Last month, I interviewed George Bengal, director of humane law enforcement for the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals. We had a very candid conversation about what it’s like to live when you know you’ll soon die. Among the things he said to me:
“I don’t fear dying. I don’t like the suffering that leads up to it. Literally, I could go tomorrow, and be very happy with that.”
The interview, which you can read in its entirety here, will stay with me for a long, long time. George was a great man, and he leaves behind a legacy of accomplishment and compassion. He passed away Saturday night (June 18, 2016) at the age of 69. You can read about that here.
Here’s the text of an obituary-style email that the PSPCA sent when they told me about George’s (expected but still tragic) passing:
George Bengal, Pennsylvania SPCA Director of Humane Law Enforcement, Loses his Life to Cancer at 69
It is with deep sadness that the Pennsylvania SPCA announces the death of George Bengal, the organization’s Director of Humane Law Enforcement, today, Saturday, June 18, 2016, at the age of 69. He died at Holy Redeemer Hospital in Jenkintown, PA, with his wife, Carole, and daughter Lisa at his bedside.
George spent his life fighting for the justice of others. He served in Vietnam before beginning his career as a Philadelphia police officer and ultimately spending 20 years advocating for animals as a Humane Law Enforcement leader. He and his teams have saved thousands of animals, brought hundreds of criminals to justice, and been the voice for the voiceless.
A tireless animal advocate, George built Humane Law Enforcement operations at several Philadelphia-area animal organizations, including the Women’s Humane Society, the Delaware County SPCA, and the Pennsylvania SPCA, where he had been the Director of Humane Law Enforcement since 2007. Under his leadership, the PSPCA’s force has grown into one of the country’s largest and most respected Humane Law Enforcement teams.
“George Bengal was an icon, a fierce warrior against animal cruelty, and a street smart cop who led by example. The animals have lost their best friend and we have lost a most special colleague. His officers didn’t work under him. They worked next to him,” said Jerry Buckley, CEO of the organization. “We always knew George was courageous in his work. But the way he faced his own death took courage to a new level.”
Buckley continued, “George has been the enduring face of the Pennsylvania SPCA and our fight against animal cruelty for nearly 10 years. He led his team in the rescues of countless animals in trouble, and he provided the public with the tools to report and prevent cruelty. There will never be another George Bengal, but as he wanted us to, we will carry his mission forward in our efforts to put an end to all animal cruelty.”
George stood with his officers in the bitter cold and sweltering heat, at all hours of the night and day, tracking down the bad guys – those who fought animals for sport, abused animals for enjoyment, left their pets without food and water, or simply left their pets behind. He protected animals, punished abusers, and when possible, educated owners whose intentions were good. He triumphed to save animals, and kept up the battle to teach people of all ages about the humane treatment of animals.
Among George’s crowning achievements was having his Humane Law Enforcement officers profiled on Animal Cops Philadelphia on Animal Planet from 2008 to 2009, and on National Geographic’s Philly Undercover in 2012. His extensive expertise and engaging character made these shows a hit and shined a spotlight on the fight to end animal cruelty.
Earlier this year, it became clear that George’s relentless work was coming to an end. During his intense exercise regime, he noticed swelling in his abdomen. At first, doctors thought it was a hernia, but surgery revealed that it was mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer which in George’s case affected the membrane lining of the abdomen. The cancer has a gestation period of as much as fifty years and George likely contracted it during his service in the Vietnam War. He endured two rounds of intense chemotherapy, but the treatment proved futile as the cancer spread. A man who had never taken a vacation, who was in otherwise admirable health, had been struck by a horrific disease that would take his life in a matter of months.
Undeterred from his life’s passion, he came to his PSPCA office in North Philadelphia or worked from home as much as possible, checking in on cases and transitioning his work to trusted officers whom he had trained. He dedicated his remaining days to advocating for the continuation of the Pennsylvania SPCA’s work to end animal cruelty and the need for funding from the state and the city of Philadelphia.
“We are doing whatever we can to honor everything that George has taught us,” said Sergeant Nicole Wilson. “This department was his brainchild. Through sheer will, he’s kept us performing at as high a level as possible. We continue to do our best to make him proud of what we do, and to put his name on it. Very few people are irreplaceable, but George is irreplaceable. We hope to continue his legacy.”
George often said that while he appreciated the outpouring of support during his cancer battle, it was not about him. Rather, it was about the public stepping up to ensure that Humane Law Enforcement continues in Pennsylvania.
“I never thought that I would have a following like this, and I’d like to see it put to good use,” George said. “This is not about one single person. It’s about carrying the program forward. We’ve all put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to make the program what it is. I’ll be gone. We have capable people who can step up. I want to see the public and government support this program. If we didn’t do this anymore, there’s nobody to fill the void.”
Responding to his request, the Pennsylvania SPCA established The Bengal Fund to End Animal Cruelty. All funds raised will be dedicated to Humane Law Enforcement and the continuation and betterment of George’s team.
In addition to Carole, his wife and dancing partner of 35 years, and daughter Lisa, George is survived by daughter Kim, a grandson, Shane, and thousands of supporters who will carry on his legacy in the fight to end animal cruelty.
In lieu of flowers, George’s family has asked that donations be made to the George Bengal Fund to End Animal Cruelty. To make a donation or learn more, visit www.pspca.org/bengalfund.