On June 28, the animal welfare community lost a stalwart friend when Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, America’s longest serving senator, died at the age of 92. Byrd was a fierce advocate for animal protection legislation and was well known for his forceful oratory on the subject of compassion to animals.
Byrd’s legislative efforts on behalf of animals began early. As a U.S. representative in 1958, months before taking the senate seat he would occupy for over 50 years, he voted for passage of the Humane Slaughter Act. Later, as a senator, he supported the 1966 Laboratory Animal Welfare Act (later renamed the Animal Welfare Act) to improve the treatment and well-being of animals intended for research. But it was his advocacy on behalf of animals during the last decade of his career for which he is most remembered. Among other things, he sponsored legislation to protect wild horses, co-authored a bill to end horse slaughter and, in 2002, convinced the Senate Appropriations Committee to allocate a record $5 million toward improving enforcement of the Humane Slaughter Act. (At a hearing the following year, under harsh questioning from the Senator, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman was forced to admit that no new humane slaughter inspectors had been hired as Congress had directed. Ms. Veneman later recalled that as one of the worst days of her life.)
A noted dog-lover, Byrd delivered a powerful 25-minute speech in 2007 condemning dog fighting as brought to light by the Michael Vick case. Years before, reacting to the news of a little dog thrown into traffic by an angry motorist, Byrd said, "We have a responsibility to roundly condemn such abject cruelty. Apathy regarding incidents such as this will only lead to more deviant behavior. And respect for life, all life, and for humane treatment of all creatures is something that must never be lost."
Byrd was equally passionate about improving the condition of animals raised for slaughter. He told his Senate colleagues: "It is one thing to determine as a culture that it is acceptable to raise and rear and then eat animals. It is another thing to cause them to lead a miserable life of torment, and then to slaughter them in a crude and callous manner. As a civilized society, we owe it to animals to treat them with compassion and humaneness. Animals suffer and they feel. Because we are moral agents, and compassionate people, we must do better."
To members of the animal welfare community, Senator Byrd was an inspirational, resolute champion, one who will be fondly remembered and sorely missed.