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February 16, 2005

Fred Myers: Co-Founder of The HSUS

Early HSUS leaders moved quickly to realize their goal of engaging cruelties on a national scale

  • Fred Myers, one of the co-founders of The Humane Society of the United States. The HSUS.

By Bernard Unti

Fred Myers (1904-1963)
Years at HSUS: 1954-1963
Major Accomplishments: Co-founded the National Humane Society; later was renamed The Humane Society of the United States. Led the campaign for a national humane slaughter law, initiated crucial investigations of laboratory animal use, and sought to strengthen standards of practice at nation's animal shelters.

As the acknowledged leader of the group of former American Humane Association (AHA) staff members who founded The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in 1954, Fred Myers provided the essential vision, determination, and direction the fledging organization needed. Under his leadership, The HSUS not only survived its first decade, but established itself as a national animal-protection organization that addressed cruelties which lay beyond the capacity of local societies and state federations.

Born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, where his father ran a newspaper stand, Myers made his way through the ranks from copy boy to cub reporter to mature journalist, working for the Kansas City Journal, the Associated Press, and the New York Mirror. He was a strong unionist who helped to organize workers in the newspaper industry during the 1930s and 1940s. Before joining the AHA in 1952, Myers worked in public relations for the New School and the New York Central Railroad.

The break from AHA was rooted in disputes about the ineffectual character of the humane movement in relation to the numerous cruelties perpetrated in the laboratory, the slaughterhouse, and in the wild. During his tenure as editor of AHA's National Humane Review (1952-54), Myers broadened the magazine's scope to include expanded coverage of those issues.

However, it was a specific disagreement over pound seizure—the surrender of animals from shelters and pounds—that precipitated the break. Myers favored a vigorous challenge to the increasingly assertive biomedical research community and its efforts to secure animals from municipal pounds and privately financed shelters with a pound contract or other municipal subsidies. Ultimately, he left the AHA in disappointment over censorship of his writings on the topic.

"All thoughtful persons recognize that cruelty is an evil that should be eradicated from our society, not merely for the sake of animals, but for our own good. We know that cruelty, whether to animals or men, causes in the perpetrator a moral and cultural erosion that is harmful to the whole society."—Fred Myers

After The HSUS formed on November 22, 1954, Myers and the other co-founders—Larry Andrews, Marcia Glaser, and Helen Jones—moved quickly to fulfill their goal of engaging cruelties of a national scope.

Humane slaughter became an immediate priority, and took up a substantial portion of the organization's resources. In 1956, Myers and HSUS director Edith J. Goode secured the endorsement of the 11-million-member General Federation of Women's Clubs for a bill to require humane slaughter, and Myers provided two hours of testimony at congressional hearings on the subject. When the Humane Slaughter Act passed in 1958, Myers was ebullient over the fact that "hundreds of local societies could lift their eyes from local problems to a great national cruelty."

The HSUS also made the use of animals in research, testing, and education an early priority. Despite the efforts of the biomedical research community to cast the debate in black-and-white terms, advocates like Myers did not see the pound seizure debate as one of vivisection vs. antivivisection. To their minds, the major question was whether public pounds and privately operated humane societies ought to be compelled by law to provide animals for experimental use. And they believed no animal care and control agency should hand over, or be forced to hand over, animals to laboratories.

Myers did believe, however, that animal experimentation should be regulated, and in the late 1950s, he placed HSUS investigators in laboratories to gather evidence of substandard conditions and animal suffering and neglect. The HSUS was not an antivivisection society, he explained in a 1958 HSUS News article. Rather, it stood for the principle that "every humane society…should be actively concerned about the treatment accorded to such a vast number of animals."

The HSUS position, Myers continued, was that "every individual person, and particularly everyone who endorses the use of animals in research, has a moral obligation to know the facts and to do all that can be done to protect the animals from preventable suffering." For "the animal that will die six seconds from now, the animal that is dying now, the [millions of] animals that will die this year—these animals cannot wait." People of goodwill, he argued, needed "to do now what can now be done" for those animals.

