The Barnyard Strategist

From The New York Times
October 26, 2008

Not long ago, I stood outside a closed-down slaughterhouse in Chino, Calif., with Wayne Pacelle, the first vegan to become president of the Humane Society of the United States — he hasn’t put butter on his rolls or poured milk in his cereal since he was a 19-year-old Yale undergrad. He tugged on the locked front gates of the slaughterhouse and called out to a security guard who sat unresponsive behind mirrored sunglasses in a small hut. Then, walking along the perimeter of the plant, Pacelle discovered a low brick wall, and he and I climbed on top. From there we could see the open-air section of the plant and its acres of quiet concrete. The trucks that once arrived at all hours of the morning and night, loaded with cows, were long gone. The pens that held the cows as they awaited U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection were empty. The slaughter chute that once moved about 500 cattle a day into the “kill box” sat motionless.

It was an animal rights advocate’s dream: Pacelle and his organization had shuttered this $100 million plant, the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company, with the help of an undercover investigator wearing a hidden video camera with a lens the size of the tip of a pen. Over six weeks last year, the investigator — a vegan who brought soy-riblet sandwiches for lunch — filmed workers using chains to drag cows too sick or too injured to stand. The workers jabbed cows with electrical prods and rolled them with a forklift to get them onto their feet and into the slaughter chute. In addition to being excessively cruel, it was a risk to human health: cows too sick or injured to walk are more vulnerable to E. coli, mad cow and other diseases.

After the Humane Society released the video to the San Bernardino County district attorney, the story made national news. Within weeks, the local district attorney filed charges of animal cruelty against workers at Westland/Hallmark. And the U.S.D.A. ordered the largest beef recall in U.S. history.

Pacelle, who is 43, tall and telegenic, has thick black hair that always seems to stay in place. For many years he was the chief lobbyist for the Humane Society before becoming its C.E.O. and president, and he exudes as much passion for the tactics and politics of the animal-welfare movement as he does for the animals themselves. Sending an investigator to the Chino slaughterhouse was one of Pacelle’s first steps in a campaign to raise public awareness about animal cruelty in industrial farming — and to garner support for Proposition 2, a sweeping California ballot initiative designed to improve the lives of millions of farm animals.

Proposition 2, co-sponsored by the Humane Society and Farm Sanctuary, the biggest farm-animal-rights group in the United States, focuses on what are considered the worst animal-confinement systems in factory farms. The ballot initiative, which voters will decide on Nov. 4, requires that by 2015 farm animals be able to stand up, lie down, turn around and fully extend their limbs. In effect that translates into a ban on the two-foot-wide crates that tightly confine pregnant pigs and calves raised for veal — a space so small that they can’t turn around. And it would eliminate so-called battery cages where four or more hens share a space about the size of a file drawer.

Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and a leading figure in the animal rights movement, compares Proposition 2 to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, calling Proposition 2 the “other historic ballot this November.” If it passes, it would affect more animals — almost 20 million — than any ballot measure has in U.S. history.

Because California is the largest agriculture state in the country, and often a trend-setter on social issues, the ballot is a bellwether for farm-animal-welfare reform nationwide. Many experts predict that if Proposition 2 becomes law it will create a ripple effect, putting pressure on other states to pass similar reforms and pushing major food corporations to go crate-free and cage-free.

Proposition 2 also marks a seminal moment for Pacelle, who, since he became the head of the Humane Society four years ago, has transformed America’s largest animal-welfare group — long known as a kindly protector of the nation’s dogs and cats — into an organization he likens to a National Rifle Association for the animal movement: a savvy, unapologetically aggressive political player. He has amped up his 10.3-million-member organization by merging with several smaller animal-welfare groups, cherry-picking some of their top leaders and boosting his budget from $75 million to $127 million, making the Humane Society the richest and most powerful animal-welfare group in the country, with its own in-house investigation, litigation and campaign teams.

