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The Historic Vote to Abolish Vivisection

In March 1910, the Southern California Practitioner observed in an editorial that the animal movement was gaining momentum: “We have an organization which meets at the Chamber of Commerce called the California Anti-Vivisection Society [based in Los Angeles], and notices of which meetings appear with considerable frequency in our newspapers.”

The writer, George H. Kress, predicted an anti-vivisection bill would be introduced during the state legislature’s next session. “Unless the medical profession be aroused in regard to the matter, and the persistent and insistent misrepresentation of facts by anti-vivisectionists be refuted,” the editorial continued, “these sentimentalists (to be charitable) will have a fair chance to bring about the enactment of some such a statute.”

It was a prescient declaration. The coming decade would include a number of battles in the state legislature over animal testing. In 1915, the ‘Open Door’ bill — which allowed greater oversight of research facilities — passed, but was vetoed by the governor. And, in 1917, pound-seizure legislation was defeated after a tough fight. But the stakes would only grow higher in the following years.

In 1919, the California Anti-Vivisection Society united with the San Francisco Anti-Vivisection Society and the Alameda County Anti-Vivisection Society, to form the California Federation of Anti-Vivisection Societies, according to historian Diane L. Beers. Some other sources date the unification a year earlier. Regardless, the newly formed organization worked to put forward a ballot initiative seeking to completely ban animal testing statewide.

In the April 1920 issue of The Starry Cross, a publication of the American Anti-Vivisection Society, editor Robert R. Logan laid out what the effort would require. “It is necessary to obtain fifty-five thousand signatures from actual registered voters, but [state activists] will not be satisfied with less than one hundred thousand names,” he wrote. “It is no wonder, therefore, that the members of the society are on the go, and, with hundreds and hundreds of petitions to be filled, have scarcely time to eat or sleep.”

Later, in the same issue of The Starry Cross, B. L. McHenry, president of the Alameda County faction, described the work by his group to meet their quota. “In two weeks we have secured 3000 names and have placed ninety petitions with friends of the cause who are helping us,” McHenry said, noting each petition could fit 82 names. “We have three tables, with two workers at each one, soliciting on the street.”

Thankfully, the anti-vivisection federation was able to meet its goal and the question of animal testing was put on the ballot for November 2, 1920. Rosemonde Rae Wright, president of the Los Angeles society, who seems to have been the driving force behind the initiative as a whole, wrote the official argument in favor of abolition. “Vivisection is founded upon torture,” she said. “It violates the laws of God and nature, and imposes upon humanity a system barbarous, immoral, unscientific and misleading.”

The proposition failed by a vote of 272,288 to 527,130, according to the UC Hastings Scholarship Repository. Still, having won 34-percent support for such an ambitious measure, animal activists were pleased. An unsigned report appeared in the May 1921 issue of The Starry Cross, assessing the results: “Every possible device was made use of by our thoroughly organized opponents… All things considered, we feel greatly encouraged by the good showing made.”

Venia Kercheval, member of the Los Angeles faction, might have captured the feeling of the federation, in a letter published in The Starry Cross a few months earlier, written shortly after the defeat was known. “We are not at all discouraged and will keep right on,” she said. “Our cause is right and MUST and SHALL win in the end.” Unfortunately, the 1920 vote seems to have been a high-water mark for the federation.

A similar proposition was on the ballot in 1922, but garnered a lesser share of the vote, approximately 30 percent, according to results compiled by then Secretary of State Frank C. Jordan. California anti-vivisectionists soldiered on, while apparently never commanding the influence they’d had previously. In early 1958, newspapers across the country ran a small piece on Dell Hawkins — who, nearing her 90th birthday — still worked 40 hours a week, having served as executive secretary of the Los Angeles faction for 34 years.