In this spirit, Myers drafted The HSUS's first legislative initiatives in the early 1960s, drawing heavily upon Principles of Humane Experimental Technique (1959) by William Russell and Rex Burch. In doing so, Myers associated The HSUS at an early stage with the core principles of this book—that scientists, policymakers, and the public should agree upon an active program of reduction, refinement, and replacement (the Three Rs) to alleviate the suffering and, where feasible, to eliminate the use of animals in experimentation. In 1962, Myers appeared on NBC-TV's "Today" show to address the topic, and testified before a congressional committee reviewing federal legislation he had helped to draft. His efforts helped to set the stage for the eventual passage of the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act just four years later.

Although The HSUS lacked the funds to undertake significant efforts in wildlife protection during his lifetime, Myers saw it as important to the organization's long-term evolution. In "Lust to Kill," a pamphlet based on a 1952 AHA article, Myers expressed his views on hunting, responding to many of the common defenses offered by its enthusiasts.

While acknowledging the complexity of motives that lay behind the practice, and striving to avoid "a wholesale condemnation of hunters," many of whom he believed were in no sense "consciously inhumane," Myers observed that one of the most "damning counts" against hunting was that "its excitement, its genuine tests of skill, its moments of beauty, make good men participants in evil."

In a subsequent assessment of the limits of conservationist and environmentalist philosophies, he wrote, "I know of no national conservation organization—including Audubon—that is officially interested in the suffering of animals or in humanitarianism. They are interested only in ecology, conservation of species, etc. In terms of philosophy, most of the conservation organizations are dedicated to 'management' of animals for man's benefit. That doesn't run very close to our own philosophy."

Even as Myers strove to build a national organization that would address the broad range of cruelties against animals, he and his colleagues never lost sight of the fact that local societies and animal shelters were the central institutions of the humane movement, around which revolved humane education, cruelty investigation, sound adoption policy, the promotion of spay/neuter, and other essential functions.

From the start, The HSUS worked to advance the work of local organizations, by providing technical assistance and advice concerning animal control, operations management, the training of employees, and the maintenance of proper facilities. Its broad goals included abatement of the nation's surplus dog and cat population, the reform of euthanasia practices, and the restriction of abuses by the pet shop and commercial pet breeding trades.

A man of action as well as thought, Myers directly participated in some of the investigations undertaken by The HSUS during his tenure, visiting horse shows, public pounds, rodeos, slaughterhouses, and other venues. In 1962 he and staff member Philip Colwell helped Mississippi law enforcement authorities to infiltrate a gang of dogfighters. On another occasion, he swore out a complaint against the dog warden of Rockville, Maryland, for firing four pistol shots into a dog and allowing the animal to suffer for 30 minutes until county police officers came and ended the dog's agony with a single bullet.

In his off hours, Myers enjoyed a number of hobbies, including carpentry, sailing, bird watching, golf, and ham radio, but he was mostly a man of work, which ultimately took its toll. He had his first heart attack in 1954, just a few months before founding The HSUS, and suffered a second one in 1958, during the campaign for humane slaughter.

By summer 1962, Myers wanted to make a change, and expressed a desire to work more directly on the promotion of humane education. The HSUS board accepted his proposal that someone else assume executive authority, and board member Oliver Evans became president. Evans took on day-to-day direction of the office, and board member Robert Chenoweth continued to lead the board of directors as chairman.

On December 1, 1963, just six months after the new arrangements were approved, Fred Myers died of a heart attack at age 59. Despite the loss, Myers' foresight to help ensure the continuation of strong leadership softened the impact. The balance of idealism and pragmatism he consistently sought to institutionalize within The HSUS provided a still more enduring legacy. Honoring that vision, The HSUS went on to become the nation's largest and most influential animal-protection organization.

Bernard Unti, Ph.D. is senior policy adviser and special assistant to the CEO of The HSUS. He is the author of Protecting All Animals: A Fifty-Year History of The Humane Society of the United States, and is currently writing a book on the 19th century animal protection movement.

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