And though his organization still does plenty for cats and dogs, Pacelle has made farm animals a top priority over the past four years. “Nine billion animals are killed for food every year, and most of them are confined in intensive conditions,” he told his staff members not long after he was appointed president of the organization in 2004. “It is the greatest abuse of animals that occurs on this planet.”

The question, as Pacelle sees it, is how to create change when Big Agriculture, with its big money, has made it nearly impossible to get meaningful farm-animal-welfare legislation passed. Here the ballot-initiative process is crucial, since it offers an end run around legislators by taking issues directly to voters. Another key element in Pacelle’s strategy has been to create ballot measures that offer only modest reforms on which both vegans and hamburger lovers (at least many of them) can agree. That tactic, however, has earned Pacelle his share of critics, including some who claim that while the ballot initiatives may seem moderate, they are just a first step in a vegan agenda to dictate what Americans eat. On the other side, extreme vegan groups say Pacelle has sold out, giving carnivores a reason to feel virtuous about eating “happy meat.” Pacelle counters that he can’t please everybody: “Part of my job is to challenge certain orthodoxies. For people who want a vegan revolution — that’s too passive for me.”

Instead, Pacelle says he can see the potential to influence millions of animal lovers by pushing them to expand their concerns, moving beyond the cuddly dogs and cats — and the baby seals and dolphins — that capture Americans’ attention to include the billions of less-visible and far-less- romanticized pigs, cows and chickens raised for food every year.

A recently released commercial for Proposition 2 tries to help voters make that leap. It shows footage of dirty chickens being shoved into cages, a frightened-looking calf pulling against a tether in its crate and a pig biting on metal bars. The ad juxtaposes these images with that of a dog sitting on the grass in the sunshine, soaking up the attention of a veterinarian who strokes his fur: “We wouldn’t force our pets to live in cramped cages for their whole lives,” Kate Hurley, the vet, tells the viewer. “And farm animals should not suffer this misery either. All animals, including those raised for food, deserve humane treatment.”

The ad’s argument is, as Pacelle sees it, a logical extension of the animal-welfare ethic. “Cruelty is cruelty,” he says, “and it’s been our assumption that if decent people see images of these farm animals suffering, they will have a similar reaction.” And in a generation or two, he argues, we will have made a mental shift. People will look back on these confinement systems and other standardized farm-animal abuses and wonder why we tolerated them for so long.

In the 1980s and ’90s, as the animal rights movement flourished in the United States, advocates became known for their eye-catching antics. They sprayed red paint on people wearing fur. They flung a dead raccoon on the Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s lunch plate at the Four Seasons. For years, PETA supporters have protested at KFC and other fast-food chains dressed as bloodied chickens or pigs, with phrases like “Kentucky Fried Cruelty” written across their chests. PETA’s tactics have had an impact on consumer awareness, as well as on food-corporation policies. But often PETA’s influence has come at the expense of alienating segments of the public who view the movement as abrasive and dogmatic.

“Any social movement evolves,” says Pacelle, who, as a college student in the ’80s, founded the Student Animal Rights Coalition and demonstrated against fur stores. “It was a different era then, and we all need to adapt.” One way that Pacelle adapted was by changing his terminology: he now prefers the term “animal protection” to “animal rights,” which he says is laden with “a lot of baggage.” The implication of the animal rights rhetoric is that animals have “an intrinsic right,” he says. “But it’s really about human behavior and the responsibility we have toward animals.”

That more-palatable mainstream message, coupled with the Humane Society’s political power, is what the animal rights movement in America has needed for a long time, argues Singer, the Princeton bioethicist. While countries in the European Union have banned pig and veal crates and battery cages, or are in the process of doing so, some observers have speculated that Americans simply care less about animals. “I don’t think that’s true,” Singer says. “In the United States, the movement’s demands were simply too far-reaching for politicians to meet. We can’t say we’re going to legislate against eating meat.”

