Virginia Handley: A Tribute

Posted by Joyce Tischler, ALDF Founder and General Counsel on March 24, 2014

Saying goodbye to an old friend is never easy.

In 1978, I was starting my law career and soon after I moved to San Francisco, I began to volunteer at the Fund for Animals (Fund) office in my free time. A young woman named Virginia Handley ran the office and everybody who had anything to do with animals in the State of California knew Virginia. She was the hub.


The Fund office was a wonderful hodgepodge of literature about animals, whether from the Fund or other groups, photos of animals, and movie stars hugging animals, desks and tables for volunteers to work at, and over a dozen filing cabinets, each chock full of documents and information on every possible subject relevant to animals (remember, this was before computers or the Internet). It was a great place to hang out and everybody active in animal rights/protection showed up there at one time or another.

I liked volunteering at the Fund office, and Virginia became something of a mentor to me. Of course, she had such a lack of ego that if I told her that, she would have scoffed at the notion. She was a free spirit who was totally dedicated to her work, and she had a wonderful sense of humor. The Fund paid her a pittance, yet, Virginia never complained. She was a veritable storehouse of information on every conceivable animal related issue, and she shared it freely. Indeed, Virginia shared everything freely; ignoring the standard competitiveness of animal protection groups, she was selfless to a fault. You often hear animal activists say, “I do it all for the animals,” but Virginia honestly lived that ethic.

What Virginia loved most was lobbying for animal protection in Sacramento. And, she was damned good at it. Virginia started lobbying for animals in the 1970s, and she deserves the credit for many of the best animal protection laws that exist in the State of California. Virginia was also a founder of PawPac, the California political action committee for animals, one of the first of its kind. PawPac helps elect state level candidates who support animal friendly legislation, and publishes an annual voting chart to inform voters about how each California legislator voted on animal protection bills. Virginia was the backbone of PawPac, serving on its board until her death. Indeed she and Eric Mills had finished getting out a mailing just days before she died.

Virginia was also responsible for introducing so many of us to others interested in animal rights and protection; she had an innate talent for networking.

Sometime in late 1978 or early 1979, Virginia told me that she had recently met another attorney who was interested in animal rights, and asked if I wanted to meet him. Since I had never met another attorney who shared my interest, I jumped at the chance. That attorney’s name is Larry Kessenick and soon after we met, we advertised in the local legal newspaper, inviting other attorneys interested in animal rights to meet with us at the Fund office, the use of which Virginia happily offered – gratis. That was the start of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

Sometimes, people ask how animal activists can continue their work year after year, when they have to deal with so much ongoing pain and suffering. As Virginia knew, the answer is to live a life that’s balanced. She found her balance and a whole lot of fun from singing at karaoke bars (preferably Patsy Cline songs), acting in local plays, or comedy improv. She was a joy to watch!

I suppose it’s part of life that you don’t realize you’re living the good old days until they are gone. Virginia and I shared many campaigns, many adventures (ask me sometime about our trip to L.A. in the early ‘80s to visit slaughterhouses, or the comedy improv classes that she pulled me into), lots of hours of shared hopes, dreams, opinions, gossip, and a deep, long friendship. Virginia’s passing marks the end of an era for the movement, and a personal loss for me.

Goodbye, old friend. May the road rise up to meet you; may the wind be ever at your back.

For those of you who knew her, and for those of you who missed your chance, here’s a video interview of Virginia from 2009:


20 thoughts on “Virginia Handley: A Tribute

  1. Brigitte St Jean says:

    She will certainly be missed. RIP Virginia My sincere sympathy to her family.

  2. Laurie Mahar says:

    THANK-YOU SO MUCH FOR EVERYTHING. I am from Massachusetts and have been trying to get my state rep. to help with animal abuse both in and out of shelters, trying to get them to see abusers are not only dangerous to animals they are hazzard to society as a whole. Trying to get puppy mills to end and to put laws not only in place but observed.Wish I had your insight!! I SEEM TO BE GETTING NOWHERE.

  3. Laura Lawless says:

    Thank you Joyce, for this beautiful tribute. I hope and pray that you and other will continue her great work. Loving prayers to you and her family.

  4. Sarah Luick, ALDF Board Chair says:

    Virginia Handley made all the difference. Her legacy will simply continue on and on. What a wonderful tribute from Joyce. I hope she had an appreciation of just what a huge difference her life’s work has made for an improved world for all. RIP.

