Down on the Farm

The Humane Society and big agriculture slug it out over animal rights.

Around lunch hour in Vale, South Dakota, on February 5, a 33-year-old cattle rancher finished a morning of blogging, then stepped outside with a bottle of wine and a Flip video camera."Hello, my name is Troy Hadrick. I'm a fifth-generation United States rancher in South Dakota," the man ad-libbed to the camera while standing amid a small clutch of cattle. "I recently found out that Yellow Tail wines is going to be donating $100,000 to the wealthiest animal-rights organization in the world, the Humane Society of the United States — a group who is actively trying to put farmers and ranchers out of business in this country. That being said, I cannot and will not support a company who is doing such a thing. This is the only thing I know to do now with this last bottle of Yellow Tail wine that was in our house."In his cowboy hat and Carhartt jacket, Hadrick paused to cock the bottle of white at shoulder height, flick his wrist and send the contents pouring to the snow-covered earth like a stream of piss."I hope you will do the same," he concluded. "Thank you for supporting American agriculture and the family farmers and ranchers in this country."Five minutes later, his 54-second "Yellow Tail Is Now Fail" clip posted to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, Hadrick finished his chores and skedaddled with his family to the Black Hills Stock Show & Rodeo. Back online that night, he was shocked at the viewing stats for his maiden voyage on Internet video.First it was 500. Then several thousand. The tally kept climbing until, as Jim Klinker, the Arizona Farm Bureau's chief administrative officer, terms it, "Yellow Tail done turned its tail and run!"Within two weeks the Australia-based wine giant announced it was rescinding the remainder of its $300,000 pledge to the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society.The frustration shared by Hadrick and others had been bottled up for some time, but not in recent memory had a Humane Society donor buckled under such public pressure. Only a week later, Tennessee-based Pilot Travel Centers announced it would stop collecting Humane Society donations at its chain of roadway rest stops. Then the Dallas-based Mary Kay cosmetics company publicly clarified that a personal donation by an employee's wife to the Humane Society had been misconstrued by the group as a corporate sponsorship.Hadrick's social-media sensation seemed to represent a tipping point in a battle that has had modern food producers playing defense for nearly a decade. It's farmers vs. activists. Agriculture vs. animal rights.On one side: a phalanx of corporation- and family-owned farms that operate on large economies of scale, raising 10 billion animals a year and producing an affordable food supply for hundreds of millions of people around the world.On the opposite side: the Humane Society, founded in 1954 as a protector for all animals, from dogs and cats to seals and whales to hens and cattle.Never known for radical tendencies, the nonprofit had a mild-mannered reputation when it came to farm animals until its president and chief executive officer Wayne Pacelle grabbed the bull by its horns about a decade ago and launched an "End Factory Farming" campaign to wipe out the practice of lifelong livestock confinement in densely packed or restrictive crates and cages. Under Pacelle's direction there have been no protests, no threats to human life or other such fur-flinging, none of the shock and awe that has earned notoriety for other animal-rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).Instead the Humane Society has favored a more political route. One strategy has been that of "shareholder activism": purchasing minority stakes in publicly traded businesses such as Steak 'n Shake, then pressuring management to alter its buying practices.But the group's primary m.o. is even more direct: Ask American voters whether, in Pacelle's words, "animals built to move should be allowed to move."Pacelle (pronounced puh-cell-ee), who got the first so-called factory farm law passed in Florida eight years ago via a ballot initiative, has since chalked up wins in six additional states. Others are taking note: Last year lawmakers in four more states introduced copycat legislation. Groups like the National Rifle Association have been using the political system for decades with a lot of success, observes Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and author of the seminal Animal Liberation, published in 1975. "I think the Humane Society finally thought: We're as big as them in terms of public support; why don't we use some of that political clout?" The state-by-state offensive is considered far more winnable than getting a law passed through congressional agriculture committees or a regulation adopted by the United States Department of Agriculture. "[That agency is] concerned primarily with food safety," Marcia Kramer, legislative director of the Chicago-based animal-advocacy group National Anti-Vivisection Society, says of the USDA. "It's easier to convince a voting population that this should be changed than a committee and an industry whose livelihood depends on producing as much as fast as they can and for the least possible cost." For a long time, the ag industry didn't seem to see a way to slap away the Humane Society's whip hand. But within the past year, through social media, influence peddling and, most recently, preemptive political maneuvering, farmers big and small have begun to circle the wagons to protect their livelihood.In Ohio last year, for instance, commodity groups organized to pass a ballot measure instituting a politically appointed board with regulatory authority over all farm-animal welfare issues. The tactic was a direct response to the Humane Society's announcement that it intended to make Ohio its next battleground.  This year lawmakers in at least nine other states are considering adopting similar boards. (Washington isn't among them.)It won't be possible for the Humane Society to win over the entire nation via its current tactic, because 26 U.S. states don't permit ballot initiatives. As the nonprofit continues to strategize, Pacelle is tight-lipped on details. "It's like chess," he says. "You have to see what the other guy does before you make your move."As the battle goes on, the question remains: Who should decide what we put on our plates? Politicians? The 2 million farmers and ranchers who produce the food? Or the 307 million Americans who buy it?Frankie Hall figures 1999 marked the first time he and Wayne Pacelle came to the table about legislation to target confinement hog farming. As the Florida Farm Bureau's director of agriculture policy tells it, Pacelle wanted help passing a law at the state capitol. If that were to fail, Hall recalls the Humane Society's then-chief lobbyist explaining, the group would seek a vote of the people."They got body-slammed in the legislature," Hall recounts. "But they were very patient. They knew exactly what they was going to do one way