Big Green

How the Humane Society’s CEO connects empathy and economics

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, talks up "The Humane Economy" at the GreenBiz conference in February.

At age 19, Wayne Pacelle became a vegetarian. A month later, he had adopted an entirely vegan lifestyle.  

Soon thereafter, Pacelle was leading his first animal advocacy group as a sophomore in history and environmental studies at Yale University — the first in series of career moves that culminated in his decision to join the Humane Society of the United States roughly 13 years ago.

"It wasn’t like I had an epiphany, and it wasn’t like I had a menu of options," he recalled in a recent conversation. "I just had this passion for animals. Once I learned about the magnitude of the crisis, I decided I didn’t want to be a bystander."

As head of the nation’s largest nonprofit dedicated to animal protection — one that encompasses more than 750 staffers and 2,000 volunteers — Pacelle’s mission is to get businesses and governments thinking differently about the role animals play in human culture.

"The moral argument for protecting animals is compelling, but so is the economic argument," he said. (That’s the central thesis of Pacelle’s 2016 book, "The Humane Economy," which GreenBiz excerpted here last month.)

Right now, the Humane Society is involved in more than 200 campaigns, covering everything from protesting commercial seal fishing to shutting down puppy mills to working on legislation against practices such as horse soring, or the practice that some trainers use to produce the signature gait of Tennessee walking horses.

Asked to name some of the NGO’s most notable historic victories, Pacelle points to zero-tolerance laws against "malicious cruelty" that are now pervasive across the United States, as well as the decision in 2013 by the National Institute of Health to "retire" most government-owned chimpanzees used for biomedical research.

"I want to pick issues where it will lead to big changes in the lives of lots of animals, or it will be culturally significant. We take on big fights, but they need to be winnable or achievable," Pacelle said.

Corporate enlightenment

It was the society’s involvement in questioning the use of confinement practices, especially gestation crates used to confine pregnant sows and the cages used to contain egg-laying hens, that simultaneously raised the NGO’s profile within the consumer and corporate worlds.

The movement started by encouraging state-level ballot measures focused on the welfare of farm animals — the first one was passed by Florida back in 2002. Five years later, the world’s biggest producer of hogs, Smithfield Foods, agreed to change some of its farm management practices, moving sows into "group housing."

But the real breakthrough came in 2012 when McDonald’s said it would ban gestation crates. Within three years, the restaurant powerhouse had made a similar commitment related to hen confinement. That was a huge tipping point.

"Once we got McDonald’s to say that they could do this, it eviscerated the argument that by being better for animals, this was somehow going to be unaffordable," Pacelle said. 

Even more notable: McDonald's did this right around the same time it revived its all-day breakfast menu, which obviously requires a larger egg supply.

Next up: convincing meat producers to address the living conditions of broilers, which are chickens raised for meat. 

Pacelle’s approach is beginning to resonate with business leaders, as "The Humane Economy" details. Aside from the examples already mentioned, the movement to change testing methods for cosmetics and chemicals along with the innovation surrounding startups producing plant-based substitutes for eggs and meat, underscore the larger exploration of how entrepreneurs can "take animals out of the equation."

As former General Electric Chairman and CEO Jack Welch observed in his comment about the book, "There’s a coming disruption in business, affecting industries from agriculture to pharmaceuticals to media, and it’s being driven by new technologies, human ingenuity and the new momentum of the animal protection movement."

Like many other non-profit organizations, the Humane Society refrains from accepting money directly from corporations. Take the example of its relationship with SeaWorld, which it hounded for years about the treatment of orcas before the marine theme park made waves last year by agreeing to end its breeding program. The breakthrough came when a Republican congressman introduced Pacelle and SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby, and the two met privately to see if they could find common ground.

"That was an example of having a long-term adversarial approach, but then having a cooperative private dialogue that resulted in a big outcome," Pacelle said.

No money changed hands, he notes, but SeaWorld agreed to speak up vocally about its new philosophy, with a view to convincing others in its industry to do the same.

The Humane Society works through multiple channels to inspire reform — with lobbyists and litigators, scientific experts, clerical leaders and a legion of volunteers at the forefront. One New York member, for example, logged 18,000 phone calls during the NGO’s campaign against hunting in the Alaska wildlife refuge, an effort the community ultimately lost but that galvanized citizens of all political persuasions.  

"We expect to get big things done in this Congress. We expect to succeed no matter who’s in power," Pacelle said. "We will play offense on a whole bunch of bills."