CEO Wayne Pacelle resigns from HSUS amid allegations of sexual misconduct

February 20, 2018
Rachael Zimlich, BSN, RN

Freelance writer Rachael Zimlich worked as a reporter for dvm360 magazine before returning to school to become a registered nurse. She now works at The Cleveland Clinic.

Ambiguous results of initial investigation prompt resignations from board; long-term fallout for animal welfare organization still unclear.

A major shakeup in leadership at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) prompted by allegations of sexual misconduct against CEO Wayne Pacelle and other leaders has rattled animal welfare circles, but its impact on the organization's overall mission and future remains unknown.

Allegations of sexual misconduct by Pacelle against female employees extending back more than decade were first made public in January, and rumblings of other indiscretions at the organization are rising in its aftermath. Pacelle, a sometimes polarizing figure in terms of support in the veterinary community, resigned in early February, but the damage may have already been done.

A look back on Pacelle's career

Pacelle's work in animal welfare began early-he was appointed executive director of The Fund for Animals at 23-and he joined HSUS in 1994 as a lobbyist and spokesperson. He was installed as CEO of HSUS in 2004 and was involved in the passage of more than 25 federal animal welfare statutes during his tenure.

At times, Pacelle's views and his efforts with HSUS conflicted with the views of professional veterinary organizations like the AVMA, particularly on food animal issues. Pacelle highlighted these differences when he helped HSUS launch an alternative to AVMA, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association (HSVMA), in 2008.

The allegations

The HSUS first acknowledged the sexual misconduct allegations against Pacelle in a Jan. 25 announcement of an internal investigation. HSUS's board of directors said the law firm Morgan Lewis was investigating the legitimacy of workplace misconduct claims against Pacelle, but the organization shared no further details about the investigation at that time.

On Feb. 2, Rick Bernthal, chair of the HSUS board, elaborated on the investigation, stating that an HSUS staff member had complained about inappropriate actions by Pacelle but that the Morgan Lewis review had revealed insufficient evidence to remove him from his leadership post.

“Many of the allegations were explosive in nature, and reading or hearing about them is a shock to anyone. It was to us, too,” Bernthal wrote in a statement from HSUS. “But when we sifted through the evidence presented, we did not find that many of these allegations were supported by credible evidence.”

This announcement sparked anger in the public and among some on HSUS's own board, with several board members reportedly resigning in protest of a contentious Feb. 1 vote to keep Pacelle on. Pacelle resigned on Feb. 2, effective immediately, and attorney and president of Humane Society International Kitty Block was named acting president and CEO of HSUS in place of Pacelle.

“We are most grateful to Kitty for stepping forward to lead the organization as we continue to advance our mission, which has never been more important,” Bernthal wrote in a follow-up statement after Pacelle's resignation.

Moving forward and future fallout

HSUS would not answer additional specific questions from dvm360 magazine on the allegations against Pacelle or whether a search for a permanent CEO was planned.

For now, HSUS is simply deferring to a prepared statement from Kitty Block in which she revealed her own past experiences with sexual harassment at HSUS and a commitment to addressing and preventing similar experiences for employees going forward.

“I thank the brave women who have come forward. I believe them. Because of their courage, we are in a better place as an organization,” Kitty Block writes in her statement. “If others have concerns, we want to hear them and have channels for doing so. If they are reported, I pledge that we will investigate them fairly and thoroughly.”

Whether the actions of HSUS are enough to protect the support of its donors remains to be seen.

Jim Greenbaum, founder and managing director of the human and animal advocacy group The Greenbaum Foundation, has been outspoken on his public Facebook page about the allegations against Pacelle and the fallout from the board's initial vote to keep him as CEO. Having made a $100,000 donation to HSUS last year, Greenbaum says he plans to weigh his decision about future donations carefully based on how HSUS responds to this crisis.

“I will give considerable weight to what actions are taken-or not taken-to ensure both a healthy work environment and a reconstituted board of directors comprised of individuals capable of overseeing such a large complex organization,” Greenbaum told dvm360 magazine, noting that he made this sentiment clear in an email to Bernthal as well.

HSUS declined to address whether other donations have been impacted by Pacelle's departure.

Impact on HSVMA

Gary Block, DVM, MS, DACVIM, board president for the now 9,000-member-strong HSVMA, says he doesn't anticipate the fallout from HSUS's turmoil will negatively impact the veterinary community or reach HSVMA, since the two organizations-while affiliated-operate independently. Gary Block says HSVMA had no knowledge of the investigation or its outcome prior to news of the allegations being made public by HSUS and in the mainstream media.

As far as how HSUS will recover from the fallout of Pacelle's departure, Gary Block says, to his knowledge, as many as eight HSUS board members may have resigned. At least two have returned, and two are in negotiations to return, he says, although HSUS did not offer confirmation.

Gary Block says HSVMA has its own board and will continue to work toward improving animal welfare. As a veterinarian-facing organization, HSVMA has not appeared to have, and hopefully will continue to be free from, repercussions from what is happening at HSUS, he adds. Going forward, Block says he hopes leadership for HSUS will continue the work Pacelle started in many arenas and with the same charisma and passion. He would, however, like to see a veterinarian, and perhaps a woman, leader for the organization.

“In a way, it's very sad because Wayne was obviously very articulate and a passionate advocate for animals, and an incredible public speaker. But-and this is my opinion and my opinion only-if the allegations are in any way, shape or form true, there was really no other choice,” Gary Block says. “Clearly a change was needed with this type of allegation. To hear that anyone in an upper-level management position was potentially taking advantage or creating an asymmetric power dynamic, that's disappointing in any organization.”

Rachael Zimlich is a freelance writer in Cleveland, Ohio, and a former reporter for dvm360 magazine.