Finding a job where you can combine your passion with making a living is everyone’s dream. When you meet Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), it is clear that he is a man who is doing just that. As a lifelong animal advocate, he has worked with a variety of organizations, allowing him to experience many different aspects of animal welfare. It seems he has found his home with the HSUS, where he is able to make a difference in the arenas of legislation, corporate activism, education, and animal care, just to name a few. Pacelle took some time out of his packed schedule (in addition to everything else, he maintains a daily blog, WaynePacelle.com) to speak with us. One thing is for sure: We and the animals are lucky to have Wayne Pacelle as one of our strongest leaders in the animal community.
How did you first get involved in animal rescue?
With animals in general I’ve had a lifelong interest. I remember from the age of 3 or 4 having an acute sensitivity to animals. I knew that they were different, but they were different in good ways. They had beautiful fur. They were athletic. They ran fast. And it didn’t seem to me that those differences should be used to allow us to cause them any harm. I just always felt a great sense of responsibility to all animals, and I hated the idea of people misusing their power. And I first got involved in animal rescue and animal advocacy when I was in college. I was the founder of an [animal rescue] student group at Yale, where I went as an undergraduate. And it was then that, if I could have gotten a lifetime membership to the cause of protecting animals, I had basically signed up there.
It is funny, though. I loved animals, and I was tremendously sensitive to their needs. And the city animal shelter was basically in the long-distance gaze from the house I grew up in. It was a police station, and it was just like this brick building, and you could hear dogs barking. But I was a kid, and I really didn’t know what to do, and it’s a reminder that people need guidance in helping animals. You know I should have been there and volunteered, but they probably didn’t even have a volunteer program, and I just didn’t know what to do. And it’s a constant reminder to me that we cannot make assumptions about people not being interested or not wanting to help. We have to make it easier for people to participate in helping animals in every way.
Here I was, a kid [who] loved animals. I thought about them all the time. I read every book about animals. I wanted to do good by them, and there was an animal shelter, a municipal animal shelter, just a three-minute walk from me, and I didn’t go over there because I was a kid and I didn’t know how to approach it.
What led up to your current role at HSUS?
When I started the animal group in college, we were promoting spaying and neutering and responsible care of companion animals, and we were talking about some of the big-picture, institutional cruelty: factory farming and animal testing, sport hunting, and killing animals for fur. I just had an immersion in the issues, and I did an internship with a national organization that worked on legislation—now a defunct organization, National Alliance for Animal Legislation, which at the time was the biggest animal-protection conference in the country. And a lot of the leaders of a wide range of organizations came to that conference and spoke. So I got a chance to meet lots of them. I stayed in touch with some of them, and in my senior year some of them knew I was graduating, and several of them offered me jobs to work in animal protection. And I was going to go to law school, and I said I’d put off law school for a short time and work in animal protection, and I did that. I started writing for a magazine called The Animals’ Agenda. I just got immersed by then. And after a year there, I was hired as the executive director for the Fund for Animals when I was 23. Then I worked for Cleveland Avery, who wrote The Cat Who Came for Christmas and lots of other cat books (he rescued a feral cat [who] was the subject of three books), for five and a half years. Then I joined HSUS as a chief lobbyist and spokesperson; that was in 1994. In 2004, 10 years later, I got elected president and CEO of HSUS.
What did you major in?
History and environmental studies. I never imagined it as a career. It was just a passion, and one thing led to another, and here I am.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced as president of the HSUS?
It’s hard to think of just one challenge because we work on so many different issues. I do think that unifying the movement is tremendously important. You know there are lots of different groups and lots of different attitudes about how we should help animals. There are people who are passionate about feral cats. There are people who are passionate about rescue, spay and neuter, rabbit rescue, breed rescue. There are groups that work on farm animals and animal testing and research and rodeo and wildlife and wildlife rehab—I mean you name it. I think that really my goal with HSUS is to create a powerful mainstream animal-care and advocacy organization that represents the broader movement’s interests and puts the issue of animal protection high on the national radar screen.
What is the first thing you would like to see President Obama do in relation to animals?
