#MakeLove — The Savviest Lobbyist

Published on July 12, 2016

After several meetings with Mr. Icahn, Mr. Pacelle decided to aim high. He asked Mr. Icahn for his help in changing the policy of McDonald’s, one of the world’s greatest brands. The Humane Society had already urged McDonald’s to adopt a more humane approach to the treatment of animals and had won some public support during a years long campaign. Still, as Mr. Pacelle writes in “The Humane Economy,” he suspected that the company “might need an extra kick in the pants that only [Carl Icahn] could deliver.”

Mr. Icahn got in touch with the head of McDonald’s “almost effortlessly,” Mr. Pacelle writes, and laid out the problem of pigs on commercial breeding farms being confined for years in crates that wouldn’t allow them to walk or turn around. They chewed the bars until their teeth cracked and banged their foreheads and snouts bloody.

Because of its size and reach, McDonald’s was in a position to influence the entire food industry. McDonald’s buys 15% of all pork bellies, “which means,” Mr. Pacelle writes, “it takes a piece of one in every seven pigs in the nation.” When McDonald’s agreed to get rid of crates, the effect surprised even Mr. Pacelle. In the three years after the announcement, “more than sixty major brands agreed to phase out purchasing pork from operations that confine sows so severely,” he writes. The biggest holdout was Wal-Mart, the world’s largest food seller. But in 2015 it yielded and directed its suppliers to commit themselves to broad goals in animal welfare. Faced with losing Wal-Mart as a customer, suppliers had to comply.

The Humane Society has a reputation for genteel concern for pets and horses. But the breakthrough at McDonald’s—copied by Burger King, Wendy’s, Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.—shows how out-of-date that perception has become since Mr. Pacelle took over in 2004.

Mr. Pacelle, 50, a Yale graduate, has energized the Humane Society by focusing on what is simple and achievable: preventing humans from abusing animals. In comparison with radical groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, his approach is more moderate. He has been a vegan for 30 years but doesn’t try to impose a no-meat regimen. Instead, he urges reduced consumption of meat and advises anyone who does eat animal products to choose those with labels such as “Animal Welfare Approved” or “Certified Humane.”

As one might expect, Mr. Pacelle has critics in the animal-welfare movement. Some activists believe that animals should not be owned as pets. Mr. Pacelle and his wife, Lisa, however, adopted a beagle that had been scheduled to be euthanized at a Virginia shelter. “Live as if all life matters,” he writes.

Over the past decade, the effort to protect and ameliorate the lives of animals has made unprecedented progress. Dogs adopted at PetSmart and Petco now come from shelters, not breeders’ “puppy mills.” Like pigs, hens have been freed from cages. Ringling Bros. is phasing out its traveling elephant acts. The use of hundreds of chimpanzees in medical tests has been halted at the National Institutes of Health. More than 600 cosmetics firms have ceased animal testing. SeaWorld has stopped breeding killer whales, making the current crop of 29 the last generation to live and perform there.

Mr. Pacelle and the Humane Society have been major players in most of these reforms. He negotiated the agreement with SeaWorld after former California Rep. John Campbell recommended SeaWorld CEO John Manby as a leader he could deal with. “Just as the circus will continue without elephants,” Mr. Pacelle writes, “so amusement parks and aquariums can survive without orcas.” He has intervened to protect wolves—only 5,000 or so survive in the lower 48 states—and insists that they aren’t a threat to humans: “Of America’s big predators, wolves have proved among the least menacing—with no documented fatal attacks by healthy wild wolves on people in the lower forty-eight states in the last century.”

Mr. Pacelle lives and works in Washington, D.C., and operates like a lobbyist whose clients are animals. But persuading corporate America is his main task. He doesn’t rely on the moral argument for the benign treatment of animals. He makes the case that it’s a “brand builder” that pleases consumers without increasing the cost of doing business.

Mr. Pacelle and his team are also savvy about state politics. The Humane Society backed anti-crate ballot initiatives that passed in Florida (2002), Arizona (2006) and California (2008). In 2014, BlackRock and Vanguard Financial started to get behind shareholder resolutions advising companies in the pork business of the risks of packing pigs in crates. It was not a coincidence that the Humane Society had talked to these investors. “We reminded them that pork companies reliant on crate confinement aren’t thinking ahead, and are putting themselves in a vulnerable position with their customer base by continuing to treat sows so inhumanely,” he writes.

“The Humane Economy” is a compelling book with a special message for corporate leaders. By embracing the values of animal welfare, Mr. Pacelle writes, “no CEO ever has to fret about getting a call out of the blue from a guy like Carl Icahn.”


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