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Written by Paul Webster
Animal welfare activist Brian Davies, who founded IFAW, died on 27 December 2022 at the age of 87, leaving behind a legacy that will continue to help countless animals around the world into the future.
Long before Brian Davies became a world-famous animal welfare crusader, in 1958 he had an encounter with animal suffering when a car hit a dog near his home in rural New Brunswick, a province on Canada’s eastern seaboard.
In those days, Davies, who grew up in working class Wales and England, was serving in the Canadian army. So he took charge of the situation and set out to find a veterinarian to care for the injured dog. He soon realized that animal welfare at that time was woefully underserved in New Brunswick. Before long, he quit the military and signed on as the executive secretary of the New Brunswick Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
In 1964, when Davies was 29, the Canadian government invited him to observe seal hunting practices in the Gulf of St. Lawrence where tens of thousands of baby seals were clubbed to death every year so their pelts could be marketed in Europe and elsewhere.
Standing on an ice floe off the Canadian coast in 1965, Davies found himself surrounded by the blood-soaked remains of hundreds of massacred baby seals. In that moment, his passion for animal welfare ignited in a burning determination to oppose the seal hunt. He later wrote, “There is no way the hunt can be properly regulated. The only way the cruelty can be stopped is by the hunt itself being banned.”
In 1969, after four years of relentless campaigning against the seal hunt across North America and Europe, Davies founded IFAW. By that time, he had become a pioneering and innovative leader of modern environmental activism.
“Brian was quite the charismatic individual,” recalled Patrick Ramage, IFAW’s senior director for outreach and program collaboration, speaking just a few days after Davies’ death.
“In taking on the seal hunt,” Ramage reflected on his professional mentor and friend, “Brian challenged the world’s largest slaughter of marine mammals. He’d really found the cause of a lifetime.”
The plight of the highly telegenic, yet utterly defenseless, baby seals captivated the world, and so did Davies. In 1977, he was jailed for defying a government ban on flying to the seal hunting grounds. In the face of numerous death threats from his inflamed opponents in the Canadian sealing industry, Davies moved to Cape Cod. When the European Union banned the import of baby seal pelts in 1983, Ramage explains, “Davies had won the fight. The European ban dramatically curtailed the Canadian sealing industry.”
Far from resting on his laurels, however, Davies was just getting started. Under his leadership in the decades ahead, IFAW broadened its focus from saving seals to protecting and conserving whales, elephants, bears, and scores of other species worldwide in more than 40 countries.
Davies was skillful in his use of cameras, celebrity glamour, and heart-wrenching animal imagery. When he recruited actors and airline stewardesses to observe the seal killing off the coast of Canada, public support for IFAW—and global opposition to the seal slaughter—exploded.
In the late 1990s, Davies also formed Network for Animals, an organization that works in 26 countries and focuses on direct action to help street dogs, donkeys, and cats, and Animal Survival International, which focuses on protecting wild animals against climate change, habitat destruction, and wildlife trade.
Reflecting on Davies’ remarkably successful career as a crusader to protect animals around the world, Ramage traces an evolution from radically embattled frontline activist to media-savvy strategist to highly articulate and persuasive political negotiator.
“Although he had the full palette of experiences, his genius was to see that politics and policy change is where he could make the biggest difference,” Ramage says.
“Decisive change for animals must ultimately involve political change,” Davies wrote.
Davies also served as an inspiration to the next generation of animal welfare activists. Sheryl Fink, IFAW’s director of wildlife campaigns in Canada, notes, “The most important lesson I’ve learned from Brian Davies is that of persistence. He understood that campaigns to change attitudes and policies towards animals are not won overnight, nor in a year, but can take decades of consistent effort and perseverance.”
For a man who so often got the last word, it seems fitting to conclude with Brian Davies’ own description of his life, written in a letter to supporters that was characteristically dramatic, yet humble.
“I am a photographer, documentary filmmaker and the author of many articles and three books all dealing with the seal hunt,” wrote Davies. “I am also a helicopter and fixed-wing pilot and flew the media and parliamentarians to the blood-soaked ice floes (the key to ending the killings) year after year. But most of all I am a dedicated champion of animal welfare causes.”
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