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The Politics and Benefits of Engagement

New HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle says we aren’t going to win the hearts and minds of the nation until we engage people in our cause. And he should know. As The HSUS’s longtime spokesman and former senior vice president for communications and government affairs, Pacelle has overseen the collection of more than five million signatures for statewide ballot initiatives. Through these grassroots campaigns at the local level and ceaseless lobbying of state and federal legislators, his efforts have led to everything from passage of laws banning cockfighting and gestation crates to increased federal protection for big cats and great apes. In a recent interview with Animal Sheltering, he also talked about “the unsung heroes” of the movement and the importance of celebrating victories both large and small.

ANIMAL SHELTERING: You’ve visited a lot of shelters in your travels. What were your impressions?
WAYNE PACELLE: I’d say I’ve probably been to shelters in 35 states, and one of the things that I find most encouraging in my travels is that there are so many new shelters being constructed. There’s new brick and there’s new mortar somewhere in the country every week, it seems. Joseph Campbell, the writer who discusses myth, talks about how the biggest buildings in the community reflect the values of the community. And a big, grand, beautiful shelter reflects the values of the community at some level. In making that observation, I am in no way diminishing the communities that don’t have that or the people who are working hard for the animals in those other communities. But sometimes you get more public support in some places, and it’s really exciting to see. And in terms of the architecture of these places, you see certain things that are happening—keeping the dogs and cats in different spaces, upfront rooms where people are visiting with the animals and playing with them. There are certain things that make these facilities more inviting, moving away from the stereotype of the “dog pound” and towards a more community-based, inviting institution. So those are some of the things that I notice ... how inviting is the place for the person walking in off the street who has little exposure to humane issues but wants a companion? Whole Foods is a really successful store and chain because it’s inviting, it’s spacious, it’s clean. The aisles aren’t about to collapse on you. And I think there’s a lot to be said for design and architecture and cleanliness and friendliness and efficiency. It just speaks to what the institution’s about.

When you go to different cities, do you try to visit several shelters?
WP: It just depends what I’m doing and what my schedule allows. But I’ve been to tiny little facilities, and you know, those people are a gift—those who are working in small communities without huge financial support, without much of a population base to draw from. And my admiration’s really there for those folks. I mean, in the bigger, more well-funded operations, that’s great, too. But it’s great to see the folks who are just in it purely for the animals.

Yeah, it’s sort of a contrast between the people who have all that community support, which is good in its own way, and the people who are out there doing it on their own with nothing.
WP: Even in rural hamlets across the country, there are animal people in every little community, and those are the absolute unsung heroes of the movement—the people who are toiling away because their love and respect for animals trumps their fatigue, it trumps their difficult financial circumstances, it trumps the other commitments that they have. And it just pushes them into activism and work, and you know, those are the best people in the world. They really are. In my mind, there are no finer people because they are doing something that’s purely altruistic. They’re not doing it for themselves; they’re doing it because they care about these creatures.

That’s why we love doing the magazine so much—because we are able to talk to such dedicated people every day.
Yeah, absolutely. And that’s why it’s great that Animal Sheltering exists—to let people know there’s a larger universe of people who care. You’re not just one salmon trying to fight upstream there. There are others who are fighting as well. And it’s that collective action. You think, “Well, does my work really make a difference?” And of course it does, because every animal who benefits from attention and who gets care is a huge victory in and of itself. But there’s also the collective exercise of knowing that so many thousands of people are conducting these little acts of mercy and it adds up to a merciful world and society.

You’ve had some experience with mainstreaming a lot of animal protection issues and getting people from all different factions on board with our cause. And that’s one of the big problems that shelters in many communities face—they are located out in the weed fields or near the jailhouse and nobody knows anything about them. What advice would you have for shelters that are trying to get their communities to notice them?
I think that there’s no better course of action than to serve as a model for change. Others will observe this sacrificing behavior and are drawn to it—in the end, emulating that behavior. I think serving as a model in the community sets the standard for everyone to aspire to. Even if people don’t reach it, they in their own way do their little acts—that’s really important. But then there are marketing issues in terms of publicizing. We cannot leave these matters just up to conscience. We’ve got to be the best in marketing what we’re trying to do and reaching out and engaging people. And there’s no formula for this. It all has to do with using the media to publicize what you’re doing—getting creative with press events and placement of issues in the media to draw attention. It has to do with developing a good volunteer program to get people engaged so they feel like, “Hey, I’m contributing—this is fun, this is a good thing.” It has to do with having inviting facilities and always projecting an image of integrity and professionalism. And it has to do with making strategic alliances with companies and schools in the community in order to draw more people in and to ground the programs more in the community.

