Man at home in the 'vortex' of animal protection

The Baltimore Sun

Had all the animals in America gotten together to vote on their spokeshuman, they might have given the paws-up to somebody like Wayne Pacelle.

The chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the United States is articulate and savvy, the result of more than a decade of dealing with press and politicians. He's well-educated. And he's passionate about animals.

Under Pacelle, who took over as chief executive officer in 2004, the Humane Society has seen its coffers swell, its membership grow and its style shift from that of gentlemanly pugilist to one more resembling a street fighter. It still sticks closer to the rules than its smaller counterpart, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but it's not afraid to lash out against those who harm animals.

Pacelle, observers say, is not the appease-everyone sort who is at the helm of many a nonprofit; nor is he the rabble-rouser he was in college. He has, to use his own word, "evolved."

What got you interested in animal welfare?

Like a lot of other kids, I had an instinctive empathy for other animals. I saw them as peers, and not as underlings. I do think that images and stories of animals in children's books are powerful educators for kids, but I tend to think that these views were already present in me.

Growing up, did you have a lot of animal books?

Books are what opened my eyes to the larger animal kingdom. I had all the encyclopedias dog-eared to the animal entries as a kid, and my Aunt Harriet brought me lots of National Geographic books. I was fascinated by them and couldn't quench my thirst for more information.

And in college, that interest continued?

When I went to Yale, I did a summer program with a student conservation association. I went to Isle Royale National Park in Michigan [a 210-square-mile wilderness archipelago on northern Lake Superior]. It was a transformative experience, revealing to me that we could do better in our dealings with other animals. They could live free of human-caused harm or harassment, as they did at Isle Royale. ... Back at school I started an animal group at the end of my sophomore year [the Student Animal Rights Coalition], and we became one of those most visible and prominent student organizations on campus.

I was thinking about going to law school, but I decided to put that off because a few organizations offered me jobs, and I thought I'd do that for a short time. Little did I know I'd be drawn into the vortex of animal protection. I started by taking a job at Animal Agenda magazine; it was the national magazine of the animal protection movement. It was a great experience in that I gained exposure to the wide range of issues, from horse racing to seal hunting to factory farming to wild animals in circuses, and it was another experience that gave me the background to pursue future opportunities to help animals.

Are you as "radical" now as you were in your days as a student animal-rights activist?

I have evolved to a degree, and I have a little bit of a different take on the issues than I did then. I really don't talk much about "animal rights" now; I talk more about human responsibility. I believe that, precisely because we are intelligent and powerful, we should act responsibly in our dealings with other animals, and I have tried to meld HSUS into a powerful and effective mainstream force for animal protection through working in the realms of public policy, corporate reforms, education and hands-on care.

Has HSUS evolved as well?

We're about the same size as World Wildlife Fund in terms of philanthropic support. I think we are No. 163 or 164 in terms of public support for any charity, and there are 1.5 million of them in the country. We're a very large player, and I think that reflects the widespread appeal of our message We've tried to really advance these issues - to be, not part of the debate, but to drive the debate - and effect tangible reforms, and more and more we're doing that.

What are the top issues in animal welfare today?

Animal issues are on the minds of Americans more than ever, and three cases come to mind. One is our investigation of a Southern California slaughter plant called Hallmark Westland. We had an undercover investigator at the plant for six weeks, and he documented appalling abuses of downer cows - cows that are too sick or injured to walk. That triggered the largest meat recall in the industry and sparked eight congressional hearings and a range of reforms, including a ban on slaughtering downer cows for food.

A second is the Michael Vick dog-fighting case. We played a role in triggering the federal investigation and prosecution. That case thrust the issue of dog fighting into the national consciousness and sparked the passage of about 15 new laws against animal fighting during the last year, and a wave of arrests and attention to this long-neglected issue. Dog fighting is now a felony in all 50 states. We got the last two, Wyoming and Idaho, this year, and passed a tremendously comprehensive federal law.

Third was the pet rescue during Katrina. I think, just as 9/11 was a defining experience for almost all Americans, Katrina was a defining moment for the humane movement. Americans recognized the incredible bond people have with animals and they often won't leave them, even in times of crisis. We were the lead group in helping to rescue 10,000 animals, and we helped pass nearly 20 laws in the states and a comprehensive federal law to promote preparedness related to animals and people.

Are we hypocrites, caring only about animals that are cute?

We live in a contradictory time. We have so much love and appreciation for animals, manifested through nearly universal pet-keeping and widespread wildlife watching and nature programming. But all that exists in a culture that raises animals on factory farms, allows trapping of animals for their fur, and has hundreds of thousands of people involved in organized animal fighting. ...

We're hearing a lot more about HSUS "investigations." And seeing more of them, including in video form on the Internet. Who actually does the investigating in those, and do they have any real police-type powers?

The investigators don't have law enforcement powers. They are there to document abuse, and then we help to expose that abuse and to remedy it. We have undercover investigators, confidential informants and whistle-blowers. ... We've conducted multiple investigations into puppy mills - large-scale commercial dog-breeding operations that treat the puppies like a cash crop and the breeding animals like machines. We are determined to halt their abuses.

Some of your critics have implied you are against people keeping pets. Any truth to that?

That's definitely a severe mischaracterization. I do think there's a right way to relate to animals and a wrong way, and I celebrate the positive ways, like pet-keeping, whale-watching and nature photography. But I've had pets my whole life, and that's the core value our organization is built around: people loving their pets.

john.woestendiek@baltsun.com

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