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John Hoyt: A Visionary Leader of The HSUS from 1970 to 1996

Hoyt raised the level of professionalism at The HSUS and guided the organization into a new era

  • John Hoyt and friend. The HSUS.

  • Mel Morse and John Hoyt. The HSUS.

  • Hoyt along with members of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The HSUS.

  • Paul Irwin, John Hoyt and Patricia Forkan. The HSUS.

by Amanda Tyler

It has been said that one should never talk about politics or religion in polite company. But during his 26-year tenure as president of The HSUS, John Hoyt not only tackled the unspeakable, he also recruited the kind of professional staff rarely seen before in animal-protection circles—to speak for those creatures who can't speak for themselves.

In fact, Hoyt, a former Presbyterian minister who became the longest-serving president in HSUS history, solidified the organization's already professional reputation to the point where it became a defining characteristic of The HSUS.

The Transformation

A seemingly unlikely leader for an animal protection organization in 1970, Hoyt was serving as senior minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he earned a good reputation as an institution-builder. At the time, HSUS President Mel Morse was feeling the tug of family responsibility on the West Coast, and decided to step down, leaving the board of directors to search for a suitable leader.

Born in Marietta, Ohio in 1932, Hoyt was the son of a Baptist minister. Educated at Tiffin Columbian High School and Rio Grande College in Ohio, Hoyt was influenced by his grandmother, a strict vegetarian who had a great love and compassion for animals. She lived to be 106.

"My grandmother had 40 pet sheep and each one had a name," Hoyt recalled. "Being on her West Virginia farm was a very rich experience."

At the same time, Hoyt was confident that his clerical background put him in a strong position. Animal protectionists, he noted, had a quasi-religious devotion to their cause, and "coming out of the church," Hoyt recalled, "gave me an opportunity to infuse some of the moral, ethical concerns I felt were appropriate to an animal organization."

"The quality of humaneness is uncompromising. It is also undefeatable so long as compassion and caring concern are aflame in the hearts and minds of human beings."

Quote from "President’s Perspective" (HSUS News, Winter 1978)

During the first five years of Hoyt's tenure, The HSUS rearranged its priorities, replaced its branch system with a regional office structure, and hired key staff members to strengthen its professional and technical capacities. New hires like Guy Hodge, Sue Pressman, John Dommers and Charles F. Herrmann III, constituted the first wave of new professionals. The bicentennial year of 1976 marked the beginning of the second wave: Forkan, Michael W. Fox, and Paul G. Irwin were three of the most important hires Hoyt would ever make.

Expanding Influence

By 1979, The HSUS was mailing more than one million pieces of literature annually, and had 80 employees. Membership stood at 115,000, and the organization's annual budget was nearly $2 million. When ten staff members traveled to Great Britain to meet with their counterparts at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the world's first and largest animal welfare society, Hoyt and his colleagues found it more a meeting of equals than they had dared to imagine.

Under Hoyt's leadership, The HSUS also purchased its first building to serve as headquarters (as well as its replacement), established a full-time office of general counsel, developed a full-fledged wildlife protection program, founded a youth-education division with its own headquarters, and launched the International Journal for the Study of Animal Problems, edited by Fox and Andrew N. Rowan.

During his years of service, Hoyt frequently spoke for The HSUS in a variety of media. He appeared in Why Protect Animals?, a film produced by The HSUS in 1973. His outspoken criticism of hunting earned him an appearance in the CBS documentary, The Guns of Autumn, broadcast nationally in September 1975. He even found time to author a book, Animals in Peril: How Sustainable Use Is Wiping Out the World's Wildlife (1994).

The CEO of a large humane organization could not possibly participate in every program area, but in almost three decades of service, Hoyt played a meaningful role in the battle against specific cruelties. When he first joined The HSUS, for instance, he actively campaigned against the cruelties of the rodeo, then a significant organizational priority.

"From the moment I was designated president of HSUS, I have insisted that humaneness must have as its focus both man and animal. To have it otherwise is surely to fail in our efforts to prevent suffering and cruelty to our fellow creatures."

Quote from "The Human Side of Humaneness" (HSUS News, Spring 1975)

But Hoyt found his real niche in the campaign to overhaul the methods of ritual slaughter. In the mid-1970s, he began a long period of service with The HSUS-funded Council on Livestock Protection, trying to address the suffering of animals during handling, just prior to slaughter. The slaughter process back then almost universally employed a shackle and hoist system, in which still-conscious animals were hung upside down while their throats were slit.

Under Hoyt's leadership, the council was instrumental in urging the adoption of a less stressful, more-specially designed restraint device that has gained increasing acceptance in the United States.

Passing the Torch

When Hoyt retired in 1996, he didn't exactly put the animal movement behind him. He still served in an advisory role for The HSUS and its affiliated groups, and he kept his finger on the movement's more troubling issues. "For domestic animals, it remains spaying and neutering," he said. "And food-animal issues are still a major concern."

Hoyt passed away on April 15, 2012, at the age of 80. According to friends and colleagues, he will be most remembered for transforming The HSUS from a small group of activists into a household name. "He was the leader who put us on the map," says Patricia Forkan, HSUS executive vice president, whom Hoyt hired in 1976. "He moved us from a small but determined group to a serious player not only nationally but internationally."


Amanda Tyler is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.