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Brian Davies - A Tireless Animal Welfare Activist

Scott SmithMar 22, 2018

Many of you have probably already heard Brian Davies—a pioneer on the front lines of animal activism since the 1950s.

Over the past five years I've been writing extensively about animals, so needless to say, I have run into Mr. Davies' name many times. By the end of this feature, you're probably going to be asking yourself the same question I always ask myself when I read about him, "How did one man accomplish so much for animals all over the world?" 

Let's see where it all began.

Davies was born in 1935, in the coal mining region of Wales. He spent much of his childhood years in the care of his grandparents, as a result of World War II. At age 11, when the war ended, Brian and his family moved to England. Nine years later, he and his first wife, Joan, moved to Canada in search of a better life.

In 1958, when Davies was 23 years old, a car hit a dog outside his home. Since there were no local vets available, he reached out to the Fredericton Society for the Protection of Animals (SPCA). They pointed him and the dog to the Fredericton Animal Hospital.

This act of kindness was the spark that ignited a lifelong journey as an animal welfare activist.

This is Brian in Dubrovnik last year. He is with Sandra Sambrailo, founder of the Zarkovica Animal Shelter. The mayor of Dubrovnik tried to close the shelter down and have the dogs killed. Brian took on the challenge. 

In 1961, Brian joined the New Brunswick Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NBSPCA), and during his time there, was involved in many facets of animal welfare.

With the backing of the NBSPCA, Brian was able to participate in multiple campaigns aimed towards helping to prevent animal cruelty. Most notably, Brian put his heart and soul into the campaign to stop the hunt for baby harp seals off the coast of Newfoundland. Eventually, he and the NBSPCA were front and center in the news because of the NBSPCA's "Save the Seals Fund."

By 1968, the NBSPCA voted to resume sole focus on the general protection of animals in New Brunswick, and split from the Save the Seals campaign. Davies held the line, and converted the Save The Seals Fund into the the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). The IFAW is arguably the largest animal welfare and conservation charity in the world.

Davies led the IFAW for 29 years and it's still going strong today. The IFAW has projects in over 40 countries, always staying true to its core mission statement to "rescue and protect animals around the world."

I've been writing about animals for years, and had often heard of Mr. Davies, especially in connection to the Canadian seal hunt. Over the course of the many decades of Mr. Davies' and other activists struggle, many have expressed their opinions about the inherent humanity of the hunt, or lack thereof. It's almost possible to get lured into the "it's not really that bad" narrative.

Brian and Gloria Davies with the late Nelson Mandela, who dedicated a copy of his memoirs to them:
"Compliments and best wishes to a remarkable couple that cares for the safety of the entire world."

In 1966, when Davies witnessed the Canadian seal hunt for the first time, he said, “30 meters ahead of me was a baby white seal on its back and the hunter was skinning it alive. I made an eye connection with that seal and I could feel the desperate terror and pain that it was suffering. You can't make this humane." The seal hunt in Canada is one of the most barbaric slaughters on Earth—the word "humane" has no business being associated with this commercial carnage.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, I caught footage of the seal hunt on television, and couldn't believe my eyes. I'd never seen anything like that before. Then in the 2010s, when I started seeing comments that Davies had made about the seal hunt as far back as the 1960s, to say that it resonated with me would be a huge understatement. Every year, commercial sealers still arrive on Canadian ice floes to kill thousands of baby seals between three weeks and three months old. Some are shot to death, but others have their skulls crushed with a hakapik, a hooked club with piercing metal tips. Their pelts are torn off and the bodies are left to rot on the ice.

Fallen Angels, an animal shelter in South Africa's Western Cape. The black dog is Jagger, a dog bred for fighting. They cut off his ears to make it harder for an opponent to hold him, but Jagger was not a fighter and so his previous owners threw acid over him, blinding him in one eye​.

David Barritt has been a colleague of Mr. Davies for 20 years. Of their joint work, he says, "I have worked with Brian for more than 20 years. I met him when he was running the IFAW and he recruited me to help him stop the sealing in South Africa, which we did achieve. Then we went on to stopping the elephant cull in South Africa, which we also achieved."

David also reflected upon one of Mr. Davies' common sayings, which he would consider when faced with a difficult or expensive animal welfare challenge. He would ask himself, "What would the animals want us to do?"

Once Davies retired in the early 1990s, after leading the IFAW for 29 years, he formed the Political Animal Lobby (PAL). Davies knew that politics and policies play an enormous role in the realm of animal welfare and rights, and saw the need for an organization dedicated to changing policy at the highest levels of government.

One of PAL's core achievements was the donation of $1,450,000 to the British Labour Party in 1997. This donation was decisive in Labour's ascension to majority party that year, clearing the way for the passage of The Hunting Act, which saved thousands of foxes, hare, and deer from vicious bloodsport-related deaths.

In the late 1990s, Davies then formed the Network for Animals (NFA), an organization that uses grassroots activism to support small animal rescues and generate worldwide animal welfare campaigns. NFA initiatives include seizing dogs from the Philippine dog meat trade, protecting elephants and rhinos from criminal networks in Tanzania and South Africa, opposing the seal hunt in Canada, providing disaster relief for animals, and ending organized horse fighting in the Southern Philippines.

Throughout it all, the core conviction of the NFA remains—"decisive change for animals must ultimately involve political change." In July of 2014, NFA expanded its work into the United States, as a 501(C)(3) charitable organization.

Davies on the ice sheets in Canada

Mr. Davies turned 82 years old on February 4th, 2017. If you trace the path that led Davies from rescuing a dog in 1958 to his continued efforts that still lead him all over the globe in his fight for animal rights, it's clear that this man has an unbreakable kinship with animals.  That kinship is how one man helped reshape the way people think about animals in general.

Over the course of his decades-long commitment to animal welfare activism, Davies founded the IFAW, PAL, and NFA. The odds on one person building three globally influential organizations in one lifetime is almost zero—but it happened anyway. Passion and love can defy all odds.

Mr. and Mrs. Davies on his 82nd birthday

Any narrative of Brian Davies considerable achievements is incomplete, however, without mentioning his wife Gloria, who worked with him at IFAW and then co-founded NFA. The world is a better place because the Davies are in it. I hope to thank them in person one day, and maybe make it to the ice floes in Canada to meet the harp seals—what a gift that would be. 

I want to thank Mr. David Barritt of Network for Animals for his assistance with this feature on Brian Davies. 

You can also follow Network for Animals on Facebook and Twitter