or another. Wayne is sharp as a tack — that's one thing about him. He ain't no dummy."The Humane Society was mobilizing to turn back an industrial tide that had been rising for more than 60 years. Ever since World War II, agriculture in the U.S. had been decreasingly diversified and increasingly consolidated into ever-larger corporations.As Singer writes in Animal Liberation, "agriculture" had turned into "agribusiness."Old-school animal husbandry gradually gave way to higher-tech operations. Livestock that previously foraged for feed were warehoused inside concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, where food delivery was mechanized and regulated (and manure amassed through the floor).The system was efficient in more ways than one. It allowed for few variables, lowering costs and virtually guaranteeing that every porterhouse on every American plate could be counted upon to look and taste pretty much the same.But to make the animals as productive as possible in the modern environment, a few twists of nature were necessary. For one, livestock had to be bred more quickly and slaughtered sooner. Traits like aggressiveness had to be selectively bred out so animals would reside calmly in a cage or crate or on a paved feedlot. It's a system that was initially trumpeted for democratizing what previously had been a luxury — and then largely ignored.Only relatively recently have the perceived horrors of the "factory farm" begun to percolate through popular parlance. Best-selling reportage such as Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma, written by Michael Pollan, not to mention the 2009 Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc. — all cast livestock confinement in a negative light and sounded alarm bells for human health by showing how CAFOs and the antibiotic-laced diets required to keep livestock healthy in crowded environments may be contributing to the spread of virulent new superbugs.In the view of the Humane Society, a nation that had lost touch with its food supply was primed for an intervention.As the stripped-down wording of the public referenda demonstrate, the nonprofit's current agenda is straightforward: Animals are entitled to a place to "stand up, lie down and turn around freely, and fully extend all limbs."Florida made for an attractive guinea pig.Ranking 33rd in hog production, the state lacked an obvious deep-pocketed opponent for the Humane Society's "End Factory Farming" campaign. Moreover, its population centers are stacked predominantly on the urban coasts, far from farmlands.On November 5, 2002, a state constitutional amendment passed with 55 percent of the vote, banning crates for pregnant sows. (The apparatus doesn't permit the occupant to turn more than its head.)According to the farm bureau's Hall, the new law only affected one farm and 3,000 hogs.Four years later that farmer had abandoned the pork trade for the peanut business. The Campaign for Arizona Farmers and Ranchers reckoned he was the perfect spokesman for its "Hogwash!" commercials opposing Proposition 204, the Humane Society's second attempted ballot measure. This time the animal-welfare group sought to criminalize crates for pregnant pigs and calves raised for veal. (The latter, prized for their pale white flesh, typically are tethered at the neck to fencing that prevents them from acquiring any red muscle mass.) For its TV ads, the Humane Society tapped no less a lightning rod than Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, often described as "the toughest sheriff in America."Arizona was home to zero veal production. It was the nation's 28th-ranked hog producer. On November 7, 2006, the ballot measure passed by a wider margin than Florida's: a 62 percent majority.By all accounts (even those of the opponents) the Humane Society's political strategy was brilliant. Rather than march straight into Illinois — the biggest pork-producing state that allows ballot measures — the group had gone for what Mace Thornton, spokesman for the D.C.-based American Farm Bureau, calls the "low-hanging fruit."While the farm bureau certainly was paying attention, Thornton adds, the Humane Society wasn't really considered a force to be reckoned with until after Arizona. "The pressure and the importance of the issue has been ratcheted up in each state since," he says.Case in point: California.In February 2008 a slaughterhouse in Southern California shut its doors following a six-week undercover "investigation" by a Humane Society worker. The staffer had witnessed workers dragging "downer" cattle — animals too ill or injured to stand — and forcing them onto the kill line with electrical prods, chains and forklifts, surreptitiously recording the activity on video.The "revolting" footage, says Pacelle, "made me want to vomit."The Humane Society presented the video to state prosecutors, who issued criminal animal-cruelty charges against some of the plant employees. Because downer cattle are considered potential transmitters of E. coli and mad cow disease, the revelation also led to the largest beef recall in U.S. history It would have been a public-relations coup for any animal-rights group, not to mention one gearing up for its biggest anti-factory-farming showdown yet.California is the United States' fifth-largest egg producer, and this time the Humane Society aimed to outlaw not only pig and veal crates, but also "battery cages" — tightly packed pens used in industrial egg production. The initiative was certified for the November '08 ballot, a day when voters would flock to the polls to pick the next U.S. president.Russell Simmons, Alicia Silverstone, Hilary Duff, Robert Redford and other A-listers lent their celebrity to the cause. Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi hosted countered with warnings that food prices would rise, eggs would be trucked in from Mexico and food safety would be compromised.By election day the two sides had spent about $10 million apiece.The Humane Society swayed 63.5 percent of the voters.As Arizona had learned, you can't begin to fit 50 years of animal science on a bumper sticker or a 30-second spot, says the Arizona Farm Bureau's Jim Klinker. "All the other side had to say was, 'The pig can't turn around. The pig can't turn around.' Their side is so easy to sell to an urbanized public. [People] just don't think that's fair for the pig."The Humane Society has not been especially active in our state so far. However, the Washington State Farm Bureau, which represents family farmers, did receive pressure from HSUS last year to overhaul egg production. No compromises have been reached. Foie gras has been the bigger flashpoint locally. But those protests have been led by the Northwest Animal Rights Network, which has conducted demonstrations outside of Capitol Hill restaurants Lark and Quinn's Pub, trying to get them to remove the dish from the menu. Production of foie gras involves overfeeding geese and ducks so that their livers become bloated and abnormally fatty. Legislation to outlaw it was proposed in the state legislature several years ago, but got nowhere. 

