Yes, the Humane Society of the United States is still trying to stop animal shelters from putting discarded pets to sleep. But the group has turned much of its attention in another direction industrialized agriculture. A Humane Society-backed proposition to require more humane treatment of farm animals is before California voters on Election Day. TIME talked to Wayne Pacelle, the group's president, about his differences with PETA, why everyone doesn't have to go vegetarian (at least not yet), and the trauma of being an undercover slaughter house investigator.
What does humane treatment of farm animals mean?
Veal calves, breeding pigs and laying hens are confined in cages and crates barely larger than their bodies. We believe that is fundamentally inhumane and cruel. Prop 2 stipulates that these specific farm animals should have the opportunity to stand up, lie down, turn around, and freely extend their limbs.
Do you expect some farmers to go out of business if this proposition passes?
Prop 2 gives farmers six years to transition to more humane methods. I don't think one farmer who is competent is going to go out of business because of Prop 2. The farmers who are unable to adapt will go out of business. Those who adapt and understand the needs of consumers will thrive.
There are people in the animal rights movement worried that if Prop 2 passes, it will condone the practice of factory farming. How do you react?
Social change occurs on an incremental pathway. For those who want to see more people adopt a vegetarian diet and not have animals slaughtered for food at all I do believe that this discussion about Prop 2 builds important awareness about our responsibilities to animals.
Is your ultimate goal to get everyone eat vegetarian?
These animals can't wait for some vegetarian nirvana to occur. They need help right now and the Humane Society of the United States is focused on alleviating their suffering.
But do you see this as a first step toward universal vegetarianism?
No, I don't really. I don't. We're a pluralistic society and we have pluralism when it comes to food as well. But there must be a minimum set of standards that prevent egregious cruelty from being meted out on animals raised for meat.
When did you first become a vegan?
I was 19.
Were you vegetarian first or did you go all in with veganism?
Basically, I went all in. But I don't have any illusions that that's where the majority of people in America are. I'm an exceedingly pragmatic person.
What do you think about PETA's methods?
There's a pretty wide difference between the Humane Society and PETA in terms of tactics and tone and perhaps even some philosophy. But I give PETA credit for moving the needle on a number of matters, including animal testing. We feel like we're positioned exactly where we want to be in the mainstream of American society.
Do you think either of the presidential candidates would make a
difference on animal issues?
The Humane Society of the U.S. is rigidly non-partisan. I do hold a position with the Humane Society Legislative Fund, which is a separate organization with a separate board of directors. I think our biggest concern at the legislative fund is Sarah Palin's very hostile record toward animal protection. She was the leader in Alaska of a program that promoted aerial gunning of wolves and bears and that has really raised alarm bells with us.
Last year, a Humane Society undercover investigation of at a California meat packing plant led to the largest beef recall in U.S. history. (Cows too sick to stand were hoisted to slaughter on fork lifts, among other abuses.) Do you worry about the psychological impact of that undercover work?
We have professional investigators. It takes a special person to be able to witness and document abuse and not be emotionally traumatized by it. I do worry about post traumatic stress disorder with our investigators because they see the worst things that humans do to other creatures.
After Prop 2 in California, what's next on your agenda?
We're out to eliminate cock fighting and dog fighting. We are trying to stop the Canadian seal hunts and other large-scale commercial killing of marine mammals. We are trying to shut down canned hunts, where people shoot animals in fenced enclosures for a fee and a guaranteed kill arrangement. We are working toward eliminating euthanasia of dogs and cats in shelters and animal control agencies.
Our mission is simple in terms of kindness to animals, but our charge is vast. Unfortunately, we don't see any end to human-caused cruelty to animals.