Wayne Pacelle Is on a Mission to Improve the Lives of Billions of Animals Around the World - and He's Succeeding


Over the past year, we have witnessed several major victories in the animal protection movement, from Ringling Brothers ending its use of circus elephants to SeaWorld putting a stop to its orca breeding program to Walmart announcing it will sell only cage-free eggs by 2025. At the forefront of the movement is Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, the nation's largest animal protection organization.

To Pacelle (pronounced puh-SELL-ee), these huge victories are related. As a society, we have not only reached an inflection point in how we view and treat non-human animals, we are in the midst of a revolution that is sweeping across American business, public policy and consumer behavior. That's the central theme of Pacelle’s new book, The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals.

Famed primatologist Jane Goodall called The Humane Economy "essential reading for anyone interested in animal welfare." That's high praise from one of the leading lights of the animal protection movement. But what's surprising perhaps is that the book has also garnered accolades from business leaders like former General Electric chairman and CEO Jack Welch, who said Pacelle's book is a "critically important read for anyone who cares about business success or animals—or, like so many of us, both."

I had a chance to chat with Pacelle about his new book, the state of animal welfare and protection and what the next American president can do to help animals. 

Reynard Loki: In your first book, The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them, you argued that we are a "creature of conscience, aware of the wrongs we do, and fully capable of making things right,” yet we have come to “apply an industrial mindset to the use of animals, too often viewing them as if they were nothing but articles of commerce.”

In your new book, The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals, you take it to the next level, exploring how commerce can incorporate the welfare of animals into successful business models.

What was the inspiration for your second book, how long has it been in the works, and why is this message particularly important right now?

Wayne Pacelle: Thank you for looking back at The Bond and for seeing the connection between them. They're both positive books, I think. In The Bond, I talked about our instinctive human connection with animals in nature; that it's really built into our DNA, it's part of our outlook. It's part of our physical and psychological well-being to be connected to animals in nature rather than our having to invent this social concern. I basically said that we're starting with the gas tank already partially filled.

Humane Economy is hopeful and positive in a different way. The first book says, Hey, we have this natural good instinct towards animals built into us. The second book is grounded on the notion that we have now achieved a broad consensus in our society that human beings should act responsibly and mercifully toward animals. And because that consciousness has now pervaded our society, we're seeing animal welfare reform in every sector of the economy that uses animals. We're seeing reforms in food and agriculture, animal testing and science, wildlife management and fashion, and the use of animals in live entertainment and film. If it were just one of those domains, we might say, Oh well, it was a particularly compelling case that came to light, that sparked awareness and drove a particular reform. The fact that it's happening across the board suggests that a rise in consciousness has occurred.

I really wanted to celebrate this newly enhanced place that we've achieved as a society in terms of a higher consciousness toward animals, and remind people that change for animals is indeed very possible. In so many cases, it's been put into practice in very concrete ways. I wrote Humane Economy in some ways to chronicle the notion that we're in a period of great punctuated change for animals, and to urge people to put their foot on the gas, so we can drive more of these changes in the years ahead.

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"I met Maty Ouchida (pictured above) at a book event in Portland, Oregon," Pacelle said. "As a humane education dog for the Humane Society of Central Oregon, Maty, who is tripawed, educates people about shelter animals, and I was honored to hear that meeting me was on her bucket list." (Photo by Lynne Ouchida via HSUS)

RL: You mentioned that as a society, we've now achieved consensus that we should act responsibly and mercifully toward animals. In The Humane Economy, you describe it as a "fast-growing, often surprising, hugely promising, and largely unstoppable force for animal welfare." What’s driving this revolution?

WP: It's an ensemble cast of characters that are helping to drive the particular reforms in society. It's entrepreneurs, scientists, undercover investigators. It's leaders and staffs of groups like HSUS. There are so many different contributing factors. Undergirding all of that, I think there are three things, maybe four. Let me start with three.

One is we've now created a legal framework in the United States—and increasingly across the globe—that enshrines the notion that animal cruelty is wrong. In 2014, South Dakota became the 50th state in the country to adopt felony-level penalties for malicious animal cruelty. That settles the debate that we humans have responsibilities to animals, that we've now achieved a societal norm that animal cruelty is a moral problem, and it's also a legal problem.

