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Prop B, animal welfare and Michael Vick

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 15, 2011 - As the battle over Missouri's Prop B shows, being top dog at the Humane Society of the United States can lead you to become a political animal.

Not to mention forming an unlikely alliance with notorious dogfighter Michael Vick.

Wayne Pacelle, who has headed the nationwide animal welfare organization for seven years, reflected on those issues and more in a wide-ranging interview Wednesday before heading to the Ethical Society to read excerpts from his new book, "The Bond," which explores the deep relationship between humans and animals.

His visit came one day after Gov. Jay Nixon and others celebrated what some hailed as a good compromise on Proposition B, the initiative against puppy mills that was passed by Missouri voters last fall, then changed in the Legislature. The maneuvering highlighted a split between Pacelle's national organization and the Humane Society of Missouri, which backed the changes.

Pacelle welcomed increased money for enforcement against activities that inflict hardships on animals, but he reserved judgment until he sees what kinds of regulations are written to put the weakened protections in place. The whole saga of Proposition B, he added, shows how animal issues can stir deep emotions.

"The critics were really detached from the actual provisions of Prop B," he said. "They read things into it that did not exist, and they ran a campaign grounded on false information about Prop B, which had nothing to do with farm animals. Obviously there are broad social concerns about how all animals are treated, but Prop B didn't have anything one way or another to affect that larger debate. It was about dogs and dogs only."

He termed the campaign against the proposal -- and the subsequent activity in Jefferson City -- "part political ploy and part paranoia," comparing it to the debate back in 1997 over a proposal against cockfighting, where he said Missouri was the start of a Humane Society crusade that spread nationwide.

Slippery slope arguments, then and now, really have no relevance to the issues at hand, Pacelle said.

"If you're going to put all animal welfare issues on the ballot, when the actual provision before voters is a narrowly defined single subject, then we'll never get anywhere," he said. "We have to independently examine what's on the ballot and make a judgment about it. No single measure is going to settle the broader debate about how animals should be treated in society, but some of the critics wanted this to be a referendum on agriculture more broadly. That wasn't what was on the ballot.

"With enormous Republican majorities in both chambers, and rural leaders controlling both chambers, they sent up a flare right after the vote that they were going to seek a repeal of Proposition B and do their best to nullify the action of the voters, based solely on their own ideological differences, not any defect or problem with its implementation."

Disappointment in Jeff City

He also expressed disappointment with Nixon's take on the issue.

"We had hoped the governor would be a backstop to protect the will of the voters," Pacelle said, "and the votes were close enough in both the House and the Senate where he would have veto-proof majorities in both chambers. So we're very enthusiastic about more money for enforcement and an enhanced role for the attorney general in targeting bad actors, but none of that should be a substitute for having the solid core provisions of the law to protect dogs. It's not an either-or circumstance."

As a result of the Prop B experience, Pacelle has also pledged his group's support for efforts to make it harder to undo voter-approved initiatives in Missouri.

"Most states with the statutory initiative process don't allow a simple majority of lawmakers to overturn what the voters have approved," he said. "Of course, if the legislators had agreed with the initiative reforms, they would have done them themselves, so by definition, a majority of legislators are going to disagree with just about any initiative that is advanced by citizens.

"So we are going to back, along with a very large and broad political coalition, a measure to require that any amendment of citizens' initiatives have 75 percent support in each chamber of the legislature. That is consistent with provisions in many other states. I believe 78 percent of all bills that pass the House have 75 percent support, so it's not as if this is some impossibly high threshold. You just have to have a strong degree of bipartisan support to reach that threshold. You can't have a narrow majority of lawmakers subvert the vote of a million Missourians, as happened with Prop B."

Michael Vick, Animal Lover

Such public policy debates are one of four main objectives that Pacelle says the Humane Society is involved in, along with reform of corporate policies like cosmetic testing on animals and the use of fur in clothing; education and awareness, to help frame the debate over issues of animal welfare; and hands-on work, whether it's responding to disasters like the Joplin tornado or helping to combat activities like cockfighting or dogfighting.

The last initiative is how Pacelle found himself sitting down in the courtyard of Leavenworth penitentiary in May 2009, across from football star and convicted dogfighter Michael Vick, dressed in a prison jumpsuit. Pacelle had helped write the federal law that put Vick behind bars; now, Vick wanted help in rehabilitating his image.

