Where They Are Now

Creatures great and small

The Humane Society's Wayne Pacelle.

Julie Brown

Julie Brown

Humane Society president Wayne Pacelle ’87 stopped at Jonathan Edwards College while visiting Yale on a book tour last summer. View full image

Wayne Pacelle ’87 first joined the Humane Society of the United States in 1994; ten years later, he was elected its CEO and president. Last April he published the book The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them.

Y: What are the main achievements you’ve made since taking over at the Humane Society?

P: I led a campaign in California, a ballot measure called Proposition 2, that did some good to stop extreme confinement in factory farms in the number-one agricultural state in America. Now we’ve passed laws in a large number of states. I’ve worked to outlaw cockfighting, which was legal in a bunch of states before I started at HSUS. I think we’re getting close to ending seal hunting in Canada. When I took over, our revenue was about $77 million. This year it was $162 million. I’m sure Yale’s a little bit higher.

Y: You’ve likened the Humane Society to the National Rifle Association, of all things. How so?

P: In how we’ve changed our organization. Historically, the animal welfare movement has been organized mainly to conduct animal rescue and sheltering. That diffuse model has been useful in helping to spare millions of animals a year from homelessness and other forms of suffering. But in addition to doing that work, we’re now trying to reform institutionalized cruelty conducted by some of the biggest corporations in America. You can’t have a scattered, diffuse movement if you’re gonna take on multibillion-dollar industries and try to drive reform. It requires a level of organization and strength in order to showcase a competing vision for society. That’s what I’ve tried to create at HSUS. We don’t just rescue animals—even though that’s vitally important. We tackle factory farming and wildlife management and animal testing and puppy mills and marine mammal slaughter. And you can’t take on those problems with a pea-shooter. You’ve got to bring some heavy artillery to the battle.

Y: Have you thought about developing a catchphrase, like “From my cold, dead hands”?

P: You know, I haven’t, but we need our own Charlton Heston and our own catchphrase, that’s for sure.

Y: Have you always cared so much about animals, or was there a conversion moment for you?

P: My friends and classmates in the dining hall were having to suffer through some of my discourses on animals, and they would always point out my inconsistent behavior: I was continuing to eat animals. Eventually I decided that I was going to give up eating meat. I founded a group and started to recruit others, and started to try to get this issue on the radar screen at the Yale campus.

Y: Your sophomore year, in 1984, you introduced vegan food into the JE dining hall.

P: I did. I talked to the food service folks, and they couldn’t have been nicer. I requested vegan options, and they immediately swung into action, and over time it morphed into vegan options becoming available throughout the dining hall system. People were saying vee-jan, vay-gan, all sorts of things. That unfamiliarity with the term reflected a larger unfamiliarity with the thought.

Y: You were born in New Haven.

P: My father’s Italian, my mother’s Greek, so food was always a big deal to us. I was the outlier for sure. I had a loving, wonderful family, but they were not especially aware of these problems.

Y: Why are some people more finely attuned to the plight of animals than others?

P: All kids are fascinated by animals—they’re drawn to them and connected to them. That’s part of our makeup. Now, it’s easy for that to get drummed out of us. Through custom and ritual and just the normal workings of the economy, we can become dulled to the needs of animals. Human beings are great at rationalizing their conduct, and if it’s part of your business model to cause harm to animals, then you’re going to be very adept at constructing a defense for it. In all these enterprises—dog fighting, cockfighting, factory farming, trophy hunting, puppy mills—every one of those communities has a sophisticated line of argument that is designed to convince people that the status quo is just fine. We’re trying to break down those sets of rationalizations and show people that they can have a good life, we can have a robust economy, and not leave a trail of animal victims.

Y: Who’s the most unlikely convert you’ve won over?

P: The biggest name, the most surprising, is [NFL quarterback] Michael Vick. He got involved in a major multi-state dog fighting operation, run from one of his homes in southern Virginia. We demanded that he be prosecuted. When he was getting out of the Leavenworth federal penitentiary, he, through intermediaries, reached out to me. I initially declined the invitation to sit down with them. But then I got to thinking, are we about change or are we about people staying in exactly the same place they’ve been? We had helped prosecute him, I helped write the law under which he was prosecuted, we demanded his ouster from the NFL, we wanted to see him go to jail—and now I travel around the country working with Michael Vick to reach kids in at-risk communities, to warn them of the evils of dog fighting. That’s the sort of change I want to embrace.

Y: Are you a radical masquerading in a business suit, to paraphrase something once said of you?

P: No! Not at all. I think the values I espouse have been mainstream sensibilities for a long time. I think what’s radical is confining an animal in a cage barely larger than his body, or trekking out to the Northwest Territories to shoot a polar bear, or cramming dogs into a puppy mill. I think I represent a much more sensible approach to dealing with animals.  

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