Robert ByrdRobert C. Byrd, the longest serving senator in U.S. history, passed away this morning at the age of 92. He was a complex man who leaves behind a complex legacy. A former Klansmen and segregationist, he endorsed Barack Obama for president and supported the right of gays to serve in the military. He was a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq and a reliable provider of federal funds for his constituents in West Virginia. And this former butcher was one of the best friends animals had in Congress.

Years before The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Byrd was calling attention to the cruel nature of factory farms. In 2001, he advocated for greater protections for livestock, and gave a moving speech in which he said:

“Our inhumane treatment of livestock is becoming widespread and more and more barbaric. Six-hundred-pound hogs — they were pigs at one time — raised in 2-foot-wide metal cages called gestation crates, in which the poor beasts are unable to turn around or lie down in natural positions, and this way they live for months at a time. … These creatures feel; they know pain. They suffer pain just as we humans suffer pain.”

Farm Sanctuary highlights this speech in a press release mourning the death of Sen. Byrd, saying “Byrd’s courageous plea was a historic and inspirational moment for the farm animal protection movement. He will be remembered as an exceptional champion of animal welfare, someone who defended the defenseless and gave his voice to the voiceless.”

Concerned with the cruelty of modern animal agriculture, Byrd lobbied for more funds to improve enforcement of the Humane Slaughter Act. He also co-authored the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act and the ROAM Act to help America’s wild mustangs and burros.

Part of Robert Byrd’s concern for animals no doubt stemmed from his love of dogs, especially the toy breeds. His canine companions over the years included a Maltese and a Shih-Tzu. The Shih-Tzu had a brief brush with fame during 2007’s Congressional hearing concerning tainted pet food. According to Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, during Senate testimony, Byrd told his fellow senators “three times that he has a Shih Tzu, nine times that his late wife named the dog Trouble, and three times that he prefers to call it Baby.”

After Michael Vick was charged with dogfighting, Byrd’s compassion and empathy for dogs was clear when he took to the Senate floor, calling it “a brutal, sadistic event motivated by barbarism of the worst sort and cruelty of the worst, worst, worst sadistic kind.” He went on to question, “Who are the real animals — the creatures inside the ring or the creatures outside the ring?”

For his advocacy, Byrd was named 2007 Person of the Year by the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals. At the time, PETA president Ingrid Newkirk said, “Sen. Byrd is never shy about making his strong belief in the importance of animal protection heard.”

Byrd also received an animal welfare leadership award from the Humane Society of the United States and the Humane Society Legislative Fund for his leadership on animal protection legislation in 2009. Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of HSUS, said,  “We’re lucky to have his powerful voice on behalf of the animals and the many citizens who care about their protection.”

Looking back over Robert Byrd’s life and career, I can’t help but think that his background helped make him a more effective advocate for animals. It is often said that only a Cold Warrior, anti-Communist Republican like Richard Nixon could have gone to China. Similarly, a former butcher from a poor, rural state is not someone who would normally be thought of as being pro-animal welfare. I wonder if people listened to Byrd railing against factory farms in a different way than they would, say, a vegan from San Francisco (or Dennis Kucinich).

Robert Byrd’s thoughts on animals and our duty to protect them were probably best voiced by the late Senator himself. Upon being honored by the HSUS, Byrd said:

“When it comes to God’s creatures, I believe government has an important role to play in protecting innocent creatures that are unable to protect themselves.

The Congress can always be more aggressive, by conducting more hearings and bringing more attention to the issues of animal rights and animal welfare.  I will continue to advocate for legislation to prevent horse slaughter, to encourage animal adoption, and to ensure the humane treatment of all animals.  This is an issue that is very close to my heart, and I will continue to speak out and fight to promote the humane treatment of animals.”

Photo Credit: Public Domain