Wayne Pacelle is the new head of the Humane Society of the United States. Better take your dog in tonight -- 'cause pet ownership could be in trouble. Might want to stock up on steaks before meat prices soar as factory farms shut down. And your children are being brainwashed to veganism in school.
At least according to Pacelle's enemies.
The new watchdog of the animal kingdom has critics fretting. They warn that behind his John Kennedy Jr. good looks, gentle manner and boyish charm is a teeth-baring dogmatist whose hidden agenda is a scary brand of doctrinaire animal rights that for mainstream Americans would make "humane" feel like the food chain turned upside down.
"He's enemy number one," says Beth Ruth of the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, a pro-hunting group that has clashed bitterly with Pacelle.
He's "a wolf in sheep's clothing," duping the public into thinking donations go to shelters for stray cats and dogs when he's bankrolling a radical agenda, says Patti Strand, president of the National Animal Interest Alliance, whose mission includes countering the animal rights movement's goal of ending all animal use.
Strong accusations. Pacelle just grins. "They all go wild on me," he says, adding that he has even received death threats. "My ex-boss . . . said you could tell a lot about a person by his friends and also by his enemies. I'm happy to have some of these people as my enemies."
Pacelle does vow to be "more aggressive" pursuing HSUS's goals -- stopping mistreatment of livestock, decreasing the use of animals in research, protecting wildlife and fostering responsible pet care -- but says he's a "reformist" and "not an abolitionist." He's the guardian angel of animals, he says, not a misanthrope out to liberate all beasts at all costs.
What is it about him that has critics so astir?
At the HSUS building in downtown Washington, Pacelle's corner office is streaming with sunlight. Dressed in a crisp teal suit, he looks more like a 38-year-old corporate Turk than a rabble-rousing activist.
His black hair with wisps of gray is perfect. His strong Italian Greek features and articulate voice have spurred detractors and allies to call him HSUS's "talking face." What he is undeniably is the face of the next generation of influential and ambitious animal advocacy leadership.
On his organized desk are pulpy cockfighting magazines arranged like the courtroom evidence they might become if Pacelle (pronounced pah-sell-ee) has his way. "Look at it -- 112 pages! Ads for fighting birds!" says Pacelle, disgusted as he pages through Gamecock Magazine, one of three national monthly publications of the largely underground business.
A champion killer bird graces the cover. Most pages are advertising -- breeders and dealers nationwide selling "game birds" ("$1,500 a trio") and accessories such as razor-sharp gaffs that strap to their legs and drugs that thicken the blood to delay the birds' bleeding to death.
Cockfighting is the kind of brazen animal abuse that ranks high on Pacelle's to-do list: senseless violence, clearly cruel to animals, against the law in 48 states but still flourishing. Pacelle's persistence has helped to get it banned in three states and laws strengthened in 30 others by making it a felony or banning possession of cockfighting paraphernalia. He has triggered many prosecutions.
"Most people think that cockfighting and dogfighting are relics of past times," he says. But cockfighting is still legal in Louisiana and New Mexico, and Pacelle estimates that there are more than 100,000 cockfighters and tens of thousands of dogfighters in this country. "This is a barbaric and inhumane activity, and these people need to get a new hobby."
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."
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."
Back at Yale, Pacelle started the Student Animal Rights Coalition. Members demonstrated against fur stores and the Yale Medical School's use of animals in research. "I got vegan meals instituted into the dining hall system," he says with pride.
Pacelle also started connecting with movement leaders, including the late Cleveland Amory, the curmudgeonly author who founded the Fund for Animals in 1967.
After graduation in 1987, he wrote for a couple years for Animal Agenda, the movement's main magazine, then was hired by Amory as the Fund's 23-year-old national director. Five years later, the Humane Society plucked him away to be its vice president of communications and government affairs.
"I thought it was a coup because already at that point, Wayne was establishing himself as a leader in the animal-protection movement," says Paul Irwin, the former HSUS chief executive who groomed Pacelle to take his place. "I wanted him to be the face and the voice of the Humane Society."
Pacelle became probably the most quoted and visible defender of animals besides PETA's Ingrid Newkirk. Some of his early positions -- like his promise to ban hunting, species by species, state by state, and the use of animals in research -- remain fodder for opponents.
In June, he succeeded Irwin, who spent 28 years turning HSUS into the largest and richest animal advocacy organization in the world, with 8 million members and $80 million in revenue last year.
By comparison, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is a $41 million nonprofit with 740,000 members, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is a $24 million nonprofit with 800,000 members, and the Fund for Animals is an $8 million-a-year nonprofit with 200,000 members. Among HSUS adversaries, the $1.7 million U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance and Foundation has 35,000 members.
Pacelle took charge promising to use those deep pockets to take the HSUS into the new era of animal protection advocacy. "I think they wanted the aggressive approach," he says. "They wanted someone who was going to think things up. And they got him."
Not Buying It
The things Pacelle thinks up worry his enemies. They say he's against: hunting and fishing, eating meat and cheese and eggs, lifesaving drugs from animal research, even keeping pets.
"The thing about Wayne is he is a very competent spin doctor. He's very good at disguising the true agenda with a message that the public would accept," says NAIA's Strand, who with husband Rod authored a 1993 book arguing that the humane movement had become radical. The book is being updated for publication in November under the title "The Bambi Conspiracy: The Hijacking of the Humane Movement."
