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Putting a face on animal activism

Audio of Wayne Pacelle speech

Wayne Pacelle

During a recent meeting of agricultural journalists in Washington, D.C., I had the opportunity to see and hear the president of the animal rights group that is winning the hearts and votes of Congress. Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), has also had exceptional success in state referendums, causing citizens to vote in favor of restricting the way animals are raised, transported and slaughtered.

I expected Mr. Pacelle, (pronounce the final "e") to be an unkempt, wild-eyed, screaming activist. What I saw concerned me even more, as he had the handsome looks and quiet demeanor of the late John F. Kennedy, Jr. He is articulate and passionate but also businesslike about his cause. His speech, to a skeptical and potentially hostile audience, was informative and disarming. When he was finished, I asked myself if I had been duped by a polished lobbyist with a hidden agenda. I am still asking that question as I write this commentary. You may draw your own conclusion, as I taped the entire speech (35 minutes) plus his response to questions and placed it on the website at Wayne Pacelle speech.

The effectiveness of Pacelle's work, through HSUS and other organizations that have merged into it, stands far ahead of other animal rights groups. Since 1990, the organization has had 15 successful state ballot campaigns, the latest being the passage of Proposition 2 in California which will require poultry and swine producers to expand the size of their confinements so that animals can turn around and extend their wings. He also orchestrated the federal effort to shut down horse slaughterhouses and make it illegal to transport horses for the purpose of slaughter. To finish out his scorecard, at least by Washington standards, HSUS now controls over $200 million in assets.

Standing in front of us with combed back black hair with silver streaks and wearing a dark striped suit that fit him like it was being displayed on a store window mannequin, his voice was smooth and strong and his message was unwavering: "I felt, from a very young age, that animals have the same interests in avoiding suffering that we do."

He presented a point of view that is far less compartmentalized than that of production agriculture. He differentiated food animals from companion animals, in his almost analytical explanation of the goals of the organization, with recognition that he'd prefer that we not eat meat. But, if we do, we should respect the lives of the animals who live and die for our benefit. At the banquet, he was true to his words as he was served a vegan plate while the rest of us enjoyed pork loin.

Pacelle referred to their "undercover investigators" who try to document animal cruelty at livestock farms, packing plants, puppy mills, racetracks and other handling facilities. He took credit for exposing the abuse of downer cows at the Hallmark packing plant in California. "They were named the supplier of the year to the school lunch program in 2005," in an obvious gloating over busting the plant two years later for the mistreatment of animals and causing the largest meat recall in history. He clearly understands how to move the public to his point of view, as he linked mistreatment of downer cows to school children, and expanded the social evil of animal cruelty to food safety. "A downer cow is 48 times more likely to have BSE than cows that are ambulatory," was his closing comment on the case.

He was challenged by a reporter during the question and answer session that the HSUS website implied that the current scare about swine flu was linked to hog confinement. In his answer, he said that it was reported to have originated in a portion of Mexico that has large numbers of hogs raised in confinement.

When I asked him about the efforts of HSUS to eliminate horse slaughter when they could find no inhumane treatment of the horses, he simply replied that their organization had been founded to address horse cruelty and that horses aren't eaten in the United States. "A person who owns a horse should accept responsibility for it for the entire life of the animal."

Finally, he played a card I wasn't expecting. "All presidents of the Humane Society of the United States, until me, were members of the clergy," he stated to the raptly attentive group. This didn't seem to resonate and he moved away from it.

He went back to his core strength: political activism on behalf of animals. "When voters are confused, they normally vote 'No' on a ballot initiative. In California, we spent just a half million dollars (more than) our opponents and 62 percent favored our proposition."

Pacelle concluded even more strongly with the assurance that the retail sector is going to drive the process of changing the way animals are raised, transported and slaughtered. He cited the Smithfield phase-out of gestation crates and statements from restaurant chains regarding what they will require from meat and poultry suppliers. He indicated that they were negotiating with those growers and processors who don't want a legal battle over animal welfare and are willing to compromise with HSUS.

Bold, brazen, polished, savvy, determined and compassionate all describe the presence and words of Wayne Pacelle. He trumped animal agriculture on almost every front. If meat producers look at him as the enemy, then the tactics to confront his organization should change because the livestock industry is losing on all fronts today.

(Listen to Wayne Pacelle's comments for yourself. My quotes were condensed in some cases but every attempt was made to keep them in context.)

Editor's Note: This is Ken Root's 35th year as an agricultural reporter. He grew up on a small farm in central Oklahoma and started his career as a vocational agriculture teacher. He worked in Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri as a broadcaster and was the original host of AgriTalk. He has also been the executive director of the National AgriChemical Retailers Association in Washington, D.C. and the National Association of Farm Broadcasters in Kansas City. Ken is now the lead farm broadcaster at WHO and WMT Radio based in Des Moines, Iowa. He has been a columnist for HPJ and Midwest Ag Journal for eight years.

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