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The Sunday Conversation: Wayne Pacelle

The Humane Society CEO talks about his new book and says the U.S. is just beginning a social reform movement for animals.

March 13, 2011|By Irene Lacher, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, with a dog named Ivy in Seattle.
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States,… (Kevin P. Casey / For The Times )

Wayne Pacelle, the president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, discusses his call for a new humane economy in his book, "The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them," being published April 5.

You wrote that 35 years ago, there were only 65 million pets in this country. Now there are nearly triple that at 170 million dogs and cats, but there are only 50% more humans. What accounts for that?

Americans have a love affair with dogs and cats, and they're becoming part of the fabric of our culture.


FOR THE RECORD:
Wayne Pacelle: The March 13 Sunday Conversation with Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, gave the release date for his book "The Bond" as April 1. Pacelle's book will be out April 5. Also, the article quoted Pacelle as saying, "People used to think animals were operating by instinct and mindlessly pursuing mood and mating opportunities." Pacelle said "food," not "mood." —

There's much greater awareness of animals and animal issues. People used to think animals were operating by instinct and mindlessly pursuing food and mating opportunities. We are learning more about animals' cognitive and emotional capacity, and it is making us more alert to their amazing personalities. One could also say that as we've become a more urbanized society, we still want to stay in touch with nature.

We lived in nature when we were hunters and gatherers; we brought animals into our lives through domestication beginning 15,000 years ago. If you look back at the 19th century, it was when we began to live in urban environments that pet-keeping began to develop in our culture. It represents a connection to animals and nature in the broadest sense. You can also look at the information overload that we have in society and the frenetic pace of our lives and animals provide an antidote to that.

You also wrote that we've had an industrial mind set with regard to the use of animals, particularly in the past 200 years. Doesn't that utilitarian approach to animals go much further back?

Yes. Clearly we have used animals throughout human history. There was a bond that was in evidence, whether it was in hunting animals, rituals of atonement, a deep understanding of animals and their behavior. In the industrial era, we began to turn animals into commodities and we lost the connection we had. Especially with the development of factory farming in the last 50 years, there's a real separation, and the animal has been turned into a meat-, milk- and egg-producing machine. We subject them to extreme confinement and other practices that lead to suffering on a scale that we've never seen in human history.

The rise of the humane movement just after the Civil War in the United States and just a few decades earlier in the United Kingdom reflected an emerging awareness about animals' capacities and qualities, but it was also a response to crisis: that the situation had become so bad for animals, with horses being beaten in the streets or wildlife being liquidated whether it was a passenger pigeon or American bison, that there was a sense that we must begin to place a limit on our behavior.

As somebody who loves animals, how do you deal with having to think so much about cruelty to them?

As president of the Humane Society of the United States, I see more evidence of cruelty than just about anyone. We have departments for farm animals, animal testing and research, and wildlife and equine protection. It's very difficult to grapple with so much cruelty that is caused by human hands. At the same time my coping mechanism is to focus on so many of the people who care. We're at a very unusual moment in history, when we have more harm and exploitation of animals than ever before, but we also have more people dedicated to fighting that abuse and righting these wrongs than ever before.

What accounts for that contradiction?

We're still in the early stages of developing this social reform movement for animals, and we've had to deal with a lot of problems that afflict the human community. We had to deal with the issue of slavery and other basic problems in human-to-human dealings before we could get to the question of what our responsibilities are to animals. The first group was formed in 1866, and I don't think it's an accident that it was one year after slavery was ended.

I'd like to ask you about Michael Vick [the football quarterback who was imprisoned for participating in a dog-fighting ring]. How do you instill compassion in someone who doesn't have it, and do you think he really is a changed man?

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