photo Michelle Riley/The HSUS
Wayne Pacelle is tall, handsome, and looks great in a suit – pretty much the perfect CEO. But this CEO doesn’t run a corporation. He works for animals. In fact, Pacelle, the president and CEO of Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), is one of America’s most effective champions of animal welfare and industrial farming reform.
Since Pacelle took charge of the HSUS in 2004, he has infused new vigor and dynamism into a venerable organization that used to be known more as a benevolent protector of dogs and cats than as a savvy political operation. During the past decade, HSUS and Pacelle – who was the society’s chief lobbyist for 10 years before becoming president – have helped pass more than 500 new state laws and over 25 federal statutes to protect animals, including bans on cockfighting, cruel factory farming practices, bear baiting, and negligent puppy mill operations.
Under Pacelle’s leadership, HSUS has grown into the nation’s largest and most powerful animal protection organization, with 11 million members and annual revenues of $160 million. Much of this growth was achieved through mergers Pacelle negotiated with other animal protection groups. The rest is due to Pacelle’s determination to keep the organization nonpartisan and push for reforms that are acceptable to all sides – vegans, vegetarians, meat-lovers, farmers, and religious groups.
He might have ruffled some feathers in the process, but on the whole Pacelle has been successful in moving animal protection, especially farm animal welfare, from the margins to the mainstream. In a new book, The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them, he displays a deep faith in our essential connection with all animals and argues for “the ethic of love and compassion to triumph over abuse and exploitation.”
—Maureen Nandini Mitra
How did you get involved in animal welfare?
I had a bond built into me. It did not come about as a consequence of a sit down talk or a single, sort of, catalytic incident. It really was an emotional, empathetic, intuitive response to other creatures. You can’t avoid, even as a child, the fact that animals suffer. It was just an awareness that animals were vulnerable and we were causing so much cruelty to them. And I was concerned and I didn’t like it, although for many years I didn’t know how to plug in and do something about it. It wasn’t until I went to college that I got actively involved in the cause. And it was at Yale in the mid-1980s that I started an animal protection organization on the campus. And from there it’s been really a sprint forward for me.
What pushed you to extend HSUS’ area of work into farm animal welfare reform?
The Humane Society was always a group that had an ethical concern for companion animals, wildlife, farm animals, and all other creatures. I think what I’ve done since I’ve been president of the organization, and previously the political chief here, was bring a great urgency to the fight, and I’ve tried to take a strategic approach to target the biggest and seemingly most intractable forms of animal cruelty and exploitation. So I’ve really built on the traditions that have existed in HSUS since the 1950s.
You have said that we are living in a moment of “incredible contradiction” in terms of our relationship with animals. Don’t you think this kind of dichotomy is inherent in our relationship with creatures that have both provided us with companionship and also been a source of food?
I think you are right, and I think our relationship with animals has always been multifaceted and always been a tug-of-war between appreciation and exploitation. I think now what is impossible to miss in our relationship is that we love animals. We have standards against animal cruelty. For instance, all 50 states have laws forbidding it and treat certain acts of cruelty as a felony. … We have so many other expressions of a bond or kinship with animals, more so than any time in our history. … But the harm and exploitation is also bigger and more potent than ever, partly as a consequence of our human population, now reaching 7 billion. We adversely affect the life of tens of billions of creatures on this planet every year. And it is this incredible contradiction that defines our relationship right now.
“The American public is still a meat-eating public, but that the vast majority of people also don’t want to see animals mistreated.”
I’m arguing for the ethic of love and compassion to triumph over abuse and exploitation. I don’t see our current setup as necessarily the enduring framework of our relationship. We can rid society of so much cruelty through concerted, deliberate, innovative action and sensible choices.
In July HSUS cut a deal with the egg industry to collaboratively seek a federal law requiring larger cages and improved conditions for laying hens. Has that been worthwhile?
Well, it’s still playing out, so we’ll have to see. But any time you can find a pathway forward, where the industry agrees to join you in going down that path, is an important advance. It’s not our goal to be in a polarized setup. That is the last resort, when negotiation and reason fail. The use of animals is embedded in our economy and in our culture, and the only way we are going to find new pathways is to turn adversaries into allies. Brute force, even if you are as large a force as the Humane Society of the United States, is going to work only on occasion. It’s not the preferred course for changing something quite so large as the exploitation of animals in society.
