Man at home in the 'vortex' of animal protection

August 17, 2008|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,Sun reporter

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.

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