By Ed Duvin
WHEN ASKED TO WRITE ON THE HUMANE SOCIETY OF THE U.S. (HSUS), I initially declined. Although an inveterate critic of large institutions, my principal interest is the macro dynamics of social change—not specific organizations. Moreover, I formerly directed an organization affiliated with HSUS and have had a long association with their leadership. This raised ethical issues, requiring the separation of information acquired in trust from that which is a matter of public record. After considerable deliberation, I concluded that the highest personal and journalistic standards could be met.
Only those suffering from hypersomnia are unaware of HSUS’ concentration of power in recent years, even capturing the attention of august publications such as the New York Times. Antitrust statutes restrain monopolistic practices in the profit sector, but nonprofits answer to a different standard. Courts are reluctant to expose nonprofits to liability, with corrupting effects already manifest in the health care industry. The animal rights cause is hardly analogous to health care, but dominance on any landscape demands attention.
Pacelle at podium, flanked by Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa “Our movement needs an NRA-type organization to get the job done,” Pacelle said. “There are lots of gun rights groups, but the one that you hear about and the one that is feared is the NRA.” (L.A. Times, July 19, 2008)
Beginning in 2005, HSUS audaciously embarked on a corporate-style power grab that did the Wharton School of Business proud. This was not growth for growth’s sake, as Wayne Pacelle—HSUS’ talented CEO—came with a grand design in his portfolio that had been refined over two decades. There was nothing furtive or nefarious about Pacelle’s intentions, which he spoke of freely. They emanated from his former responsibilities in the legislative realm, where he compiled a record of singular distinction.
During this period, Pacelle witnessed the leverage and military-like efficiency of the NRA. He came to believe, with unswerving conviction, that adopting this model could shift animal rights from the margins to the mainstream. As he stated to the Los Angeles Times, “Our movement needs an NRA-type organization to get the job done.” To implement his vision, Pacelle first had to markedly alter the face of HSUS. He quickly demonstrated his political prowess, adroitly restructuring this bastion of bureaucracy in conformity with his trusted template.
Pacelle’s strategic vision is not without merit, but it also reveals the myopia of a political organization thinking politically. No one deprecates the obvious value of acquiring strength. Indeed, it is axiomatic that “muscle”—as Pacelle refers to it—greatly facilitates being heard in the corridors of power. That said, the NRA is a single-issue lobbying group, whereas we are charged with the complex responsibility of protecting the rights of other species. These two missions could hardly be more disparate, the significance of which appears to be lost on HSUS. It is this penchant for oversimplifying social change that goes to the heart of my concerns.
History has taught us, at the cost of untold suffering, that traversing the minefields of injustice is not reducible to a linear formula—certainly not one based on remaking NRA’s model in our own image. Were the path to social change that unencumbered, More’s Utopia would have arrived long ago. As HSUS trumpets its rebirth, I see scarce appreciation of the dialectical rhythms and countless nuances inherent in the struggle for systemic change. The silent screams of those we serve cry out for innovation, not imitation.
Given HSUS’ vast resources and media savvy, they are increasingly perceived by the public as the movement’s voice. There is immense danger in one organization unduly influencing the agenda, as diversity in thought and tactics is the sine non qua of a vibrant movement. Grassroots activists, intellectuals, artists, radicals, students, and all who strive for justice offer a unique language, placing weight on the multifarious pressure points of an apathetic culture. It is difficult to hear other voices when one organization owns the preponderance of microphones.
In pursuit of ever-increasing stature and access, HSUS unapologetically ingratiates itself to the powerful—seemingly without discernment or regard to principle. Their effusive embrace of Matthew Scully serves to illustrate, a man who not only wrote speeches for Bush and Cheney, but made Sarah Palin appear semi-literate at the convention. Yes, Scully supports our cause and is well-connected, but his ideology is an affront to egalitarian ideals. We need to reach all demographic segments, but not in an indiscriminate fashion that eviscerates our moral foundation. Does HSUS suggest that we supplant our values for those of corporate America? I raise this issue not self-righteously, but with the conviction that compassion is not divisible. Injustice is one monster with many heads.
As noted at the outset, Pacelle and his staff are deserving of credit for awakening a long-slumbering giant—no small feat by any standard of measure. They have turned some laudable corners, and critics often fail to adequately acknowledge these achievements. Power is a potent seductress, however, which often claims principle as its first casualty. For all of HSUS’ positive movement in recent years, their compass is still in dire need of calibration—with enough inconsistencies to serve as a primer in selective morality
This brings us to companion animals, as no issue more strikingly demonstrates the full extent of HSUS’ uneven progress. With growing numbers committed to a new companion animal ethos, HSUS’ virtual silence is deafening. Indeed, their failure of leadership in this realm makes a travesty of the new image they project. They even appear uncertain regarding their own position on the no-kill movement, which might explain why their comments often produce more obfuscation than illumination. Perhaps HSUS is attempting to create the illusion of movement while standing still.
