With the passing of legendary actress, singer and animal advocate Doris Day, the world has lost a generous and kind soul. Even as we mourn the loss of a woman whose grace, talent and versatility left so many of us charmed, I want to celebrate the amazing life that Doris led as an animal advocate. She was truly one of us.
It’s easy to understand how Doris’s vital presence and talent captured the attention of Hollywood studio executives and directors. She starred in films such as Pillow Talk and The Man Who Knew Too Much, acting in 39 films altogether. She also released more than three dozen albums and was one of the most successful singers of her day, with songs including Que Sera, Sera and Sentimental Journey. There are only a few entertainers who have established themselves as star performers in so many separate mediums — in her case, big band, radio, film and television.
Doris was also well known and admired for her devotion to animals.
Her bond with animals and concern for their well-being were forged during her childhood in Cincinnati, where she was born in 1922. Her beloved dog, Tiny, was her closest companion and a comforting presence while she recovered from injuries sustained in a car crash that ended her budding career as a dancer. When they were out for a walk together, Tiny uncharacteristically bolted away and was struck by a car and tragically killed. Tiny’s death left Doris with a strong determination to help animals and she went on to do just that, including through two nonprofit organizations that bear her name.
She was a founding member of Actors and Others for Animals and, along with her late son, Terry Melcher, the founder of the Doris Day Animal Foundation and the Doris Day Animal League. While her status as a leading lady opened doors to wealthy and powerful leaders in government and business, and she cultivated those relationships, she preferred to spend her days caring for her own pets and helping stray dogs find new homes. In a rare television appearance in 1974, Doris bantered with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show about her career and life. By then, she was well known for taking in stray animals during a time when the nation’s pet overpopulation problem was at crisis levels. She didn’t miss out on the opportunity to remind Carson’s viewers of the importance of spaying and neutering and of taking responsibility for their own pets. Looking back from today, it’s a stark reminder of how far we have come and how much progress Doris advanced. She was instrumental in changing the treatment of animals and our attitudes about what we owe them.
Her impact was immeasurable, and her compassion extended beyond dogs to include other animals. The Humane Society of the United States and DDAL worked together on many issues, including greyhound racing, the testing of household products and cosmetics on animals, and the addition of bittering agents to anti-freeze to protect children and animals.
Ending horse slaughter and bringing attention to the cruelty of the fur industry were other passions, and she was among the first in the humane movement to recognize the need for dedicated funding and people to work exclusively on lobbying for stronger laws to protect animals. That decision led to the creation of the Doris Day Animal League in 1987. The group grew quickly and steadily gained respect and influence on Capitol Hill.
In 2006, Doris approved a corporate combination that resulted in an alignment among DDAL, the HSUS and the Humane Society Legislative Fund, whose formation was inspired by DDAL’s successes and approach. The people Doris hired and inspired continue the mission that she laid out three decades ago. The Doris Day Equine Center was created at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in 2011. This was fitting, because before she founded her own group, Doris had worked closely with her friend, Cleveland Amory, on Fund for Animals campaigns and public service announcements.
She remained proud to see the vision that she put in motion during the 1980s continue to be a forceful presence in the nation’s capital. One of her messages resonates as much now as ever. “Animal welfare is not a partisan issue,” she wrote in 2000. That approach guides us still, as we work to find allies on both sides of the aisle and advance laws to protect animals, no matter which party is in power.
In 2004, Doris received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. At the White House ceremony to bestow the medal, which is the nation’s highest civilian honor, President Bush said, “It was a good day for our fellow creatures when she gave her good heart to the cause of animal welfare.”
Doris was a true American hero whose characters made us laugh and whose voice lifted up a nation still reeling from wartime losses. She will be missed, but her example of generosity, compassion and determination will continue to inspire us, now and forever.