At a Hollywood hotel in 1964, a twenty one year old man named Bobby Fischer played 50 opponents simultaneously in chess. Of those 50 games, he won 47, lost 1, and drew 2.
Half a century later, from his central command post as the President and Chief Executive Officer of The Humane Society of the United States, Wayne Pacelle is orchestrating his own impressive series of tactical maneuvers, as he simultaneously outwits a whole host of industries engaged in the exploitation and abuse of animals. “There are all sorts of different dynamics and different special interest groups and different intellectual constructs in these different industries,” he says. “I feel like I’m playing ten games of chess at one time.”
Never before in our history have animals suffered so much at the hands of humanity. Whether on puppy mills, fur farms, in laboratories, or on factory farms, the abuse is systemic and largely hidden from view. Yet despite the overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable magnitude of misery, more people than ever are joining the fight to defend animals, and that means one thing to Wayne: Hope.
In his new book, “The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals,” (HarperCollins), Wayne lays out, in detail, what he dubs a “…fast-growing, often surprising, hugely promising, and largely unstoppable force for animal welfare.” It is a force that favors a new economic order that’s shoving old and cruel business practices into the dirty dustbins of history from two angles. “On one hand,” he says, “there’s a groundswell among consumers who not only believe that animals matter, but put those principles into action and make choices that drive change in the marketplace. This freshly turned economic soil nurtures legions of hungry entrepreneurs who are imagining better ways to produce goods and services that do less or no harm to animals.”
Growing up as the youngest of four siblings in a working class Italian-American and Greek family in New Haven, Connecticut, Wayne remembers having a deep love and appreciation for animals from his earliest days. “I didn’t see animals as lesser. I saw them as different. But they were different in good ways. They had beautiful eyes, they had beautiful fur, they were athletic, they ran fast, they could climb mountains, they could swim deep in the ocean. And I thought that those differences were enhancing rather than diminishing.”
Well before the advent of the internet, young Wayne gobbled up as much information as he could find about animals, and in those days, that wasn’t much. Unaware of any larger issues at play, much less the existence of a budding animal protection movement, he consumed primarily superficial, popular information. Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom” was his favorite TV show, but he craved more. His family had a basic encyclopedia set, and Wayne had all of the animal entries dog-eared and memorized. His love for animals “…was just a very dominant emotional feeling, but it was entirely uninformed about the larger set of problems in society,” he says. “I didn’t know about factory farming. I didn’t know too much about animal testing. I didn’t know about puppy mills. And here I was, hungry for the information. So hungry that I memorized the encyclopedia!”
He was a kid wanting to do the right thing, begging his parents and brother to slow down while driving in case an animal darted out in front of their car. He stopped eating tuna when he learned on the evening news that dolphins were hurt in the process when they caught the tuna, admitting with a chuckle that he hadn’t really thought too much about the tuna at that point. He simply wasn’t making all the connections, but was working with what limited knowledge he had.
The chasm separating his love for animals as a young boy and his lack of awareness for the larger issues at play serves as a reminder to Wayne that so many well-intentioned, compassionate people operate with imperfect information. “We cannot make the assumption that the choices they make are completely intentional, and reflect a lack of sympathy for our mission and purpose,” he quips. “And now my role as President of HSUS is to deliver perfect information to allow compassionate people to make better choices.”
As you’d expect with any prominent figure in an emotionally charged social movement, Wayne is no stranger to criticism. You’d expect it from industry groups that profit from the use of animals, of course, but might be surprised to learn that some of his most vocal critics come from within the animal protection movement who accuse his organization of being too moderate, particularly in regards to issues around food. While HSUS promotes veganism and vegetarianism as great, healthy options, it also embraces people who aren’t quite there yet, and that’s a source of contention for people who advocate a more hardline, purely vegan approach.
Asked how he would preemptively respond to criticism for The Humane Economy, Wayne was quick to welcome the spirited debate. “I think that any social movement that is growing and expanding is going to have a diversity of thought and it’s going to have some measure of internal conflict. There’s no historical example of unanimity of thought in any successful social movement. The question is, ‘Does that internal discord become debilitating or self-destructive?’ While it can be painful and divisive, I subscribe to the view that our movement need not be and cannot be homogeneous. It’s got to be heterodox, because that’s the world that we live in. You have people at different stages of development in terms of their animal protection sensibilities.”