Certainly we are hoping he adopts a dog from a shelter or breed-rescue group as far as personal behavior. There’s the larger issue of policy. We would like him to appoint a White House liaison for animal protection. He has done something like this by creating a position for Carol Brown to organize global warming—[make an] interagency effort. It’s time for the federal government to make animal protection a much higher priority interest, and I think the creation of the White House liaison would be very important because there are so many different programs related to animals. And the USDA has many of them, but it needs to be elevated outside of any one agency.
Would you be personally interested in serving as the White House’s liaison for animal protection?
Personally, no, because HSUS has the ability to change the big picture for animals—you know, with corporate America within the federal government, within the states. I mean I can do a lot more as president as HSUS than I can as a politician or an agency person because you know we are a powerful group: a $130-million-a-year organization with 10 million members. I want us to be one of the most powerful advocacy organizations in the nation. I think we have that potential.
What kind of impact did you see after Oprah exposed the issue of puppy mills on her show?
I think you know it has been very valuable to have both Oprah and Ellen associating themselves with animal protection, and it just continued the push to have animal protection as a mainstream sensibility. It’s almost impossible now to say you are not in favor of fighting animal cruelty.
How has the fallout from Oprah and Ellen’s raising of awareness affected HSUS and other animal-welfare groups?
I think what it did was energize us on the issue, and it energized many other groups that can continue to drive the issue forward. It helped to recruit ground troops in the effort to fight puppy mills. And last year we passed three state laws on puppy mils, which was the first time in a number of years that we have had any significant progress in that arena. And we also passed the federal ban of import of puppies from foreign puppy mills, which is a very big deal.
We hope Obama works to see that that is enforced, and that is one of our [items in our] 100-point Change Agenda for Animals, which we released last week on our website. It was released on my blog and Michael McCarran, my colleague’s, blog. So you might want to take a look at that if you haven’t seen that. We have done six investigations into puppy mills in the last 18 months, and all of them have really popped. The Pets of Bel Air investigation led to grassroots movement in Los Angels, which I think has now shut down puppy sales from seven pet stores and [led to] all sorts of great outcomes—a new federal law, several state laws, lots of grassroots action, much more awareness, the Oprah thing.
And this year, 34 states will have anti–puppy mill legislation introduced, which is an unheard of expansion and legislative act on this issue. And that is in part a derivative of the Oprah awareness-building. And she is sticking with it. It’s not just a one-shot deal for her. She said several follow-ups and is continuing to fight hard on that issue. She is someone very respected by the president.
With the passing of Proposition 2, do you feel more hopeful for the plight of animals in this country?
The indicators of progress are all around us. In the areas we are concentrating our firepower—such as puppy mills, factory farming, animal fighting, the Canadian seal hunt, the exotic pet trade—we are making enormous progress on all fronts. I mean Prop 2 was a great example of how the public is concerned with the treatment of all animals, including animals raised for food. Many people thought that people would be concerned with dogs and cats and horses, animals they are more familiar with, but not animals raised for food. And despite a $9-million campaign by agribusiness to defeat Prop 2, it passed with the greatest number of votes of any citizen initiative in California history. California is known as a state with a lot of citizen initiatives, and no measure ever received more votes than Prop 2. It stipulates that inhumane factory-farming practices must be outlawed: no confinement of veal calves, no intensive confinement of veal calves, breeding pigs, and laying hens. It’s an enormous momentum builder, like Oprah’s treatment of puppy mills. She also did a whole hour on Prop 2. Prop 2 is going to have a major ripple effect, and we are seeing that in state legislators and Congress and also in the corporate sector, with major companies deciding they are not going to purchase products from factory farms.
Do you think a measure like that could be passed nationally?
I think it will have to be at some point, but it is going to take more concerned grassroots activism. And we will have to see the industry begin to recognize that this change is inevitable.
Where do you think this country stands in regard to dogfighting?
I think a lot of people, when they think about dog or cat issues, think about spay and neuter, and they think of puppy mills. But a terrible abuse is dogfighting, and so is its evil sibling, cockfighting. Dogfighting is widespread. You know there’s a Pit Bull crisis in this country. Certainly 25 to 70 percent of urban shelters’ animals are Pit Bulls or Pit Bull mixes. People are viewing Pit Bulls as a weapon, and many of those people are involved in dogfighting activities.
