Howling Praise for AWI’s Founder

On a perfect spring day in Washington, as tulips across the city reached toward the heavens, hundreds of people gathered in a vast, sun-drenched room overlooking the majestic Potomac River to share fond remembrances of Christine Stevens’ life and the inspiration she provided us all. How appropriate to celebrate the achievements of AWI’s founder and, for more than five decades, president, in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where her husband, Roger, served as Founding Chairman for more than twenty years.

The event was opened by AWI’s Assistant to the Officers, John Gleiber, who served as a devoted right hand to Mrs. Stevens for 30 years. John observed that despite Mrs. Stevens’ modesty, shyness, and complete loathing of self-congratulation, she would have been “thrilled by this outpouring of love and affection and appreciation and admiration for her life and her career.” It was, after all, her unyielding work that drove her to such great success. Though she was an incredibly gifted artist, she devoted her entire life to the welfare of animals. “Christine not only changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of animals,” John noted, “but she changed the lives of people.”

One of those people touched by her wisdom and determination is AWI’s new president, Cathy Liss, who shared her 23 years of experience working with Mrs. Stevens. Cathy described Christine’s struggle to improve the well-being of all animals against seemingly insurmountable odds: “In taking on opponents, who were great in number, well-financed and politically connected, Christine triumphed time and again. In her David and Goliath battles, she succeeded utilizing her personal strengths—honesty, in-depth knowledge, lobbying expertise, grace, political connections and a network of cohorts, many of whom are here today.”

Cathy detailed how Christine led by example, including her own participation in public demonstrations. “Imagine if you will this perfectly elegant woman, of a certain age, putting on a raccoon costume to protest against steel jaw traps and at another time, a turtle costume to protest the free trade’s threat to animal protective laws. There was Christine, marching in front of the White House in the pouring rain to save the whales.”

A former U.S. Ambassador William McC. Blair, Jr. waxed poetic about the outwardly calm Mrs. Stevens in the midst of the “controlled chaos” that is the AWI office: “In the center of it all—Christine—seemingly serene—but as usual full of indignation over the latest obstacle to be overcome in her never ending battle to protect animals from inhumane treatment.” Mr. Blair, in a speech worthy of a statesman, continued: “Christine was a force in her own right—never hesitating to speak about what troubled her—and what troubled her most was the dreadful things done to animals by human hands—the widespread and too often needless torture done to them in the name of science, agriculture and sport. She was so passionate about the welfare of animals that she almost literally shared their pain.”

Surely, the tough-minded and strong-willed Mrs. Stevens would have been proud to hear Mr. Blair’s comment on the world’s animal abusers: “There were a few who called her an extremist. She was not. The extremists are those corporations, organizations, and their lobbyists who profit from the cruelty inflicted unnecessarily on animals.”

Grammy award winner, Paul Winter, a long-time colleague and friend of Mrs. Stevens, whom she greatly admired, shared two songs on his soprano saxophone to allow the whales and the wolves to pay dutiful tribute to their fiercest defender. The sound of waves crashing on the shore ushered in his piercingly melodic song, “The lullaby from the great mother whale for the baby seal pups,” using sounds off the coast of Bermuda. His piece, “Wolf Eyes,” reflects an effort to show “the gentle side of these creatures who have been for so long misunderstood and mistreated by us.” At the end of the haunting song, Winter led the gathering in what he called a “Howleluiah chorus for Christine,” eliciting realistic animal wails from the dignified audience.

Naturally, howling like wolves led smoothly into Dr. Jane Goodall’s reminiscences of Mrs. Stevens, replete with her own chimpanzee hoots (as if “to greet Christine…in joyous proclamation of the day,” she said). Dr. Goodall described Christine as her first shepherd through the labyrinth of Congress and the legislative process. She recounted further Mrs. Stevens’ even demeanor: “She always seemed to be the same. Although she would get very angry about things, she never lost her temper…. There was a strength within her, this steel, this determination… this woman who would never give up.” Animals everywhere are better off, said Dr. Goodall, “because of the indomitable spirit of one woman.” Christine exemplified the spirit that “tackles a seemingly impossible task and simply won’t give up. And these amazing spirits inspire those around them to carry on with the task even if they haven’t quite fulfilled it.”

Everyone who knew Mrs. Stevens and her work, who is aware of her legacy, is sure to have been inspired by her efforts and, yes, her spirit. As noted during the service, Albert Schweitzer called Mrs. Stevens his “companion in battle.” If this holds true, she was also our great general in war. And in her honor and instilled with her sensitive spirit and fierce determination, we must carry on her imminently humane crusade to eliminate animal suffering everywhere it occurs.