Like many people fighting for social change, he didn’t start out with such a tempered approach. At 19 he went vegetarian, and then vegan a month after that. Peter Singer’s prodigious magnum opus, “Animal Liberation,” confirmed his views on the animal/human relationship, and his dedication to the cause blossomed. He became a vocal grassroots activist as a part of what then was largely a protest movement. “I was arrested a bunch of times for doing anti-fur demonstrations and going into the woods and following hunters. I was second to no one in terms being an observant vegan. I think I came at things from the perspective of a pretty orthodox person at one point, and I think that I measured a lot of people by how they were living their lives and if they were or were not measuring up.”
While that spirited passion continues to fuel him today, it has undergone a marked metamorphosis. “I just think that’s the wrong way to look at the situation, now. It’s not a club. It’s not a test of purity. It’s a cause that we want to embrace and encourage change for the better. I’m very grateful for people who are passionate and who are living their lives every minute in a conscious way and who are striving for the best outcome, but I’m also conscious of people who are falling short. I think of myself when I was a kid whose emotions were lined up perfectly with animals, but still made the wrong decisions.”
He traded his protest placard for a suit, a laptop, and lunches with some of his most ardent adversaries. The Humane Economy tells story after story of Wayne and his colleagues meeting with influential players from the opposition. “I’m all for camaraderie and teamwork within the community of advocates and activists…but at the end of the day, if we can turn around our adversaries and turn them into allies, that’s the entire point of the exercise. We should not view battle as an end, but a means to an end. The goal is winning.”
And winning is precisely what he’s doing. In 2015 alone, HSUS made significant progress in the fights against extreme confinement of animals on factory farms, using animals in entertainment, pet overpopulation, the wildlife trade, animals in research, puppy mills, animal cruelty and fighting, among others. “The fact that we cannot solve the suffering of animals or even entirely prevent human-caused cruelty to animals is not an argument for shutting down and packing up. Every little thing we do is transformational for some creature, either in our midst, or at a supply chain 5,000 miles away.” This incremental, tactical approach may seem frustratingly slow at times, but its power lies in a relentless, steady assault on the antiquated business models and practices dependent upon the exploitation of animals. These industries never paid much attention to the old protest movement. But they’re paying attention now, and many are beginning to see the writing on the wall. They’re quickly realizing that they can either evolve or die.
“When we can align better economic outcomes with better moral outcomes for animals,” he says, “ that’s where we’re going to see this very rapid change in society, and that’s what we are seeing in a lot of sectors of the economy right now. I think it’s actually a fortuitous circumstance for our movement that when we’re better to animals, we’ll have better economic outcomes. So much of this is because the broader societal consciousness is recognizing that they don’t want to be involved in cruelty, so they’re going to be making better choices in the marketplace in order to support those economic actors who are doing things the right way.”
His unquenchable thirst for knowledge is matched by an insatiable curiosity about how we can continually improve as a movement, not only from a macro-level tactician’s vantage point, but as individuals. HSUS has spent an inordinate amount of energy setting up systems that allow people to plug in and contribute to the cause with relative ease, and as part of a larger community. He feels that getting people connected in a structural way will help keep them engaged longer in the fight, but is concerned by the fact that more men aren’t getting involved.
“We need more men. There’s an incredible gender gap in the animal protection movement, and a lot of it goes back to those historical and pre-historical roots of women as nurturing, women as gatherers, and men as hunters who provided through violent acts and by killing, and we now are beyond that in terms of the necessities of the day. Innovation, technology, and the progress of civil society has enabled us to pass beyond that period of human history and not need to kill things in order to survive, generally speaking. The greatest show of strength and masculinity is to care for the weak. It is to protect.”
But the most important thing he wants each of us to remember as we consider our place in the world?
“Don’t leave the difficult task of social change up to someone else. Don’t be a bystander.”
This article originally appeared in Issue 5 of Compassionate Man Magazine. You can purchase a PDF copy of the issue for $2.99 by clicking on the image below.
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