  5. Travis Kelsey says:

    I wish I had met her. The world needs more Virginias, not less.

  6. Mallory Brown says:

    Thank you Joyce for this wonderful tribute to our old friend Virginia and thank you so much for all you are doing on behalf of animals.

  7. Eric Mills says:

    Thank you for a lovely tribute, Joyce. I had the privilege/honor/pleasure of working closely with Virginia for nearly 40 years, in the Capitol and elsewhere. (She always joked that “ACTION FOR ANIMALS” sounded like a dating service for poodles.) You haven’t lived until you’ve driven to Sacramento in my ’69 VW Bug with Virginia, Gladdie Sergeant and Rose Lernberg shouting about animal bills the entire trip. I threatened to put ’em all out more than once.) In my opinion, Virginia was the single best and most effective animal advocate in California history. And she did it all with grace and humor, rare qualities in this movement. Virginia was both mentor and loyal friend, and will be sorely missed–she touched and inspired the lives of thousands over the years, two-legged and four-legged alike.

    The best tribute to her? GET ACTIVE! Write letters, testify at hearings, shop/eat ethically. Be kind to one another. Educate yourself about the various issues. Be civil. Talk with the opposition (you’ll often learn more from them than from your colleagues). ALL LEGISLATORS MAY BE WRITTEN C/O THE STATE CAPITOL, SACRAMENTO, CA 95814. Let them hear from you! Be there for the long haul. As Woody Allen says, “80% of life is showing up.” So do.
    R.I.P., Virginia. You left us much too soon. Save me a seat on the aisle, please.

    With love and admiration always,
    Eric Mills, coordinator

    1. Nan Sea Love says:

      Totally agree with you the best tribute to her is to get active. Would be great to know someone is caring out her vital work. But also her three dogs need a new home.

    2. liz Fowler says:

      Thank you Eric. Very nice remembrance. My husband, Jerome, played chauffeur to Virginia and Gladdie in the early 80’s – trips to Sacramento (you were probably busy those days..). I would have loved to have recordings of their trips. Sounded like non-stop banter. And the animals always benefited.
      The animals and the planet are most saddened by Virgina’s passing.

    3. Panmela Sabatini says:

      I loved this wonderful lady. She really cared and lived her life doing whatever she could for all creatures. Any time I had a problem about who to write to, etc. she always had time to listen to me.

      God Bless her.

  8. Gwendalina Carrera says:

    So sorry to hear of Virginia’s passing. She was an exceptional person, totally dedicated to animal welfare and animal causes. I volunteered briefly at the Fund for Animals in the early 90s and also met up with her a couple of times at committee hearings in Sacramento. She was instrumental in passing many laws and because of Virginia, there is less suffering and pain in the animal world. Thank you Virginia, from us and from all the creatures you helped.

  9. Daniel Shepherd says:

    May you rest in peace,
    Will miss you my dear aunt.

  10. Daniel Shepherd says:

    My Dear aunt, rest I. Peace. Love you Dan

  11. Vanna Peck says:

    When I met Virginia in 1970 and watched her, in awe, work against animal suffering, my life was changed forever. I found out just how good, how brave, how strong, with humor, no less, a person could be, and the proverbial light bulb over my head lit up as I realized that compassion is just not enough.
    She introduced me to Cleveland Amory, who so trusted and believed in her, respecting her knowledge, spirit and perseverance, even as he teased her. He recognized what Virginia was capable of, and he opened, for her, the first San Francisco Fund For Animals office in my home. It was all I could offer, but She taught me so much. I idolized her then and ever since, even though we’ve seen and spoken to each other , sadly–rarely over the past many years.
    Yesterday Bob O’Brien told me the tragic news and I was stunned. It didn’t seem real that she would be gone so early in her life. Then I fell to pieces. All the memories of how she improved my life and how she made me a better person are flooding back. I’ve pulled out my very old photos and have cried a lake. What a beautiful human being and an amazing “force” she was— a special, special person. I will so miss knowing she is there.
    My heart is breaking especially for all of you who were in her thoughts and her life daily, whom she loved and who, of course, loved her like crazy. My deepest sympathy is with you now.

  12. John Lovell says:

    What a wonderful tribute! There is a serious empty space in that all that is good in this world now that Virginia is no longer here.