It’s always seemed to be sort of a catch-22: We want so badly for the public to be going to their local shelter because community support is the thing that will most help the shelter improve, and yet people go to their local shelter and, in some communities, they see that the shelter’s still underfunded, understaffed, and, in their minds, underperforming—and they get turned off and they go away. It seems it’s a never-ending cycle of being encouraged and then put off. So how do we interrupt that to the point where that catch-22 is stopped?
Well, I think you’ve got to set the vision for a better circumstance. We’re all about making change—that is what we’re trying to accomplish. And to take something and build it from nothing—or build it from a state that is not the ideal—gives people such a good feeling that they had a hand in the construction of something. So, it’s about being clear to the public: “Hey, we’ve got a long way to go, but you’re the ones who can help us make this happen.” The shelter people alone and the animal advocates out there—the leaders in a community—cannot solve all these issues. We have to have other people engaged. It always has to be a collective exercise. It’s more a question of those people being leaders than being taskmasters with everything that needs to be done. And I think that drawing people into how they can help to make this situation better—there’s nothing better than making people feel they contributed. That’s the reward. That encourages more participation.

Wayne Pacelle and Grace
At a recent HSUS staff meeting, you told us you make it a point at the end of each day to ask yourself what you’ve done in the preceding hours to help animals—and challenged us to do the same. Your words have had an energizing effect on staff. Since you’ve managed to inspire a lot of people both within and outside the organization, we were wondering what in turn inspires you?
I get energized by the victories and by exposure for the issues. When I see an issue get out there and I think about how this idea has just washed across the city of Detroit or washed across the state of Pennsylvania, I think, “Wow, that is great.” That just enlivens me. And if there’s a victory, whether it’s one animal or 20 animals spayed and neutered today, or we get a law upgraded to make it a felony to engage in dogfighting, or if we have somebody turn to a vegetarian diet—whatever it is—that’s what nourishes me. That’s what energizes me. And I emphasize to anybody out there who gets frustrated: You’ve got to celebrate the victories. And they don’t have to be federal legislation. They can be the tiniest things, because that’s the great thing about this cause is that it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. Every little act that helps any animal is a 100-percent victory for that animal. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go; I’ve seen a lot of people burn out. And I’m not close to burning out. I see a lot of the bad stuff, and there’s a lot of energy that’s spent, and it can be depressing to see this terrible stuff going on, and it feels like it’s you against the world. But I also don’t dwell on that. I see it, I recognize that that needs to be overcome, but I focus on the victories.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing animal protectionists?
I think the biggest challenge for us is to get more people engaged. It’s not enough to get people to be aware. They have to be engaged—they have to make choices in their lives. They have to make choices in terms of companion animal care, and they have to make choices in the consumer realm. They have to make choices about their own participation in representative government at the local, state, and federal level. We’re only going to succeed if more people get involved, so we have to draw people in. We have to reach outside of our own skin and get to others.

Have you fashioned a plan for that yet?
We’re working on it. I think that you have to excite people. You have to give them something to hold onto. You have to inspire people in terms of a vision for change. So that’s what all of us are to do—whether it’s in the smallest community, the biggest city or state or the country—but I think that everybody has to recognize that it’s not just a personal kindhearted action. This is an important social cause, one of the most important social causes of the 21st century. Animals are at our mercy, and they need a merciful response from us. And the stamp of our society is how are we going to respond to this challenge? Are we going to be decent and civilized, or are we going to be selfish and thoughtless about it? I think it’s in most young people; a kinship toward animals is there. Custom and teaching can dull that sensitivity, and we need to fight to retain every child’s instinct to be kind and merciful toward animals.

