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US loses leading advocate for horses

July 1, 2010

The US is mourning the death on Monday of Senator Robert Byrd, who was the longest serving senator in history and who co-authored the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act.

Senator Byrd outside the Capitol building in 2007.

Senator Byrd with Richard Nixon.

Byrd died at the age of 92 in West Virginia.

He was named Peta's Person of the Year in 2007, and over six decades he was a tireless advocate for improving legal protection for animals.

In 2009 he was awarded an animal welfare leadership award for his work on animal protection legislation. Among several animal welfare related issues receiving Byrd's support was one requiring the federal government to allow for the adoption of retired service horses, and he also worked on a bill to revamp the Department of Interior's management of wild horses on public lands.

In 2005, Byrd co-authored the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act, which prohibits the transport, purchase, and sale of horses for human consumption. The bill was publicly supported by PETA ally and singer Willie Nelson. Byrd also introduced a bill that would prohibit the commercial sale and slaughter of wild horses and burros.

Versions of the bill, now called The Prevention of Equine Cruelty Act, have been introduced every year since then, but have yet to pass both houses.

When the Michael Vick scandal broke, Byrd made a stirring 24-minute speech on the Senate floor condemning dogfighting as "barbaric."

"Sen. Byrd is never shy about making his strong belief in the importance of animal protection heard," said Peta President Ingrid E. Newkirk in 2007 when Byrd was named Peta's Person of the Year.

Byrd was born Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr. in North Carolina, on November 20, 1917. When he was a year old, his mother, Ada Mae, died in the 1918 Flu Pandemic. In accordance with his mother's wishes, his father, Cornelius Calvin Sale, dispersed the family children among relatives. Titus and Vlurma Byrd, the infant's uncle and aunt, were given custody, adopted him, renamed him Robert Carlyle Byrd, and raised him in the coal-mining region of southern West Virginia.

Byrd was valedictorian of Mark Twain High School and, in 1937, he married his high-school sweetheart, Erma Ora James. Both were 19 years old. Erma died in 2006 at the age of 88.

US President Barack Obama said he was saddened to hear "that the people of West Virginia have lost a true champion, the United States Senate has lost a venerable institution, and America has lost a voice of principle and reason with the passing of Robert C. Byrd."

"Senator Byrd's story was uniquely American. He was born into wrenching poverty, but educated himself to become an authoritative scholar, respected leader, and unparalleled champion of our Constitution. He scaled the summit of power, but his mind never strayed from the people of his beloved West Virginia. He had the courage to stand firm in his principles, but also the courage to change over time.

"He was as much a part of the Senate as the marble busts that line its chamber and its corridors. His profound passion for that body and its role and responsibilities was as evident behind closed doors as it was in the stemwinders he peppered with history. He held the deepest respect of members of both parties, and he was generous with his time and advice, something I appreciated greatly as a young senator," Obama said.

"We take solace in the fact that he is reunited with his wife of nearly 69 years, Erma; and our thoughts and prayers are with their daughters, their grandchildren and great grandchildren, and all the people of West Virginia who loved Robert C. Byrd.

Senator Byrd is survived by two daughters, Mona Byrd Fatemi and Marjorie Byrd Moore, five grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.



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