She says Pacelle is a key figure in that "hijacking" and that HSUS is a Trojan horse rolled into mainstream America by the extremist animal-rights movement. "It is the fundamentalist wing, a take-no-prisoners point of view," she says. "They equate all animal use with animal abuse."
David Martosko, research director for the District-based Center for Consumer Freedom, whose mission is promoting consumer choices, says: "His game plan is the same as that of the larger animal-rights movement -- demonize meat and dairy, throw up legal obstacles to farms, increase artificially the price of animal protein and try to convince Americans they would do better without it."
Other opponents of animal rights worry about the logical conclusion of Pacelle's supposed agenda were it to succeed.
"How will a successful animal-rights ideologue change America? Read George Orwell. Then look at your lunch and whether or not you wear leather shoes. Then you do the math," says John Aquilino, director of publications at the International Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources, which describes its goal as "human involvement in the management and scrupulous use of natural resources."
Then there's Verna Dowd, the 75-year-old editor of the Feathered Warrior, a cockfighting magazine that has lost a third of its 9,000 subscribers since Pacelle got on cockfighting's case. She grouses that Pacelle has put a lot of people out of business. "The Humane Society should spend half of their time and money on helping the children who don't have homes and stuff like that," she says, "instead of messing with people and their rights."
Pacelle and Sen. John Ensign are huddled in the lawmaker's office at the Russell Senate Office Building one morning in mid-July. They're talking over the prospects for two bills -- one to ban exporting horses for human consumption, the other to make transporting animals across state lines for the purpose of fighting a felony.
"It's not just a sick hobby where they get their jollies from watching animals attack each other -- these are bad people in a lot of other ways," says Ensign, a conservative Republican from Nevada and a veterinarian who has been one of the Humane Society's best friends in Congress.
If actions speak louder than words, this is how Pacelle answers his harshest critics: In the 10 years since arriving at HSUS, Pacelle has become adept at working the levers of the legal system. He has shepherded 22 ballot initiatives at the local and state level on issues ranging from dove hunting in Michigan to the size of crates for pregnant pigs in Florida -- and won 80 percent of them. Last year he helped create a federal law restricting trade and ownership of exotic wildlife such as tigers, lions and jaguars. In 1999 he alerted Congress to a fetish subculture trafficking in "crush videos" of women in high heels stomping on gerbils, hamsters, rabbits, puppies and monkeys. Congress passed a law against cruelty to animals in films.
"People like Wayne, what they do is go around and educate," says Ensign. "What he does is represent people who love animals around the country and get the membership to say 'Hey, this is important to us' and 'Please pay attention.' It's true grassroots lobbying."
Even Pacelle's adversaries are somewhat in awe of his effectiveness. Aquilino describes him as "brilliant, charming, self-deprecating, funny and inexplicably dedicated."
Despite fears of radicalism, Pacelle has been one of the most outspoken opponents of violence in the movement. More than 50 organizations attended the Animal Rights 2004 conference here last month, but not HSUS. He pulled the group out a couple of years ago because some speakers advocated violence.
"What I represent is mainstream approaches and tactics, even though personally, in the way I live my life, I'm a little more orthodox," Pacelle says. "I don't believe there's going to be any revolutions. I believe it's going to be a slow process of people seeing alternatives, accepting them and using them."
Yes, he used to be on the edge. "My views have evolved," he says. "I'm not the same person I was in 1987. I was definitely less tolerant." Today, "if I was viewed as just a complete flamethrower, I would never be able to get bills passed in Congress."
He's happy to set the record straight for his critics. First off, they are right about HSUS not funding shelters run by local Humane Societies. "Our slogan on that is we don't run shelters, we help them run better," he says. HSUS provides material support and training, publishes two shelter magazines, evaluates the shelters for animal care standards and acts as their voice on animal protection issues. Pacelle likens HSUS to the shelters' "trade association."
That vegans-in-the-schools allegation? HSUS does have a youth program focusing on cruelty and environmental issues that's in 41,000 U.S. classrooms. Its university program trains college students to work in the field. But as for strong-arming: "If people are ready to go vegetarian or vegan, that's great," he says. "If people want to continue to eat meat, I encourage them to choose meat products that are humanely produced and not trapped in a windowless shed for the rest of their lives or, if they're egg-laying chickens, have their beaks cut off" so they don't cannibalize each other in their overcrowded cages.
And no, he doesn't have a pet -- but he'd like to. It's just that "I'm single and I travel all the time," he says.
As for what he hopes to accomplish at HSUS: He figures all 50 states will one day treat animal cruelty and animal fighting as felonies, euthanasia of dogs and cats in shelters will dwindle, and the marketplace will diversify with humanely produced products.
"I think we will see a real reduction in the number of people wearing fur and the number of major retailers selling fur," he says. "We will see the end of wild animals in circus acts and the end of horse slaughter for human food. Humane sustainable agriculture, that should happen. So should phasing out animals used in research.
"Hunting? I think you will see a steady decline in numbers, and we'll see the elimination of particularly extreme practices like canned hunts and baiting."
What he doesn't know is whether it'll take five years or 50 years. "I think we will look back on these practices in 2050 or 2075 and say, 'I cannot believe the collective callousness we exhibited to these feeling creatures.' "
But he says his critics did get one thing right about what he's planning now that he's in charge: "It's going to be a hard-hitting approach."