Pacelle isn’t alone in shifting his tone and tactics. Gene Baur, a founder of Farm Sanctuary, started his organization by selling vegetarian hot dogs from his VW van at Grateful Dead concerts, a story he tells in his recent book, “Farm Sanctuary.” Today, 20 years later, with a $5 million organization that has 200,000 members, Baur still uses terms like “animal rights” and proudly promotes veganism. But over time, he says, “we’ve learned to present things in a way that resonates with the public. We’re still telling it like it is. But we’re less strident. We don’t say, ‘It’s wrong and you shouldn’t do it.’ ”

Even PETA doesn’t always aim to shock. PETA’s vice-president, Bruce Friedrich, says that the group’s members are actively canvassing in support of Proposition 2 but that they won’t be doing any media-grabbing protests. “When you’re working on passing legislation,” Friedrich says, “showing up with naked activists and bullhorns isn’t ever going to be the right way of moving forward.”

Industrial farming is increasingly on American’s minds. In the last decade, the best-selling book “Fast Food Nation,” by Eric Schlosser, was followed by “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” by Michael Pollan. These books tap into animal-welfare concerns as well as the increasing preoccupation with where our milk, beef and eggs come from. Are they organic? Hormone-free? Locally grown? Humanely treated? Cage-free?

Stressing the link between the inhumane treatment of animals and the health risks of factory farming is one way the Humane Society is creating a political constituency big enough to include virtually anyone who worries about food, animals, the environment and the changing face of rural America. The campaign highlights those themes in its advertisements, on its Web site, in the dozens of talks the campaign staff members give around California and in the 500,000 fliers that Proposition 2 volunteers have distributed over the past several weeks at Whole Foods, farmers’ markets, universities, dog parks, community festivals and churches. “You can no longer write off this movement as a bunch of lunatics,” says Jennifer Fearing, the campaign manager for Proposition 2 and the chief economist for the Humane Society. “We desperately want to redefine what it means to be an advocate for animals.”

Fearing’s own story certainly is not one you usually associate with animal activism. Growing up, she was very active in her church and as a teenager was the president of the Christian singer Amy Grant’s fan club. In college she interned for President George H. W. Bush’s economic- and domestic-policy adviser, Roger Porter, before earning a public-policy degree from the Kennedy School at Harvard. She voted for each Bush president and is now registered as an independent. Pacelle would kill her, she said jokingly, if she became a Democrat; the campaign’s nonpartisan message is central to the Humane Society’s new efforts.

And not only in California. For a previous Humane Society-sponsored ballot initiative in Arizona, to ban pig and veal crates, Pacelle enlisted the highly controversial Republican sheriff Joe Arpaio, who bills himself as “America’s toughest sheriff,” to sell the idea. In a TV ad for the ballot initiative, Arpaio stood by his kitchen stove. “I enjoy a good pork chop,” he said. “But I believe animals raised for food deserve humane treatment.” The proposition passed with 62 percent of the vote.

Fearing isn’t appearing in any TV ads, and she doesn’t eat pork chops; she’s a vegan. But she says that, for her, one of the most significant of the long list of Proposition 2 endorsers — which includes the Center for Food Safety, the Consumer Federation of America, United Farm Workers, the California Veterinary Medical Association, Jane Goodall, Robert Redford, Wolfgang Puck, among hundreds of others — is Matthew Scully, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, who also wrote Sarah Palin’s convention speech. Scully is the author of the book “Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals and the Call to Mercy.” For Fearing, Scully helped her put inchoate thoughts about being an animal activist into words. Scully doesn’t argue for animal rights but for humans to show mercy. “One doesn’t have to pull them from their place and demand perfect equality to care for them,” he writes of animals in one of Fearing’s favorite passages in his book, “to refrain wherever possible from harming them, as only man the rational and moral creature can do.”

Framing the animal-welfare movement in terms of compassion and morality has helped cultivate support from a broad spectrum of religious leaders. The campaign has received endorsements from the president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and other religious leaders throughout the state. “Most denominations have statements on animals and ethics,” says Christine Gutleben, the director of the Humane Society’s program on animals and religion. “We have a shared agenda here. Religious people are looking for ways to integrate their spiritual life with their daily life. There’s this sense that animals were created and designed by God with wings to fly, feet to walk with, hooves to dig with, and by prohibiting them to engage in these natural behaviors we force them to live in contradiction with what they were born with.”