The Michael Vick case was another kind of flashpoint in raising public consciousness about an issue. Since Michael Vick, we have passed the laws in the remaining states to make dogfighting a felony in every single state. We’ve upgraded the federal law to ban possession of fighting animals and to make that a felony. So we’re seeing great progress there. The cruelty associated with dogfighting is horrifying, and it’s another industry we must make progress in combating.
When I think of companion animals, I think of reducing euthanasia and addressing this terrible tragedy of 3 and a half or 4 million dogs and cats killed in shelters, but then also look at the industries that are exploiting dogs. You know puppy mills are obviously a major focus, and dogfighting is also kind of hustling Greyhound racing into the history books. We were involved in the Massachusetts measure to ban Greyhound racing. We are seeing tracks closing across the country, and those poor Greyhounds do not need to suffer in the hands of this industry any longer.
Would you say the area that you are making the most progress in is the political arena?
I would say we have four big arenas of activity at HSUS. One is public policy. I think that we are the only group that makes major, major investments in this arena.
What is the strategy of the HSUS in regard to legislation?
It’s through lobbying and ballot initiatives. We are active in all the state legislatures. We’ve got a federal team of lobbyists. We have a major grassroots organizing program and a lobby-training program that happens all over the country. Then we work with the executive agencies as well. So we’ve got an agenda. [Consider the] 100-point Change Agenda for Animals. You’ve got to know where you’re going to really have an effective political operation, and you have to have the tools and the ability to do it. You know we have passed more than 25 state ballot initiatives. We’ve passed several hundred laws in the states to protect animals in the last five years—just 93 new laws in 2008 alone, with dozens of new laws in Congress. So we are making great progress, but we also have a 501(c)(4), a political and electioneering arm called the Humane 21:24 Legislative Fund, where we are involved in candidate races and work to elect humane-minded candidates to office and oust politicians unfriendly to animal protection. So I think that is one big area of activity for us.
The second is corporate activism: trying to get companies to reform their conduct in order to help animals.
The third is education. Going back to the start of our conversation to that local animal shelter, not making the assumption that people know what is going on or how to plug in: We need to educate people. One really great program is the Ad Council taking on shelter adoption. It’s the first animal-oriented public service campaign ever; we are doing it in cooperation with Maddie’s Fund. We are hoping this is a $40- to $80-million advertising promotion for shelter adoption. So education is a big piece.
Finally is animal care. Our Emergency Services Department responds to natural disasters and human-made disasters. In fact, I was just in Mississippi on Friday, where we raided a cockfighting operation. There were more than 250 birds at this operation. We raid dogfighting places, hording operations, and puppy mills. We’ve done six puppy-mill raids recently. It’s the animal-care piece. Plus, we have four animal-care centers, and we’re about to acquire a fifth. We also have our rural-area veterinary services program, where we go on Indian reservations and to other impoverished areas to provide animal care and services for people who don’t have the resources or the regions that don’t have veterinary assets. We spay and neuter and vaccinate and do care for people whose animals need that attention who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get it.
How many people are employed at HSUS?
About 700. It’s a pretty good-sized operation. We had thousands of people involved in Prop 2 alone. We gathered more than 500,000 signatures for the petition to qualify it.
What are the top three things we can do to help the animals?
I think getting the right information flow is important. The way that we can have influence is when millions of people act in concert to influence corporations and policy makers. So we’ve got 1.5 million online advocates, and there’s probably nothing more important in terms of getting plugged into the campaigns and getting involved in an online network. Then you get activated for lobbying or corporate actions, like against Petland.
Second, I would say we all need to live these principles in our lives. That means responsible care for our own animals, but also thinking about our food choices and the products we consume and trying to minimize or eliminate our contributing to cruelty. By eating lower on the food chain, by buying products not tested on animals, by using cloth or natural fiber coats instead of fur—all of those things are very, very important.
I also think it is very important to support your local humane society or local municipal animal agencies or rescue groups, because they do tremendous work on the front lines of helping companion animals.
To read the HSUS Change Agenda for Animals, visit Fund.org.