Secondly, there has been, especially in the last 25 years, an overwhelming flow of new information about animal intelligence and consciousness. Even now as my new book comes out, Jennifer Ackerman has a book out called The Genius of Birds and Frans de Waal has a book out about animal cognition called Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Last year, there was Carl Safina’s book about animal intelligence called Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.

It's just a cascade of scientists that have made the case conclusively that animals do possess a consciousness and intelligence. If we accept that, then there are moral responsibilities that flow from our knowledge of their emotional and cognitive capacities. 

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Pacelle with orphaned baby African elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Tsavo National Park, Kenya. (image: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock.com)

Thirdly, we humans are constantly innovating. We're constantly problem solving. When we recognize that animal cruelty is a moral problem, and we apply our problem solving skills to that, we're going to find solutions that give us new pathways forward in getting beyond the past polarities on animal protection or animal cruelty issues in particular.

For instance, I talk about businesses that are doing plant-based proteins that mimic the taste and texture of meat and give us all of the best qualities of meat: the taste, the texture, the high protein, but none of the downside, none of the hormones, none of the antibiotics, none of the animal cruelty, none of the manure management, none of the inefficient use of grains because animals inefficiently convert those grains into a small portion of flesh and muscle. That is an intentional action by businesses to give people new options to get us past the era of factory farming.

Then you have just new technology that emerges simply because it's better, and there's not necessarily a moral intention. That's where I talk about what is happening in film with computer-generated imagery as a way to keep the animals at the center of the story, but not to exploit wild animals in training, in acting, or use on a set. There's been a long history of Hollywood hurting animals in order to include animals in the story.

The fourth one relates to the larger dynamic, which is that young people have grown up in a world where there's been no other notion. If you were born after 1985 or 1990, this notion that animal cruelty is wrong has just been part of the fabric of our society. This notion that animals are intelligent and cognitive has just been a part of it. My generation, which goes back further, those were issues in dispute. Now they're no longer in dispute. I think that the new generation is there.

I think finally, we just have access to so much information these days, and it's right in front of us. It's so obvious when you see what happens on a factory farm or when you see what happens to animals at a puppy mill, that there's a moral problem. Our ability to show footage, to do undercover investigations or to reach the media, to record these images is a new opportunity for us to shrink the gap between our placement in society and what happens to animals wherever the abuses are occurring. One of the historical problems for animals is that we're so deeply disassociated from their plight and circumstances. We buy food in a store, but the animals may be on a factory farm 1,000 miles away. Well, now we're shrinking that distance with new technology and with our ability to throw the curtain back.

RL: You mentioned the disassociation that we have from the plight of animals. It reminds me of someone who loves dogs but has no problem eating a pig, an animal who is smarter than a dog, and who had a horrible life of pain and torture on a factory farm. This presents the possibility of cognitive dissonance in our everyday lives, in the decisions that many of us make with the foods we choose to eat.

WP: Yes. That is part of the opportunity of animal protection, and it's also part of the challenge of animal protection. In The Bond, I argue that we have a tremendous love for animals, almost all of us in society, yet our behavior is marked by remarkable contradictions in terms of our treatment of animals. One of the things I talk about in the book, and in general in my role at HSUS, is that if we accepted animal cruelty is wrong—and just about all of us do—one thing that our reasoning brain requires of us is to logically apply anti-cruelty principles in this world.

Now we all come to this circumstance of thinking about our relationship with animals with our own set of experiences and cultural biases. We don't raise dogs for food, and we don't eat dogs. As a built-in set of experiences, that activity is anathema to us. Almost all of us have been participants in a society that does raise cows, pigs and chickens for food. It becomes just a much more accepted idea because not only has it been our experience growing up and seeing other people doing it, being placed in social situations where that's occurring. This is the food that's available to us at the grocery store and the restaurant. It's just logical that that behavior would be part of our social construction of reality.

I think now we're saying yes, that is part of our history, we must acknowledge that. Some of our contradictory behaviors are explained by those different treatments that we have of these animals in society. Let's look more fundamentally; let's look at the intelligence of animals; let's look at the presence of alternatives; let's act accordingly. I do think that this a challenge and the opportunity. It’s a challenge because it's hard for people to change their behavior. Of course, we all do change our behavior, but typically it's not easy, especially if it's a long established habit.