Every one of these constituencies — the foodies, the Republicans, the churchgoers — was a potential audience for the Humane Society campaign’s first official Proposition 2 video, released on YouTube in late September. The video didn’t have the shock value of the PETA video called “Meet Your Meat,” which shows the grisly inner workings of slaughterhouses and other factory-farming operations. By contrast, the Humane Society’s brightly colored animated video features a Babe-like pig singing Proposition 2-related lyrics to the Stevie Wonder song “Superstition” and dancing through barns, releasing pigs, chickens and calves from their cages. It’s the kind of short video you could forward, without worrying about its appropriateness, to your grandmother, to your P.T.A. president, to your congregation, to anyone under the redefined big tent of farm-animal welfare.

Though the Humane Society’s videos and TV ads feature many pigs and cows, in reality the battle in California is all about chickens. The veal and pig industries are almost nonexistent in the state. The Humane Society included the ban on pig and cow crates in Proposition 2 largely as a preventive measure: each state that prohibits those confinement systems is one more place where producers with crates can’t set up shop. And it sends yet another message to food corporations that their policies may be out of step with consumers’ values.

But Julie Buckner, the spokeswoman for Californians for Safe Food, a coalition of groups opposed to Proposition 2, sees the issue differently. All those pigs and cows in the TV ads, in the YouTube video and in other campaign materials, are there, she says, to manipulate our emotions. “We all care about humane treatment of animals,” she says. “But I care more about my kids’ health and safety,” she adds, referring to concerns some people have that cage-free eggs carry a greater risk of salmonella. Such health worries, though, haven’t been borne out by the experiences of cage-free operations in the United States and Europe. Instead, the argument that has had the most traction with many editorial boards and consumer groups, particularly in this economy, is that the initiative risks putting out of business California’s $330 million egg industry, in which more than 90 percent of eggs are from battery-cage operations. That explains, too, why the opposition’s campaign, which has drawn millions of dollars from the egg industry (in California and out of state), has endorsements from some taxpayer groups, labor unions and senior-citizen associations.

Ryan Armstrong, an egg producer in Valley Center, Calif., says Proposition 2 would be the end of his three-generation family business. Not only would it be too expensive to convert to new hen housing, he says; if he were to go cage-free, he also wouldn’t be able to compete against lower-priced battery-cage eggs trucked in from other states and from Mexico. “This is the cheapest, healthiest way to make eggs,” he says. “Do we want chickens to flap their wings? Or do we want to eat?”

There’s no consensus on what the cost to consumers will be if Proposition 2 passes, although both sides agree that there will be a price increase. Proponents of Proposition 2 estimate an increase of 12 cents per dozen; opponents have claimed that prices could double. In fact, no one really knows the additional cost because the price of eggs is, in part, dependent on whether other states follow California’s lead and on how much the demand for cage-free eggs, currently about 5 percent of the market, increases in the future.

Certainly cage-free eggs have a growing cachet not only among Whole Foods shoppers but also among other consumers, in part because of the Humane Society’s efforts, as well as PETA’s, to encourage supermarkets and major food corporations to go cage-free. And while Proposition 2 doesn’t mandate a particular kind of housing, the ballot’s wording — which says chickens must be able to spread their wings without touching the sides of a cage — essentially translates into cage-free housing.

That doesn’t mean that California chickens will live like the chickens in the final scene of a Proposition 2 commercial, in which a handful of them peck and strut in the grass of an idyllic farm. “Free-range” chickens have access to outdoors — though that may be only a slab of concrete — while cage-free hens live in henhouses and usually never go outside. And depending on the producer, the henhouse may be a comparatively roomy, modern system with plenty of space and sunlight. Or not. The worst-run operations are dirty, dark barns crammed with thousands of chickens that never see daylight.