You’ve received a fair share of criticism from both vegan groups that say you’ve sold out by making it easier for people to eat “happy meat,” as well as the farming industry and carnivores, who allege you are gradually trying to turn everyone vegan, and trying to control what people eat. How do you answer both sides?
There’s a natural tension on these issues because there are so many different belief systems that are at work in our society. And by definition HSUS can’t satisfy everyone. But our metric is – are we moving in the right direction?
I think that meat-eating is an extremely complex sociological, cultural, and economic issue. There are lots of things that are at work here. There are notions about masculinity and power and, obviously, there are enormous companies that are trying to increase market share for their products. I believe that this issue is going to play out in an incremental sort of fashion. I don’t think that the public is overnight going to go vegetarian or vegan.
But animals are suffering right now on factory farms and we have a moral obligation to ameliorate their condition and to stop the most extreme forms of abuse. We’ve made a very pragmatic judgment that the American public is still, by and large, a meat-eating public, but that the vast majority of people also don’t want to see animals mistreated. We can appeal to their sense of decency in curbing the worst abuses on factory farms. Meanwhile, we extol the virtues of a plant-based diet and we also urge people to think about “meatless Mondays” and, you know, exhibiting a greater conscious awareness about their food choice even if they are going to continue to eat meat.
When did you become vegan?
Twenty-seven years ago, when I was 19. I saw images of factory farms and I wanted no part of it. I decided that I would try to not have my dietary choices directly contribute to the killing of animals. And that’s the right choice for me. But I’m not so orthodox that I don’t want to work with meat-eaters or farmers or others who are not where I am. I mean, if you reduce the consumption of animals by 10 percent in America, you save a billion [animal] lives. That’s an incredible payoff.
Given your deep love for animals, how do you deal with the knowledge that millions of animals are being slaughtered every day?
That’s the number one question that I get from people. And it’s not so much that they are completely curious about me, but that they are projecting their own emotional turmoil. It is a heavy burden to be alert to the suffering of animals in a society where exploitation is so rampant. And it leads to people shutting down or disassociating from a cause because looking at it too closely is just too much to bear. What I tell people is that in the face of a crisis of animal cruelty, we simply cannot be bystanders. We must do something about it. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. Every life we save, or any suffering that we mitigate, is a great advance for those creatures. We don’t have to win the day entirely and create a cruelty-free world in order to feel like our efforts are well justified.
In the relationship we have with animals, we have all the power. We can crush them and kill them and destroy them. Or we can be merciful and kind. We created this problem because of our misuse of power. And we can turn the problem around by properly using our power.
photos courtesy the HSUS
In your book you sketch out a workable vision of growing economics free from harsh exploitation of animals. Can you give us a brief outline of your vision?
I really believe that in a civil society we’ve got to meld our economic institutions and our values. When you divorce economic activity from your values, you get terrible outcomes like slavery, child labor, and animal cruelty. The enterprise that we are engaged in at the Humane Society is to create this new economy, and that means humane and sustainable agriculture. It means twenty-first-century science and getting away from archaic and unproductive animal testing methods. It means humane wildlife management, and that includes wildlife watching, as an economic driver. It means clothing yourself in natural fiber or synthetic coats, not furs. It means going to shelters and rescue groups or humane breeders rather than going to pet stores or puppy mills. So it’s a vision for a society where we really integrate our value of loathing cruelty with our economic institutions. The definition of corporate social responsibility must be expanded to include animal welfare.
How does animal welfare play into the larger movements for social and environmental justice?
In the preface of my book I talk about pluralism. I say our movement is strong in some ways because we have so many different interests that people care about – endangered species, wildlife … horses and rabbits and guinea pigs. When you add it all up, it adds up to a more robust humane movement. I think that you can take that principle of pluralism and broaden it out into society.
But, to pursue another line of thought, I also think that you cannot confine cruelty. When you have cruelty on factory farms you just see lots of other problems. You see manure management problems and the effects of so much untreated waste being released into the environment. You see public health consequences because we are overusing antibiotics on the factory farms. You see personal health consequences because of our overconsumption of meat and other animal products.
We see this in the households where we see animal cruelty. In 75 percent of those households there’s some other form of domestic violence. There’s spousal abuse or child abuse.
When you are cruel to animals it radiates out in other ways in society. And when you build a greater quotient of kindness that radiates out too. I think if we had a society that cared for animals more, you would see a better society through and through.
Maureen Nandini Mitra is managing editor of Earth Island Journal.