I think a lot of us too in our society have been hostages. We didn't recognize that we had alternatives. You go to a restaurant and there's nothing on the menu except for meat products that come from factory farms. Only more recently do we have a much better set of options. Now that means that we have a critical mass of demand that exists for these alternative products, these plant-based products, or more humanely raised products. Now you're starting to see that take hold in the marketplace, and that is going to allow us to accelerate the change that exists.

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“We have shown that pigs share a number of cognitive capacities with other highly intelligent species such as dogs, chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, and even humans,” says neuroscientist Lori Marino of Emory University and the Nonhuman Rights Project. “There is good scientific evidence to suggest we need to rethink our overall relationship to them.” (image: Chiot's Run/Flickr CC)

RL: You mentioned humanely produced animal products. While it may be a step in the right direction, could it also be a disconnect? If a consumer is given two choices—avoid all animal products based on a moral point of view, or eat a humanely produced animal product—that sounds like a false choice because I'm not sure that there is such a thing as a humanely produced animal product.

WP: Right. I do think that you're correct. What it really reflects is a level of consciousness. It may not be complete consciousness. It is a recognition that there is a moral issue, and that you're taking intentional action to minimize or remediate the problems for animals. It may not be the perfect outcome from an animal welfare perspective, but it's progress. To get the animals out of a factory farm and to have an animal on pasture, I think is demonstrably a better outcome for the animal.

Now if the animals still going to be slaughtered, that's still a moral problem for folks who are concerned about that. I'm concerned about it, lots of other people are concerned about it. I do think that generally the model of change that exists in our society, personally, institutionally is incremental, that we're better at taking steps. Once you embrace the idea that we have duties to animals, then it often becomes a staircase approach where you take one step and then logically you then take the next step.

RL: It seems like there's going to be no turning back now that this revolution has begun, especially with business leaders like Carl Icahn and Sergey Brin and politicians like Cory Booker supporting the ideas in The Humane Economy. Now that the revolution is happening, can you look into your crystal ball? Will humans become vegan? Will animal exploitation ever come to an end?

WP: I see us taking steps forward each day, each month, each year. Where it's ultimately going to land, I'm not sure. I'm not sure that we're going to ever have perfect consistency. I think what we will have is we will eliminate the worst forms of cruelty, and we will set up minimum standards in society. Those minimum standards will be established in the law, and they'll be established as corporate policies.

I think there will still be a range of activity with food. Given the incredibly long trajectory of human activity with eating wild animals and domesticated animals, I'm not sure if that can ever be unwound entirely. I do think that you'll see large numbers of people choosing vegetarian and vegan options, and I think almost everyone is going to integrate more plant-based options into their diet. For the animal products that people do eat, I think they're not going to come from factory farms. I think the animals are not going to be subject to routine mutilations. I think they're going to be treated better.

That's my great hope. Where it all ends up is going to be difficult to discern at this point.

RL: All species are impacted by humans, from orangutans losing habitat in Indonesia to palm oil plantations, to turtles and sharks inadvertently killed by fishing nets, to—as you mentioned in your recent Tampa Bay Times op-ed piece—Florida’s mandated greyhound races. The list goes on.

But it seems to me that the most invisible—yet the most impacted—group of animals are factory farm animals, simply because of the sheer numbers and the fact that the majority of their brief lives is filled with terror, pain and suffering. 

To paraphrase Gandhi, I would say the greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its farm animals are treated. Would you agree?

WP: Absolutely. They have to be part of our moral calculus. It's the set of animals that we interact with most frequently and in the greatest number. We just don't realize it because we get a little piece of an animal or we get one of the reproductive products, a glass of milk or an egg that's often hidden in some other product like a muffin or a pastry. This issue of factory farming is one of the most important issues that the animal protection movement can confront.

There is systemic cruelty on an immense scale with extreme confinement and other problems with factory farming. We’ve got these massive manure loads that come from the factory farms with none of the waste treated. You think of 320 million Americans and the waste that we produce as biological creatures. That waste typically is treated. It gets treated in septic plants that denude the waste of its most toxic properties, but for the 9 billion animals raised for food, we don't have that sort of treatment. It goes onto our land, it goes into the water, all sorts of problems.