“I’d rather have seen something in the language that provided for nesting and perching,” says Adele Douglass, the executive director of Humane Farm Animal Care, a voluntary certification program for cage-free farmers and other agriculture producers that requires minimum standards for ventilation, space, perches and nesting boxes, among other things. Pacelle says he would have liked to include all that — and more. But as with everything in his approach, Pacelle walks a fine line between pushing for increased welfare and fending off opponents who would claim the Humane Society is legislating luxury housing for chickens. Pacelle says he hopes that Proposition 2 will create pressure on the egg industry to reform its standards and push corporations to seek cage-free eggs from the most humane suppliers. “Cage-free is not cruelty-free,” Paul Shapiro, the Humane Society’s senior director of its factory-farming campaign, acknowledges. “But social movements are about incremental change. This is a step in the right direction.”

Or it’s the wrong direction, if you ask some vegan activists who are not endorsing Proposition 2. “We agree with an incremental approach, but if you give animals more space and a little sunshine and you take that to that logical progression, they are still raised for food,” says Alex Hershaft, president of the 27-year-old organization FARM, the Farm Animal Rights Movement. Instead, animal rights groups, he argues, should focus on getting people to incrementally reduce — and eventually eliminate — meat altogether.

Still, though Hershaft won’t endorse Proposition 2 on principle, he says he hopes it passes, because it will reduce animal suffering. Other critics take a harder line. Gary L. Francione, a professor at the Rutgers University School of Law and an animal rights scholar, has written that if Proposition 2 passes, “animals will continue to be tortured; the only difference will be that the torture will carry the stamp of approval from the Humane Society, Farm Sanctuary and other animal-welfare corporations that are promoting Proposition 2.” He urges animal rights activists to either abstain from voting or to vote no.

State ballot measures were never the Humane Society’s first choice of strategy for improving the lives of chickens and pigs. But few federal laws apply to farm animals, and the ones that do are mostly related to slaughter and transportation — not to the treatment of animals while they live on the farm. And when state legislatures were unwilling or unable to pass laws on farm-animal welfare, one option was to go around them.

Throughout the 1990s, Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary watched Pacelle win ballot propositions banning cockfighting and some forms of hunting and trapping. In 2000, he and Pacelle agreed they were ready to introduce ballot measures for farm animals. For the site of their first attempt, they chose Florida, which offered several advantages. The state had a pig industry but one that was not too formidable. Also, Florida is “not like Wyoming and North Dakota,” Pacelle explains, “where there is a more utilitarian attitude toward animals.” Instead, the state had several key urban areas where large groups of animal lovers could be expected to support the bill. In November 2002, the country’s first ban on gestation crates passed with 55 percent of the vote. A few years later, in Arizona, the two organizations introduced the first ballot initiative to prohibit pig and veal crates — with Sheriff Arpaio as a spokesman — and won by a wide margin. Just as important, the two groups established a record of success that they could show to their memberships, to other states and to corporations.

In fact, companies and other states did seem to be paying attention. Only three months after the Arizona vote, Smithfield Foods, the largest U.S. pork producer, announced that it was phasing out gestation crates, replacing them with group housing that would allow the sows more room to move. Smithfield insisted it was not bowing to activist or voter pressure but rather complying with requests from McDonald’s and supermarket chains. Yet the significance of the timing, coming on the heels of the Humane Society’s second win, was hard to dismiss. Less than one week after Smithfield’s announcement, Maple Leaf Foods, the largest pork producer in Canada, announced that it, too, was phasing out gestation crates.

Around the same time, the Humane Society was getting ready for its next ballot initiative — this one in Colorado. The organization had just filed paperwork with the state when Pacelle met Gov. Bill Ritter at a fund-raiser. Ritter said he wanted to avoid a divisive battle in his state. Then Bernard Rollin, a renowned animal-welfare expert and a professor of philosophy at Colorado State University, stepped in with others to help broker a deal between Pacelle and cattlemen and other agriculture interests. “Wayne was sensitive to being educated about the cattlemen’s perspective,” says Rollin, who also served on the nonpartisan Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which this year issued a major report recommending, among other things, a 10-year phase-out of crates and battery cages. “I respect his ability to work in the real world.”