When a small Iowa town placed a bounty on feral cats, HSUS’ VP of Companion Animals informed Associated Press that he had no problem with euthanizing stray cats. He raised concerns over humane handling and safety issues created by the bounty, but not a single syllable on the moral bankruptcy and sheer obscenity of this plan. Then, after outrage erupted and the media took notice, HSUS quickly repositioned itself and joined the chorus in expressing shock and disapproval. Due to the intervention of Alley Cat Allies, Best Friends, and others, the bounty was rescinded. It leaves us to wonder, however, if HSUS is retracing old footprints in new clothing—with a different face to suit every situation.
In 2003, Pacelle, then Senior Vice President of Government Affairs, wrote the following in reference to an essay that I authored: “One of Duvin’s essays, entitled ‘In the Name of Mercy,’ questioned the widespread practice within the humane movement of euthanizing healthy, adoptable dogs and cats at local shelters and humane societies. Duvin did not castigate individuals, but questioned whether our movement should accept such a state of activity as a matter of the normal conduct of business. He inspired us to revamp our institutions to bring them in line with our basic values.” Pacelle states the salient point with precision: aligning our practices with our values.
We have the responsibility to take every measure in defense of innocent life, not transform killing into a sacred ritual. Lamentably, thousands of shelters hold a different philosophy. Instead of focusing solely on prevention, these shelters cling to the disproven notion that only they can provide “merciful” deaths—not municipal or county facilities. How would HSUS react if groups working to end the slaughter of animals for food began operating slaughterhouses? They would be apoplectic for the very reason Pacelle stated above, but we hear not a whimper from them when millions of companion animals are killed in our own shelters. HSUS’ raison d’être is to protect, not abandon, those in peril.
This kind of disconnect is not unique to companion animals, and one needn’t look beyond humane education for another illustration. To HSUS’ considerable credit, they invest heavily in children and young adults. For a period spanning three CEOs, I have implored HSUS to undertake a longitudinal study—following youngsters over a period of time to measure the efficacy of various methodologies. To this day, they continue spending tens of millions of dollars blindly, absent reliable data as to the extent and duration of any positive effect. HSUS alone is in a position to finance such a study, and both prudent management and conscience dictate that they do so. Here again, we are left to wait.
No pleasure is derived from finding fault, but Rousseau’s admonition vis-à-vis large institutions demands our attention. Powerful “machines” require ever-greater amounts of fuel, inexorably blurring the distinction between expediency and principle. An insidious and morally corrosive process often occurs, in which the powerful assume that what furthers their interests is similarly beneficial to the cause. No matter how noble HSUS’ ends, unchecked ambition is fraught with peril. After all, the levers of power are not oiled with humility. In the self-satisfied climate of HSUS, critical analysis is a lonely stranger—leaving one to wonder, epistemologically speaking, if they know what they don’t know.
In a 2005 Satya interview, Pacelle spoke of his intention to “…create a grassroots movement” to support HSUS’ campaigns. There is already a grassroots movement, the very same activists who made animal rights a household name, but perhaps a merger could be arranged! Poor attempt at humor aside, all of us have a responsibility to cooperate when we can and disagree amicably when we cannot, but it is a partnership, not hierarchy. Trust and respect have to be earned, and HSUS could take the first step by developing a more receptive ear.
Some seek to demonize HSUS and Pacelle, but personal invective is not consonant with life-affirming ideals. Accountability is another matter, however, and that is the central purpose of this piece. There is growing discontent with HSUS throughout the movement, largely a product of dashed hopes. I, too, experienced the allure, captivated by the promise of a new force for change. No one benefits from internecine conflicts, least of all the animals. However, if HSUS’ policy-makers have forgotten the roots from whence they came, it falls upon us to remind them. Their adeptness in attracting funds, members, and media is unmatched, and I ask only that they serve other beings as well as they serve themselves.
Ed Duvin, is Cyrano’s Journal’s Editor-at-Large and head of CJO’s editorials section. His writings and example—often controversial— on politics, philosophy, civil rights, and questions relating to the morality of human interactions with animals and nature have inspired generations of activists in the US and abroad. His characteristically low-key contributions to the humane movement, in particular, are simply enormous. In 1989, Ed wrote a landmark article that ignited the “no-kill” movement among humane societies. Until then, most shelters just gave animals a few days’ reprieve for adoption prior to being euthanized. Today many shelters and humane societies—not just in the US and developed nations— have banned automatic euthanasia from their normal practices.
Wayne Pacelle works for the winged, finned and furry
Los Angeles Times, 19 July 2008