We've got the personal health issues of too much fat and cholesterol. We've got issues of public health. We have the case of the woman in Pennsylvania recently who was incapable of being treated with the most powerful antibiotic—we may be entering a post-antibiotic era because of the incredible overuse of antibiotics on factory farms.

Not only do I think it's so important, but I think we have an amazing case to make to a rational person that we've got to change this system. Whether it's opting for more plant-based foods in our diet or better living conditions, transportation and slaughter standards. All of those things should be happening at the same time.

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Wayne Pacelle speaking at a TEDxManhattan event in January 2012. (image: TEDxManhattan/Flickr CC)

RL: You once said that, "For the sake of animals, there's nothing more powerful than changing your diet." You grew up eating meat in what you called an “animal neutral household.”

How did you become vegan, and what would you recommend to someone who's interested in becoming vegan, which is often a hard goal to accomplish?

WP: Yeah, this is a big problem that a number of people have identified as recidivism. There was one report from Che Green at Faunalytics that found that 84 percent of people who are vegetarians or vegans then go back to eating some amount of meat or other animal product. I think it's perceived as there being a high degree of difficulty because you're in social settings where people have already prepared food and it's animal-based, or it's more difficult to go to restaurants that have these options, or the grocery stores are still dominated by the conventional products. I just think it's easy for people to default to what is most convenient.

That's where I think a grounding on a concern for animals as kind of a moral foundation for us as we approach the question is so important. I've been vegan for 31 years. The reason that it's been steady for me is I know that animals feel pain and they suffer. I want to do my part to minimize my impact on this planet. The first and most obvious place to think about is our food choices. I don't diminish the complexity of this issue, the sociology of it, the family dimensions to it, the friendships, the marketplace challenges.

The good news is that things are getting easier and better because we have many more options. The value system is not seen as quite so alternative. It used to be really an alternative lifestyle. Now, medical doctors are telling us a plant-based diet is healthier for us. Climate change scientists are telling us that livestock agriculture is one of the two biggest contributing factors to greenhouse gas emissions. Undercover investigators are showing us the reality of what happens to these animals on the farm.

I just think that if you really want to make a difference for animals, that process or that thought process must include a focus on our consumption patterns and habits.

RL: What campaigns is HSUS working on that we’ll be seeing more of in the coming months?

WP: We just had a great win on reform of our chemicals regulation law. A very new explicit standard in the law, a precedent-setting standard to use 21st-century technologies that do not involve animals and to treat the use of animals in testing as a last resort. This is for 85,000 chemicals that are in commercial use in our society, so it could affect the lives of millions of animals. It will set again a new high-bar standard when we look at how to regulate pesticides, biocides or cosmetics. I think we want to really close out the era of animal testing, and opt for 21st-century technologies that are going to give us more predictive information about different concentrations of potentially toxic substances. 

The second one is that we really want to eliminate the other problematic practices in industrial agriculture. One of the big ones is fast growth of broiler birds in the chicken industry. I think we also want to drive meat reduction. We want to get people to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets. Meatless Mondays is a great way to start. If we as individuals adhere to the idea of Meatless Mondays, we reduce our consumption of animal products by one-seventh. In the United States, that means about 1.3 or 1.4 billion animals saved a year. Just a staggering number.

I also think we've got some big international challenges and opportunities. One is that we're really committed to ending the dog meat trade in South Korea and China. There are 17,000 dog meat farms in South Korea. There are millions of dogs killed for meat in China. I think the younger generations are not interested in eating dogs, and we are going to see some big changes there as we really put our shoulder into this problem.


Dogs packed tightly in crates before being slaughtered for human consumption at the Yulin dog meat festival in China. (image: Humane Society international)

RL: What pro-animal legislative changes are close to succeeding?

WP: The TSCA reform just happened, which President Obama just signed. We're excited about having a federal anti-cruelty statute for the first time ever. That is being done at the state level, and that's very important. This would not supplant that, but it would complement the state anti-cruelty statutes. We want to finish off the horse soring industry where they injure the feet of these Tennessee walking horses. We've got huge support. We got a majority of the House and Senate already publicly aligned with that legislation. It's ripe for action. 