Recalling the unusual request, Pacelle admitted having decidedly mixed feelings.

"My first response was no way," he said. "But after I hung up the phone, I had this nagging feeling this was a knee-jerk, non-strategic response, and I thought about two things. First, what are we about at the Humane Society? We're about change. We're about moving people to a better place, regarding their conduct toward animals. We don't just take the easy cases. We take the tough cases, and we want Michael Vick to be a better citizen just like we want people who operate puppy mills to join the responsible world of dog breeding.

"The second piece was that the biggest problem we face with dogfighting in America was urban-based dogfighting among young African-American men and boys, and I thought Vick could be an important ambassador for the anti-dogfighting cause and could steer kids away from this awful enterprise of staged animal fights."

Sitting across from Vick at the prison, Pacelle heard some interesting but not altogether surprising sentiments.

"The first thing he told me was how much he loves animals," he said, "which helped me clarify my own thinking about the bond between humans and animals, in some ways. Even people deeply involved in cruelty think they have some connection with animals. But they mistake their fascinating as an appreciation for the physical strength of the animals. It's a bond corrupted, and it was an important insight for me."

In later meetings, he insisted that if Vick were to get involved with the Humane Society, it would be more than putting his name on a press release or appearing at a few news conferences. It needed to be a more personal, more long-lasting commitment.

"I said we're too lily-white, and someone like him if he handled his charge with the proper level of responsibility, might result in some really great outcomes with these kids and prevent them from going down the dead-end road of dogfighting," Pacelle said. "I told him I needed him at least two to three years, at two events a month. He said he would do it the rest of his life."

More Protective Groups, More Cruelty

The seeming anomaly of a dogfighter saying how much he loves animals highlighted a key point in Pacelle's book -- how at the same time there are 10,000 organizations dedicated to animal welfare, and Americans spend $55 billion a year on 171 million dogs and cats, there is also an unprecedented level of inhumane activity that makes these groups not only popular but necessary.

"We live at an unbelievable moment in history," he said, "where we have more love and appreciation for animals than ever before, yet we also have widespread, systemic animal cruelty on a scale that's almost unimaginable. Frankly, sometimes it's within each of us that we have these contradictions. We have all this pet keeping, and we spend billions on veterinary care and grooming, but we also have 10,000 puppy mills and dogfighting occurring across the United States."

Pacelle himself became a vegetarian at age 19, and a vegan a month later, when he became upset at what he considered cruel conditions rampant on factory farms. Now, he says, 26 years later, "I'm really proud to work with farmers who honor the bond and treat their animals well during the rearing process."

But he doesn't insist that his organization's members have the same beliefs that he has.

"We're a big-tent organization," Pacelle said. "We are a comfortable home for people who are vegetarians and for inveterate carnivores. A vast majority of our members eat meat. The programs we conduct for the treatment of farm animals are predominantly focused on minimizing pain and distress that those animals experience during protection, transport and slaughter.

"We have encouraged consumers to purchase cage-free eggs rather than eggs from hens that are confined in small cages. We encourage veal producers to stop confining young male calves in crates that are barely larger than the animals themselves. We promote humane slaughter."

Hard Times, More Responsibility

It's all part of the bond that Pacelle's book examines and that he says is demonstrated time and again, even in an economic atmosphere where some families find it hard to put food on the table for themselves, much less their pets. In such conditions, he said, seeing people devote time and money to caring for their animals reinforces feelings he says are deeply inbred.

"People are not thinking of animals as an accoutrement but as members of the family," he said. "There has been a lot of dislocation as a result of the foreclosure crisis and other economic problems that people face, but you also have so many people become more alert to the needs of animals and living this bond with creatures in their daily lives.

"I don't talk about animal rights. I talk about human responsibility. It is really more about our conduct as this very unique, highly intelligent species than it is about any natural rights that animals have. We as a society have embraced the notion that cruelty to animals is wrong. We just need to apply that principle more logically in the real world.

"In our relationship with animals, we have all the power. We can do anything we want to them. We can crush them, kill them, eliminate an entire species from the planet. How we handle our power is a reflection of our humanity, and it's a test of our character."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.