Celebrating Christine Stevens' Passionate Animal Activism
AWI's founder, president, and motivator, Christine Stevens, died on October 10, 2002, after founding the organization in 1951 and actively leading it for more than fifty years. Though she loathed accolades and self-promotion, respected colleagues-and even opponents-have called her an "immortal icon," an "inspiration," and an "institution."
She has long been called the "Mother of the Animal Protection Movement" with good reason. Without her five decades of leadership, animals globally would have suffered much greater atrocities and long, drawn out pain, fear and suffering. AWI's new president Cathy Liss acknowledged, "She was phenomenal-a woman of boundless compassion and drive."
Mrs. Stevens founded the Animal Welfare Institute to end the cruel treatment of animals in experimental laboratories. Inevitably, her work expanded to the fight against cruel animal factories, the barbaric steel jaw leghold trap, commercial whaling, the extinction of endangered species, and the burgeoning killing of great apes for bushmeat.
Dr. Jane Goodall said, "Christine Stevens was a giant voice for animal welfare. Passionate, yet always reasoned, she took up one cause after another and she never gave up. Millions of animals are better off because of Christine's quiet and very effective advocacy. She will sorely be missed by all of us."
"Mrs. Stevens' achievements in the field of animal protection are incalculable," added Ms. Liss. For example, it was she who spearheaded the campaign to ban the commercial trade of fur from animals caught in steel jaw leghold traps to and within the European Union. She was also instrumental in achieving the 1989 international ban on the commercial trade in elephant ivory at the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Her passionate defense of the creatures of the sea led to the beginning of the Save the Whales campaign in the 1970s. For years she was an active combatant against commercial whaling at the meetings of the International Whaling Commission. Sue Fisher of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society said of her phenomenally powerful advocacy, "I only met her once and she had more spark at 80 than the combined energy of the rest of the NGO community in the room. A very inspiring lady."
Mrs. Stevens didn't mince words. In 1988 she served on a National Research Council committee examining the Use of Laboratory Animals in Biomedical and Behavioral Research. She issued a Minority Statement to the Committee report in which she chided the authors for refusing "to face the widespread, ingrained problem of unnecessary suffering among the millions of laboratory animals used yearly in our country." She continued: "I was shocked by the attitude of Committee members who asserted that we have no moral obligation to animals and expressed hatred of the idea of having a report that puts emphasis on alternatives.... A balanced report should recognize the severity and extent of the problem."
In 1955, sensing a need to make an impact in the legislative process, she founded the Society for Animal Protective Legislation (SAPL). At a time when only a handful of laws to protect animals were on the books, Mrs. Stevens' resolute efforts helped lead to the passage of dozens of vital bills including the Animal Welfare Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wild Bird Conservation Act, and the Humane Slaughter Act. On the wall here at AWI's office is a simple, yet illustrative letter from May 15, 1958 written by Gerald W. Siegal of then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson's staff to future Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas about the Humane Slaughter Act. Siegal wrote: "Dear Abe: I surrender. Mrs. Stevens and I visited at some length yesterday on the humane slaughter bill. She is as persuasive as she is charming."
Running AWI was a family affair. Mrs. Stevens' daughter, Christabel Gough, was her mother's colleague and trusted advisor and served on the board for a decade. Mrs. Stevens' husband of 60 years, Roger L. Stevens, founded Washington's John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and served as Treasurer for AWI and SAPL. Mr. and Mrs. Stevens used their important political connections to host foreign dignitaries and leaders in the American government. Mrs. Stevens possessed what AWI's Ben White called a "graceful and lovely" presence, which served as the "ultimate disguise." She never passed an opportunity to push her agenda of animal protection. For instance, Mrs. Stevens donned a raccoon mask at one party to expose the plight of animals cruelly trapped for their fur. In one terrific photo of Mrs. Stevens at the White House, she's practically glaring at President Clinton as they shook hands in a receiving line.
After all, how could she pass up an opportunity to tell the President directly that free trade agreements such as the WTO were potentially disastrous for animals?
Senator Edward Kennedy, a friend of Mr. and Mrs. Stevens said, "Washington is a more civilized place because of Christine and she will be greatly missed." He continued, "For so many of us, Christine Stevens will always be the First Lady of the Kennedy Center. She was as knowledgeable as she was gracious and a tremendous partner to her devoted husband, Roger. My brother asked him to lead the effort to establish a national performing arts center here in Washington. Together they did an impressive job and, in the process, transformed our capitol city."
The work undertaken by Mrs. Stevens was always without compensation and she modestly listed her profession as "volunteer work in the area of animal protection." She was a talented artist who attended the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science and the Arts. Her creative skill, too, was applied to the work of AWI. Mrs. Stevens designed hand-drawn holiday cards each year, a magnificent, detailed elephant t-shirt, and a huge eight foot high mural of endangered species that adorned AWI's booth at the 1994 CITES meeting. Her artistic eye also assisted in the design and publication of the Animal Welfare Institute Quarterly magazine, for which she served as chief editor and writer.
Perhaps our colleague Susie Watts, formerly of the Environmental Investigation Agency, put it best: "When I look around me and I see all the huffing and puffing egos among the world's animal protectors, people who cannot claim-and never will be able to claim-to have achieved anything close to what Christine achieved in her lifetime, I'm just all the more grateful that she was there. Not many people can truly be called great or unique. Christine can. Not many of us could make a list of achievements that's more than a paragraph long. Christine could, and then some. Not many of us will be remembered after we're gone. Christine will."
"So long as I can, I feel it's a duty.
Why would I stop?"
-Christine Stevens, 1918-2002