Meet the Man Leading the Charge Against SeaWorld, Puppy Mills, and Big Agra

Credit: Photograph by John Loomis

In the 12 years since he ascended to the president's seat, Wayne Pacelle has turned the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) from a polite nonprofit into a Death Star opponent of industry abuses. He hired undercover operators to film the brutalities in poultry, pig, and cattle factory farms and managed to persuade most meat producers to eliminate cruel confinement by the mid-2020s. Last year, even the world's largest purveyors of food — Walmart, Target, McDonald's, Costco — also caved under his pressure and agreed to phase out products from livestock raised in such conditions.

Meanwhile, Pacelle's army of activists mounted ballot measures across the country. Overwhelmingly those measures passed, banning cockfights and bear hunts with dogs. Similar campaigns, with help from PETA and other groups, forced Ringling Bros. to drop elephants from its acts, after decades of blunt refusal. But the Humane Society's success has come at a cost. Pacelle has been attacked by the lords of agribusiness, who've spent tens of millions of dollars to tarnish him with slanders from shell websites. Among the accusations are that he's killed dogs by the hundreds, functioned as a lobbyist for animal-rights zanies, and run the Humane Society as his personal Ponzi scheme.

On the eve of another recent triumph — the announcement by SeaWorld that it would phase out orca shows and end its captive-breeding program — Pacelle sat down in his Washington, D.C., office to talk about his ongoing battles. They're described with relish in his new book, The Humane Economy, which is both a retelling of the campaigns won and a look at those ahead — against puppy-mill breeders and their protectors in Congress, the rich trophy hunters of Safari Club International, and labs that test products on animals.

When you took over, the Humane Society was mostly in the pet-welfare business. Then it went after big agriculture and factory farms. Why the sudden shift from defense to offense?

Well, before I got here, we didn't have the right weapons. We were bringing a knife to a gunfight. One of the first things I did, besides ramp up investigations, was build a litigation wing. We ultimately hired 25 lawyers to go after the abusers and fight animal-confinement regulations in farming states. I also refocused our fundraising efforts. We grew the budget from $70 million to nearly $200 million, and went from a couple hundred personnel to nearly a thousand. But what really expanded our footprint was winning those battles. We proved that if you care about animals, we're the best place to invest your money.

How did you know where to start?

When I came to D.C., the farm lobby was untouchable — it was basically Big Tobacco in the '80s. We did ballot measures to show food retailers that the public shared our views on animal confinement. First we secured some state bans on despicable practices such as bear baiting and the hound hunting of mountain lions. Then, after the Michael Vick case put dog fighting on the map, we passed federal and state laws against all forms of animal fighting. Next we went after the industrial meat producers. One of our first big gets was the undercover footage of a slaughterhouse in Chino, California. It showed cows too sick to stand on their own, being tortured to walk into the slaughter chute. That meat, highly susceptible to cross-contamination, was sold to public schools in 50 states. Our video forced the largest meat recall in history and opened the public's eyes to the horrors of industrial farming.

That video also helped pass Proposition 2 in California, which phased out confinement for cows, pigs, and hens. Then states enacted "ag-gag" laws to silence whistle-blowers like the HSUS.

Six of the big-ag states passed laws that do two things: They prohibit unauthorized filming of factory-farm conditions and criminalize anyone using a false name to get a job working undercover. They were drafted explicitly to keep us out — and to deny the public the right to be informed. Those are flagrant violations of the First Amendment, and we've gotten them overturned in dozens of places, but they're still on the books in Iowa and Missouri, where the farm bureau is still king and too many lawmakers show fealty to them.

In what ways?

Well, take puppy mills. Those mills are just atrocious places, but in Missouri, members of Congress actually fight to protect them. Representative Jason Smith's family has long run a puppy mill that made our list of the 100 worst in the United States. [Editor's note: The business has filed suit in state court against HSUS for defamation, alleging that its past public statements were "false, scandalous, and defamatory."] Same thing in Iowa — Congressman Steve King is a huge defender. He'll do anything in his power to back the operators and fight off laws to punish them. But we're winning, and they're losing. We used to be on the margins. Now they're on the margins. The farm bureaus and their enablers on Capitol Hill, they're becoming the David Dukes of animal treatment.

There's a clip on your website of a recent raid, and the images couldn't be sadder: sick, filthy puppies crammed into cages, mother dogs with broken legs who'd never spent a second outdoors. How do puppy mills survive?

They survive because puppies are a blockbuster business and because no one's come along and made the Blackfish movie about conditions in those mills. People know in a general way that puppy mills are terrible, but then they walk into a pet store. They're detached from the abuse, which is the problem we confront: the lack of knowledge on the consumer side.

These days there are somewhere around ten thousand mills. That's fewer than there were 10 years ago, but the laws in some states are pathetic. The woman who owned the mill in our raid, she'll get off with a slap on the wrist. But it's not like we haven't had any impact on the problem: We just got Boston to ban the sale of commercially bred dogs, the 130th city to do so. I've got nothing against responsible breeders, though we strongly urge adoption instead.

Is there a point at which, if you become too aggressive, you risk becoming viewed by most people as a fringe militant group, as PETA has been?

HSUS walks a very difficult tightrope in both driving transformational change and positioning itself as a mainstream force. It's a difficult balancing act, but we've been successful.

What issue feels most pressing now?

I think we're eating too much meat in this country. The average person eats 30 animals a year. If we reduced our consumption by just 10 percent, we'd save a billion animals a year. Now, the good news is that big changes can happen fast, as we saw with the confinement laws. The bad news is we're in a target-rich world. In South Korea, for instance, there are industrial mills where they raise dogs strictly for meat. We've shut down six or seven mills to demonstrate the problem, but there are 17,000 more.

Now you're going after targets overseas? Not enough enemies here?

Well, we're starting to see change in China and South Korea, so globalizing these issues is essential. We're creating a baseline standard that cruelty to animals is wrong wherever it happens. So when [Minnesota dentist] Walter Palmer travels 8,000 miles and spends $50,000 to shoot a lion with an arrow, it's just as inhumane as if it happened here. And it does happen here. The U.S. is the center of the trophy-hunting industry. Mountain lions, black bears, wildlife trafficking — and now the Safari Club types are clamoring to delist grizzlies so they can shoot them, too. They hide behind the lie that the hunting fees they pay actually help support conservation efforts. Well, no, they don't. They mostly go to the guides, and localities never see that money.

So we can add hunters to the list of people who want your head on a spike?

You know, before Planned Parenthood went through its recent crisis, I thought HSUS caught more hell than any charity in the U.S. One guy in particular, a hired hack for big ag, creates dummy nonprofits to go after me with vicious brand attacks. But I see that as an affirmation that we're making progress. My father, who was a football coach, raised me to be stubborn, to be a warrior for what I believe in. He and my brother, who was 11 years older, brainwashed me into loving the New York Yankees, the Boston Celtics, and the Miami Dolphins, and I've been fiercely loyal to those teams. From the time I was a kid till, frankly, not too long ago, I wouldn't talk to anyone for days if the Dolphins lost. So the harder these people come at me, the harder I fire back. And by God, I won't let them win. Ever.