusement park in Louisiana.
Holly shared some slightly yellowed correspondence she'd had with The HSUS's primary founder, Fred Myers, a true visionary. Myers was an advocate through and through, and in the letters he was exhorting Holly to help him enact what would be one of his signature accomplishments–the passage of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act in 1958. "I am glad to know about the promise from Representative [James] Morrison to vote for the humane slaughter bill," Myers wrote to Holly, who saw the congressman at a wedding and buttonholed him. "How about…asking him to use his influence with Senator [Allen] Ellender" (who was the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee).
There have only been six chief executives in The HSUS's history. It was remarkable to be with a woman who heard me give an address last night, but who had also heard from The HSUS's first director and its first board chairman more than a half-century ago. Her lifetime of commitment to humane work spans our entire organizational history, and she’s still going strong.
We look back upon history, and we sometimes assume there's a certain inevitability to it all. But that’s not how it works. There are a thousand forks in the road. There are people who step up and, through their intentional actions, make history and drive the direction of our society. I met a special person of that kind last night.
Every one of us can aspire to be like Holly Reynolds. Passionate, modest, determined, and endowed with a fire for justice and a disdain for cruelty.