On his end, Pacelle agreed to drop a provision — at least for now — to phase out battery cages. In exchange, in May Ritter signed into law a phase-out on crates for pigs and calves. The deal gave both the state government and agriculture interests a public-relations boost. For Pacelle, it helped solidify his reputation as someone willing not only to fight but, under the right circumstances, to negotiate too.

The undercover operation at the slaughterhouse in Chino was the most significant investigation in the Humane Society’s history. It prompted the largest U.S. beef recall ever, the prosecution of workers, the shutting down of the plant and the closing of a loophole in a law that bans cows that are too sick or injured to stand from entering the food supply. But the undercover investigation also set up one of the Humane Society’s major campaign themes: Whom do you trust? The organization that protects cats and dogs and dairy cows headed to slaughter? Or industrial farming, which brought you tainted meat slated for your kids’ hamburgers?

Chino was also a shot across the bow to the egg industry about how hard the Humane Society would fight over the coming months. Since last summer, the campaign has relentlessly and ruthlessly played offense, setting in motion more than a dozen legal actions against egg producers and the industry. One lawsuit took aim at the American Egg Board, a commodity program linked to the Department of Agriculture, for its plan to spend up to $3 million of public money for an advertising campaign that the Humane Society said was anti-Proposition 2. A judge agreed with the Humane Society and barred the American Egg Board from using the money to advertise during the campaign. Then, in early October, the Humane Society went after Ryan Armstrong, the egg farmer I interviewed. Like other targets of the Humane Society’s litigation team, Armstrong was a contributor to the opposition campaign. What’s more, he also offered tours of his farms to California reporters to show that cage operations were clean, efficient and humane.

But the Humane Society claims that they are not, in fact, so clean. In a press release this month, the Humane Society said one of Armstrong’s operations repeatedly discharged contaminated water into neighbors’ properties, and the organization was petitioning the San Diego County water board to take action against the business. (Armstrong insists he is now in compliance with county inspectors.) “It’s all fair game,” Jennifer Fearing said when I asked her if the Humane Society had purposefully gone after Armstrong because he held himself out as a spokesman for battery-cage egg farmers. “He put a bull’s-eye on himself. He tells everyone, ‘Hey, I run a great farm.’ Well, does he?”

The battles with Armstrong and other producers are part of the Humane Society’s continuing attempt to signal publicly how costly these ballot initiatives can be for agriculture industries — in terms of money and public relations. “Producers don’t want to spend this kind of money fighting us every time we come into a state,” Pacelle says. “Wouldn’t they rather negotiate and spend that money re-engineering their facilities and getting that much ahead of the game? Then they get to be heroes.”

When I spoke with Pacelle with three weeks to go before the election and the latest poll showing Proposition 2 passing by a wide margin, Pacelle sounded confident. But in a way, win or lose, he already had a victory in hand. Proposition 2 had helped push his overall message about farm-animal welfare well beyond California. In late September, the comedian Ellen DeGeneres — who held a fund-raiser that brought in $1 million for Proposition 2 — had Pacelle on her show to talk about the ballot initiative. Then, in mid-October, Oprah Winfrey devoted an entire show to Proposition 2, with Pacelle and members of the opposition as guests. Instead of baby seals and whales as the darling cause of two of TV’s most popular daytime shows, it was America’s pigs, calves and chickens.

In the midst of all these events was Pacelle, wearing a well-tailored suit, serving as the articulate ambassador for these animals. He hadn’t single-handedly created the cultural momentum around farm animals, but he was giving it a presentable form, pushing the movement out of the fringe and into the mainstream. And not insignificant, of course, was the fact that he was doing it with considerable muscle. “We aren’t a bunch of little old ladies in tennis shoes,” Pacelle says, paraphrasing his mentor Cleveland Amory, an animal rights activist. “We have cleats on.”

Maggie Jones is a contributing writer for the magazine. Her last feature article was about searching for adopted children’s birth mothers.