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Dogged, or just a fanatic for animals?

The new president of the national Humane Society defends himself as a mainstream 'reformist' against critics who label him doctrinaire.

August 14, 2004|Don Oldenburg | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The new watchdog of the animal kingdom has critics fretting. They warn that behind his John Kennedy Jr. good looks, gentle manner and boyish charm is a teeth-baring dogmatist whose hidden agenda is a scary brand of doctrinaire animal rights that for mainstream Americans would make "humane" feel like the food chain turned upside down.

Strong accusations. Wayne Pacelle, new president of the Humane Society of the United States, just grins. "They all go wild on me," he says, adding that he has even received death threats. "My ex-boss

Pacelle vows to be "more aggressive" in pursuing the HSUS' goals -- stopping mistreatment of livestock, decreasing the use of animals in research, protecting wildlife and fostering responsible pet care -- but says he's a "reformist" and "not an abolitionist."

He's the guardian angel of animals, he says, not a misanthrope out to liberate all beasts at all costs.

What is it about Pacelle that has critics so astir?

At the HSUS building in downtown Washington, Pacelle's corner office is streaming with sunlight. Dressed in a crisp teal suit, he looks more like a 38-year-old corporate Turk than a rabble-rousing activist. On his organized desk are pulpy cockfighting magazines arranged like the courtroom evidence they might become if Pacelle has his way.

"Look at it -- 112 pages! Ads for fighting birds!" says Pacelle, disgusted as he pages through Gamecock Magazine, one of three national monthly publications of the largely underground business.

A champion killer bird graces the cover. Most pages are advertising -- breeders and dealers nationwide selling "game birds" ("$1,500 a trio") and accessories such as razor-sharp gaffs that strap to their legs, and drugs that thicken the blood to delay the birds' bleeding to death.

Cockfighting is the kind of brazen animal abuse that ranks high on Pacelle's to-do list.

"Most people think that cockfighting and dogfighting are relics of past times," he says. But cockfighting is still legal in Louisiana and New Mexico, and Pacelle estimates that there are more than 100,000 cockfighters and tens of thousands of dogfighters in this country. "This is a barbaric and inhumane activity, and these people need to get a new hobby."

In recent weeks, he has traveled to Louisiana to fight the hog-dog rodeo, where people set blood-lusting pit bulls loose on defenseless hogs. In Maine, he stoked support for a ballot initiative to ban bear-baiting -- hunters piling huge mounds of cow parts, jelly doughnuts and other food to attract bears, then shooting them from behind as they pig out, a practice that kills about 4,000 bears annually. In Denver, he campaigned for a ballot initiative that would have banned all use of wild animals in circuses and other entertainment. The initiative was defeated by about a 2-to-1 margin Tuesday.

And he ruffled feathers in December in editorials castigating Vice President Dick Cheney for participating in "canned" pheasant and duck-hunting events, where hundreds of farm-raised birds are released and hunters shoot them. "It's pathetic," says Pacelle. "It's live target practice."

That's the kind of "aberrant animal cruelty" Pacelle is trying to stamp out. "Most Americans, if they viewed it objectively, would think that this is a repugnant activity that violates basic humane standards."

Pacelle remembers from age 3 having deep empathy for animals.

"I had this basic sentiment that it was wrong to pick on the less powerful -- even if they had four legs or two wings," he says.

His mother, Pat, attests to that: "From the time he was born almost, that was his dream -- the animals."

Pacelle, who grew up in New Haven, Conn., watched all the TV nature shows and relentlessly read encyclopedia articles about animals. He could repeat nearly verbatim information about any species, says his older brother, Richard Pacelle Jr., a political science professor at Georgia Southern University.

Pacelle's father, Dick, was one of the winningest high school football coaches in Connecticut. Pat was a secretary for an uncle's construction business. Wayne was the youngest of four children. Like 65 million American families today, they had pets. But memories of his childhood dogs haunt Pacelle.

Brandy, the Labrador-golden retriever, was chained in the backyard. "It was a regular thing back then, but I always was a little uncomfortable about it," he says. And Pacelle figured out years later that Randi, his quirky West Highland white terrier, came from the Midwestern puppy mills he now rants about. "There are millions of healthy, adoptable dogs in shelters that are fine dogs," he says. "And shelters end up killing dogs because our society fails to provide homes to them and people fail to sterilize their animals properly."

A history and environmental studies major at Yale, he decided his sophomore year to go vegetarian. "It started to get into my consciousness that a pig feels pain just as the dog feels pain," he says.

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