I'd say those are a couple of the bills, but we probably have 30 or 40 different legislative items. The Humane Cosmetic Act, now that we've got a reform for chemicals, we want to just ban cosmetic testing on the animals in the U.S. as India, EU and now Australia have done.

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Pacelle opened his book tour at a special event with Senator Cory Booker and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post, at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kevin Wolf/AP Images for The HSUS)

RL: What’s the most important thing you'd like to see the president do to help the lives of animals in America?

WP: Use the office of the presidency as more of a bully pulpit to emphasize the importance of our responsibility to animals. I think as a general proposition these issues should be part of our national political discourse. Too infrequently that happens. We're driving the discussion on a lot of levels. It's in the press more than ever, it's on talk shows, and more and more columnists are writing about it, but it still hasn't broken into discourse.

Hillary Clinton has an affirmative statement on animal protection on her website. As the standard bearer for the Democrats, that's significant.

Donald Trump doesn't at this time. I hope that he does, but he's got a real drag on his candidacy in my opinion, because he so actively engaged his sons in his campaign, and they're both active trophy hunters of threatened species, including elephants and leopards, so this is going to be a real issue in the race.

In terms of what candidates can do or what elected officials can do, part of this is taking positive action on the legislative agenda that we've helped to create in the Congress and with the executive agencies to rulemaking. The other part is unwinding the subsidies that support animal exploitation like the lethal predator control programs of USDA under the Wildlife Services program, the buy up programs for surplus pork. When the pork industry overproduces, the government buys it up. These are all really significant issues, and I'm hoping that the next president takes an expansive view of animal protection.

I will say that the rulemaking actions done by President Obama have been the best that we've see in any administration in the history of our country. We've worked with the administration on at least 30 major rulemakings for animal protection. More coming down the pike in the next six months.

RL: Tell me about your two adopted pets. How did they come into your life?

WP: Lily is my adopted beagle mix, and we adopted her after a local rescue group—which I know because one of our staff members does so much volunteer work with it—pulled Lily, she was about to be euthanized at a rural public shelter in Virginia. Then she was up for adoption at a local PetSmart. My wife and I went there and fell in love with her. Now she comes to the office with me every day. I'm looking at her right now. She's sleeping in a little round bed.

I started a dogs-in-the-office policy when I became president of HSUS. We probably have 150 dogs now come to work with their guardians.

Zoe is a cat that I found when I was walking Lily one early morning. She started following me, and a jogger and I scooped her up. The jogger wanted her, but then my wife came down with a carrier, and I knew there was going to be a custody fight there. Knowing how persuasive my wife is, I felt she would win, and sure enough she did.


Lily and Zoe napping together. (image: Wayne Pacelle’s HSUS blog)

RL: If you could come back as an animal in a future life, what animal would you be?

WP: This is more of a category of animals rather than a specific species, but I think I'd like to be like a seed-eating, long-distance-flying bird. I really love seeing the world like the Arctic tern goes from the Arctic to the Antarctic every year. What a fabulous expansive geography to see, and I love landscapes, so having that bird's-eye view or that sky-level view of the world is great. Being powered by eating seeds and plants would be great.

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An Arctic tern chick on the Farne Islands, Northumberland, England. (image: Wikipedia)

RL: Finally, my brother, an animal activist, pigeon rescuer, aspiring vegan and big fan of yours, wants to know: Why are you so cool?

WP: I'm not sure I am. I think I'm maybe calm and maybe cool-headed under pressure. I think that stems from an underlying confidence in the strength of these ideas. I believe ultimately that rational argument, science and logic will win the day. I think that it just makes so much sense for we humans to be responsible stewards on this planet, and to care for all of God's creatures, to care for all these animals who share this small planet with this thin zone of life. I think it's in our interest to do so.

As I write in the book, it's almost like compassion is a muscle; the more you use it, the more compassionate you become. That's what builds a civil society. That's what allows us to have a workable, livable set of humane communities in our society. I think when we're cruel to animals, it deadens us to the needs of others. It reflects a callousness and a lack of concern for others, which is corrosive in our society.

Ultimately, I just feel very confident that these ideas are so sound. They're just a logical extension of the core set of values that we've lived by for so long.

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