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Welfare's Political Animal


He's been called a wolf in sheep's clothing, a man with hidden agendas and the most influential player the animal-welfare arena has ever seen.

He's been called a wolf in sheep's clothing, a man with hidden agendas and the most influential player the animal-welfare arena has ever seen.

The one-time lobbyist and public-policy guru garners regular headlines espousing animal-welfare expertise, with profiles in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, to name a few. To foes, it makes Humane Society of the United States' (HSUS) Wayne Pacelle, 42, even more politically dangerous.

With JFK Jr. looks and a Yale University education, the head of the world's largest, richest welfare organization gets face time with Washington interest groups and political leaders. His fame almost rivals some Hollywood celebrities.

Mainstream America's acceptance of HSUS' president and chief executive officer tends to chip at the fringe-activist profile organized veterinary medicine paints. Washington lawmakers turn to Pacelle for welfare advice, and he spends lavishly, tapping a $120 million budget to fund their campaigns. Pacelle writes a column for Newsweek, he's featured on Larry King and is a media go-to guy for stories like the Michael Vick case.

Critics contend Pacelle's HSUS is drowning out AVMA's voice on welfare. It is best illustrated when the American Veterinary Medical Association fights HSUS agenda items, such as federal anti-horse slaughter legislation. To the public, banning horse slaughter seems like a no-brainer. Citizens in the United States don't eat horse meat.

AVMA, a body of scientific experts, unsuccessfully argued — along with other groups — the legislation will result in thousands of horses at risk of starvation, disease and inhumane euthanasia.

It's an argument that apparently has lawmakers unconvinced: "Every time a vote has been taken on the issue, it's always gone our way in a landslide manner," Pacelle says.

Cultivating support: "We've tapped into mainstream sensibility," says HSUS' Wayne Pacelle. Organized veterinary medicine isn't buying it, especially when the issues are about agriculture.

Strength in numbers

Rubbing salt in those wounds, Pacelle recently announced steps to merge with the Association of Veterinarians for Animals Rights to create the Humane Society Veterinary Association (see related story, p. 1). The group is expected to rival the nation's largest membership body, offering a choice for veterinarians dissatisfied with AVMA and its strict science-based stances.

AVMA refused to balk when controversy and pressure surfaced regarding foie gras production practices and swine gestation stalls despite louder calls against them. Many leaders consider Pacelle a radical out to upend agriculture. He's a vegan who believes in animal rights. Yet at the same time, he claims to be taking HSUS in a more modest direction, dropping the term "rights" in favor of "animal protection" and touting a philosophy that supports an animal-welfare agenda.

America's political climate represents a defining moment for the veterinary profession, Pacelle contends.

"Its leaders can embrace the change that's happening in our society or they can continue to represent the voice of industry and be part of a power system that results in the continued exploitation of animals," he says.

The public, to a large degree, appears to view HSUS as a dewy-eyed welfare group out to rescue unwanted and disadvantaged animals. That interpretation is evident considering the group boasts 10 million donating members.

"We've tapped into mainstream sensibility," Pacelle says. "You don't get many radical groups that have that many people supporting them."

Political hardball

Yet a darker portrayal of HSUS overshadows the group's feel-good persona in many sectors. For AVMA, Pacelle represents an influential force operating on emotions that challenge the association's welfare authority and science-backed statements.

While AVMA strives to be the nation's last word on welfare, Pacelle plays political hardball in Washington.

"We share many AVMA goals in many respects. We're against animal fighting and killing animals for fur. But we do not take the same positions on animal-agriculture issues. We want Americans to eat fewer animals," Pacelle says.


That kind of talk ended HSUS' budding partnership with the AVMA Executive Board last year, when the two groups drafted a joint statement to Congress supporting mutually endorsed legislation. Board members dumped the draft letter over HSUS' support of an Arizona ballot initiative to ban sow gestation stalls, a move that crossed many allied veterinarians.

That ballot initiative passed, and California and Colorado residents soon will vote on similar measures.

"I did not go into a relationship with AVMA with the expectation that there would be perfect synchrony in terms of our views," Pacelle recalls. "But I did expect the leading veterinary profession to move more aggressively on issues that we both supported — not ones that should have stretched peoples' minds. If not vets, then who are the advocates for animals?"

For millions of Americans, he says, the job belongs to HSUS.

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