How did that sentiment not get dulled in you? Did something happen that turned you into an advocate for animals? It just always seems that there are particular incidents in people’s lives that make them engage in the first place.
Yeah, a lot of people have epiphanies. I didn’t. It was just always there. When I was a little kid, I had it in me. And I think a lot of kids do. It’s like you see animals as peers: “Okay, there’s my friend; she happens to be Sally the cat, or he happens to be Pericles the dog.” (We named some of our dogs after Greek heroes—I am half-Greek.)

I looked at a lot of pictures of animals, too. I liked the animals who were around, and I wanted to see them in the real form, but I also had all the encyclopedias dog-eared to all the animal entries. So I could pick up “P” and go right to “polar bears.” I’d get National Geographic when I was a little kid, and I’d look and decide and see what animal stories there were—there was always one. Whether it was aardvarks or whatever it was, that was the first one I’d go to.

But I think that we’ve got a great group to market to. People love animals. They’re fascinating, they’re beautiful, they’re funny— there’s so much intriguing about them. And we just need to highlight that and then say, “Hey, they’re like us in a lot of ways.”

Even though our department’s primary focus is companion animals, we were so excited to hear that you are going to launch a major initiative on behalf of farm animals. It seems like it’s an issue that’s been shunted away for too long, and it’s also the toughest one to address.
Yeah, it’s tough because it requires personal action. It’s easy do something when it requires no sacrifice. So you’re asking people to change their customs and change their habits, and that’s never easy. You know, people know smoking’s bad, but a lot of people still do it because it’s tough to break the habit. And it just shows that behaviors get very deeply embedded in people, and it’s tough to change. So that’s threatening to people, and at the same time most people want to see farm animals decently treated because concern for animals and basic opposition to animal cruelty is a universal value. I mean, no one now says that you should be cruel to animals—they may try to dress it up in different ways—you know, “It’s my tradition” or “I’m not really being cruel.” So I think that’s an important point for us.

Is there a way that people involved with companion animal issues can help with farm animal causes?
Most humane people are not just fanciers of particular animals. They’re not just saying, “I’m doing this because I like this particular animal.” They have a decent, humane sort of approach to the world: “I’m for mercy” or “I’m for compassion.” And if you accept those principles, then it logically follows that you’d be concerned about animals on farms. It’s not just dogs and cats who suffer, but so do pigs and chickens. So I think it’s tough because we’re all part of this culture, and the culture says, “Do this, do this; this is the way that we view animals.” And we’re asking people to rearrange themselves to look at this whole situation in a different way. And that’s a challenge for a lot of folks, but I guess my recommendation on this to everybody is: Try to remove your biases for a moment and just think, Do these creatures feel pain? And can I do something to ameliorate their condition—whether by purchasing products that are not factory farm products or abstaining from eating animal products at all? It’s tough for a lot of folks. I’m a vegan, but it was a struggle initially for me to get there. It took me many years to do it—from the age of, say, 12 to 19. And the fact that I was still eating meat didn’t mean that I cared about animals any less; I really cared about them the whole time, it was a constant for me. It was just that I just thought about it more. And thinking precedes action. And I couldn’t deny that I cared about my dog and I cared about my cat and I care about this horse. Well, if I care about this cow and this pig who have the same sort of heartbeat and the same nerve endings—the same will to live, the same wants for affection—how could I continue to do what I was doing?

You talk about having to engage the larger culture and how we can’t do this alone. But some of the farm animal messages are the hardest for people to hear. How do you reach that broader spectrum without compromising the message?
Well, I think the HSUS Farm Animals Awareness Week is good. What we’re trying to do there is have people recognize that these animals are animals, they’re not units of production, they’re not farm animal machines. They want to roll around in the mud, they want to scratch in the backyard, and they want to gambol in the pasture.

So I think having them seen for what they are is important. I think the other aspect of this is having alternatives—making it easier for people. It’s hard if you don’t have options in your community. And it’s great to see a proliferation of foods that are easy to prepare, easy to purchase, good-tasting. All the mainstream stores have meat facsimiles. And so much of it is education, just being able to break your habits. You can have a fantastic diet without having animals in the mix, and you can have a fantastic diet with humanely raised products, too. And it’s just—it’s a habit issue. So I think people need to educate themselves. They need to go on the Web and look at the HSUS Farm Animals department. And they need to read Matthew Scully’s book Dominion, and they need to go watch Peacable Kingdom, a documentary about Farm Sanctuary. Those are all good things to do.


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