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Vegan in The Henhouse

In recent weeks, he has traveled to Louisiana to fight the hog-dog rodeo, where people set blood-lusting pit bulls loose on defenseless hogs. In Maine, he stoked support for a ballot initiative to ban bear-baiting -- hunters piling huge mounds of cow parts, jelly doughnuts and other food to attract bears, then shooting them from behind as they pig out, a practice that kills some 4,000 bears annually. In Denver, he campaigned for a ballot initiative that would ban all use of wild animals in circuses and other entertainment.

And he ruffled feathers last December in editorials castigating Vice President Cheney for participating in "canned" pheasant and duck hunting events -- where hundreds of farm-raised birds are released and hunters shoot them. "It's pathetic," says Pacelle. "It's live target practice."

"I had this basic sentiment that it was wrong to pick on the less powerful - even if they had four legs or two wings," says Wayne Pacelle, new president of the Humane Society of the United States. (Robert A. Reeder - The Washington Post)

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It's the kind of "aberrant animal cruelty" Pacelle is trying to stamp out. "Most Americans, if they viewed it objectively, would think that this is a repugnant activity that violates basic humane standards."

'A Pig Feels Pain'

Pacelle remembers from age 3 having deep empathy for animals.

"I had this basic sentiment that it was wrong to pick on the less powerful -- even if they had four legs or two wings," he says.

His mother, Pat, attests to that: "From the time he was born almost, that was his dream -- the animals."

Growing up in New Haven, Conn., Pacelle watched all the TV nature shows and relentlessly read encyclopedia articles about animals. He could repeat nearly verbatim information about any species, says his older brother, Richard Pacelle Jr., a political science professor at Georgia Southern University.

Pacelle's father, Dick, was one of the winningest high school football coaches in Connecticut. Pat was a secretary for an uncle's construction business. Wayne was the youngest of four children. Like 65 million American families today, they had pets. But memories of his childhood dogs haunt Pacelle.

Brandy, the Labrador-golden retriever, was chained in the back yard. "It was a regular thing back then, but I always was a little uncomfortable about it," he says. And Pacelle figured out years later that Randi, his quirky West Highland white terrier, came from the midwestern puppy mills he now rants about. "There are millions of healthy adoptable dogs in shelters that are fine dogs," he says. "And shelters end up killing dogs because our society fails to provide homes to them and people fail to sterilize their animals properly."

Pacelle came home from Yale his freshman year carping about the atrocities of fur coats, hunters and animal research. A history and environmental studies major, he decided his sophomore year to go vegetarian. "It started to get into my consciousness that a pig feels pain just as the dog feels pain," he says.

Two months later, after reading Peter Singer's seminal animal-rights bible, "Animal Liberation," about the alleged horrors of industrial farming, he went vegan -- no meat, dairy products or eggs.

"If we believe in evolution, then we believe that humans come from other animals and the differences between us and them are differences of degree and not kind," he says. "It just seemed to me an intellectual fault as a society for us to deny even minimal, basic, elemental protections to sentient, conscious, thinking, higher mammals and birds."

But the defining experience for Pacelle wasn't a tofu casserole. The summer before his junior year, he interned as a ranger at Isle Royale National Park, a wilderness archipelago in northern Lake Superior. For four months, he communed with untrammeled nature.

"I would go out at night on Lake Superior when it was completely still and the moon was full and it was a Thoreau-like experience," he recalls wistfully. "You see the absence of the hand of humanity. You see this pristine environment and it is absolutely magical. At that point, I just kind of dedicated myself."

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