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Humane Society CEO On Michael Vick, New Profile

by NPR Staff
Apr 9, 2011 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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The Bond by Wayne Pacelle Under Wayne Pacelle's leadership, the Humane Society has expanded its focus on factory-farm animals, including an investigation into a California meatpacking plant that spawned the largest beef recall in U.S. history.

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When quarterback Michael Vick met with Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society, in Fort Leavenworth Penitentiary in 2009, he told him something that a lot of people would have a hard time believing: He actually loves animals.

Vick was nearing the end of an 18-month sentence for dogfighting crimes, and Pacelle had been one of his most vocal critics. But through their relationship, Vick eventually (and controversially) became an advocate for animal welfare.

A Utility For The Animal Protection Cause

Pacelle acknowledges the difficulty of really seeing into someone's heart to know their underlying values — especially when they've engaged in something as terrible as dogfighting. But Pacelle says he hopes Vick can learn from his past.

"I think Michael has changed," Pacelle told Weekend Edition host Scott Simon. "And he was jolted by this public shaming by his time in jail."

In his new book Bond, Pacelle speaks to the connection he sees between humans and animals. Vick's bond with animals took a sinister turn, he says, and "fascination turned into exploitation rather than love."

Even if Vick's reasons for becoming involved with the Humane Society come from self-interest and a desire to attack his public perception as cruel and heartless, Pacelle sees the positive side of having such a powerful motivator for his actions to do better.

"There is a utility for the animal protection cause in having him out there speaking, especially in communities where we have not had a very strong voice," he says.

The Animal Tragedy Of Hurricane Katrina

In the days after Hurricane Katrina, Pacelle and most of the country were focused on the human tragedy unfolding in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, and lives were thrown into tumult.

"But the animal tragedy began to poke its head out of second-story windows, or they poke their head up when they're standing on top of a car in a flooded community," Pacelle says.

It was an important moment of understanding the human-animal bond, he explains; you can't properly respond to a disaster by only focusing on the human aspect. First responders would take only people, "but not someone's two German shepherds or their three cats," Pacelle says, so many pet owners stayed behind to the detriment of the disaster response.

Learning from the response to Katrina, the Humane Society eventually worked with 20 states to pass legislation to include pets in disaster planning.

The New Profile Of The Humane Society

Under Pacelle's tenure as the CEO and president of the Humane Society, the organization's public profile has increased from simply reminding pet owners to have their dogs and cats spayed and neutered, to a group involved in undercover investigations of slaughterhouses. Pacelle says the Humane Society has always had a broad view of human-caused cruelty, not just restricted to companion animals.

Though he says the group may have brought a greater level of urgency to its fight against agribusiness and its challenge of factory farming, Pacelle doesn't see its mission as extreme.

"I think we're a mainstream group, we're representing mainstream values, and we want to do something about cruelty when we see it," he says. "And we're going to use the full range of legal and accepted tools to get there."

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