  13. Holland VanDieren says:

    Virginia was a stalwart champion for animals, and maintained great humor despite her pitched battle against animal abuse in every form. I took inspiration and know-how from her. How dearly Virginia is missed.

  14. I met Virginia at a FARM (Farm Animals Reform Movement) conference around 1980 in San Francisco and have some photos of her dancing – wish I’d known her better.

  15. Leslie Wilson says:

    I am shocked and shaken to hear that Virginia Handley has passed. She was my main contact in the animal rights movement. In my opinion, she was so effective because of her ability to relate to people. I felt comfortable talking with her, both over the phone and in person. I really respected her ideas and approach to dealing with issues. I could always talk to her because she was open and amicable and I found her to be very grounded and sensible. She was someone I could and did consult about issues I had questions about. She would always clarify her position so that I could not help but respect her. In my opinion she was a true leader, one that was always able to act as a beacon of inspiration and grounding. I always wanted to go to Sacramento to see her in action because I knew how effective she was and I was certain I could learn a lot. Now I will never have that opportunity. That makes me deeply sad. I will always miss her inspiration.

  16. Ken Minasian says:

    My brother and I recently learned about Virginia’s passing and we wanted to deeply thank her for being a voice for the many “four-legged friends” who needed a strong advocate these many years. I recall meetings in the mid-seventies with Virginia, Cleveland Amory and Bob Hunter(Greenpeace) at Elenore Moore’s house in San Francisco and at that time,we knew Virginia was the real-deal when it came to the environment. She was one of the first vegetarians we met and her tireless energy and dedication was apparent back then. Thank you Virginia and your legacy will live on in the many that you touched. On be-half of Stan and myself, we will miss your amazing spirit and professional dedication to easing animal cruelty and suffering.

  17. Patricia and Sharon Briggs says:

    Virginia was a precious and special gift not only to all animals of the world but to all animal advocates, and like all special gifts she left us way too soon-although she didn’t have (or want) their celebrity, losing her was like losing JFK, Marilyn, Nat King Cole or Elvis-all their passing left a chasm as big and wide as the Grand Canyon-we still can’t get over it, and never will-nor should we ever-I had a whole bunch of newsarticles to give her and of course, I should have mailed them a long time ago-the world is made of should haves, could haves, would haves-and always too little, too late. We have to, as animal advocates, keep reminding ourselves that the clock is always ticking-we had better take Virginia’s great example by focusing and zeroing in on what we want to do to help the animals of this world, and then doing it. This is our tribute to her and this is how we must honot her legacy. I’ll never forget this incredible person-so humble, unpretentious that I met some 40 years ago at the then Fund for Animals office
    somewhere in Pacific Heights-here was what I recall a sunny office in a flat of a home, I believe, and, even tho I have a feeling I must be mistaken, since in her later life she always wore her hair short, she had braids down to her waist. I’ll never forget she struck me as such an incredibly caring person as she patiently explained how to do everything and this first impression stayed with me forever-you cared because she cared and she was a believer-we think back of all the wonderful times, all the “demos”, pickets, rallies, you name it–it defies the imagination how Virginia could do so much in so short a time-at the Fund office at Fort Mason, she did the work of 10 people–no, amke that 100, and that’s only a slight exaggeration. And she did it for a very meager salary , because she had a genuine and hearfelt love for any and all animals. We often worried about her and all the work she was doing — driving up to Sacramento constantly, having hearings sometimes cancelled at the last minute, trying to always be pleasant when you deal with so many special interests-you have to be superhuman to be a lobbyist and Virginia was but in a humble way–the mind boggles how anyone could do as much as she did. We remmeber volunteering at the Ft. Mason office how every single article or piece of correspondence she would read over and underline important points and then write: “File” in whatever category she wanted-then she would always order some new merchandise to put on the lite blue shelves-so, so many memories. You could go on forever–we are just so blessed and grateful to have known such a remarkable human being and know she has a very special place in heaven–Virginia, we so, so miss your earthly presence, but know the love you shared with us and the animals stays with us forever, and we reslove with the strongest resolve to continue your great work as long as we are able-God Bless You–
    With heartfelt gratitude,
    Patricia and Sharon Briggs
    P.S. Thanks so much for all the kind people and sentiments sent also on her behalf-it’s wonderful to here all the special stories.

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