Fewer than eight blocks of D.C.'s infamous K Street separate the Humane Society and HumaneWatch.org, each home to a 21st-century town crier broadcasting his message far beyond the Beltway via the blogosphere.The substance of the messages is literally poles apart — HumaneWatch.org bills itself as the watchdog of the Humane Society — but to the analytical eye, the parallels between each blogger's desire to earn credibility with his audience are strikingly similar.One points out his Yale University degree, the other his Dartmouth College bona fides. One sports an image of himself cradling his cat. (Though technically he and his ex now share the cat in a "joint custody arrangement.") The other is depicted getting kissed by a dog. (It's unclear whose dog; when asked he becomes visibly irritated and refuses to comment.)Pacelle (the former) and HumaneWatch's David Martosko (the latter) may author their own blogs, but behind each cyber-outpost is a well-oiled political apparatus. And in their writings and talking points, the men keep tabs on one another like hawks.Pacelle and Martosko have never met. But they did share the same air three years ago during a congressional hearing on animal welfare. In testimony that day, Martosko offered to treat Pacelle to a meal of the most humanely raised veal "on the planet" — under one condition: Pacelle would have to eat it in front of "a few dozen cameras."Martosko knew Pacelle wouldn't bite. He's a vegan.Has been since 1985, when he founded Yale's first animal-rights group after seeing hog farms with a college buddy from Iowa and mulling over man's authority to exert power over animals in a way that contradicted the latter's nature."The sentiment was strong from the beginning, from the age of three or four," Pacelle explains during an interview in the Humane Society's headquarters. "But there was no epiphany. No moment where I shot a bird and saw the last gasp of the animal as I walked up to him or her."At 44, Pacelle is lean and long-limbed, with the facial architecture of a cover boy: dark complexion, a thick, slate-hued mane and a smile that seems to sparkle. He may have experienced an entire spectrum of human-animal interactions, from gliding across ice floes with baby seals to being threatened by bear hunters, but he's not exactly a spirited storyteller. Universally described as a "gifted communicator," his speech is measured, his diction precise."When he was younger, he was concerned about animal issues, but he wasn't out there saying, 'We have to do something radical or violent,'" observes Singer, the Princeton University bioethicist. "I don't think he's dispassionate. I think he realizes that to be politically active you have to be calm and take the long-term view."After 10 years as its lobbyist, Pacelle became head of the Humane Society in 2004. For decades the group had focused primarily on issues like fur trapping, cockfighting and hunting. His pitch for the top job, he says, centered on "curbing the most serious abuses in the field of industrialized agriculture" by using the political system.For some activists, spray-painting fur wearers or protesting a biomedical company in the buff might have come easier than scaling the rungs of bureaucracy. But the hardball approach seems to fit Pacelle's temperament. "My father was a high school football coach, and I was a competitive tennis player," he explains. "I'm a sore loser. To hear Martosko tell it, Pacelle draws his sword for the money — $228,981 in 2008, according to IRS records — and the opportunity to "manhandle companies. In an interview at the Starbucks below his office, having declined a request to meet at work, the 39-year-old Martosko details his own youth in the "Drew Carey suburbs" of Cleveland, opera studies at Dartmouth and a current paycheck that he is "contractually obligated not to disclose," but one he says doesn't afford him fancy stuff like foie gras. (He has never tried it.)Martosko is husky, though not Drew Carey-size, his delivery breathless and buoyant. He is an opposition researcher for Richard Berman, a controversial lobbyist whose firm manages the Center for Consumer Freedom, whose funders come from the food and restaurant industries, though Berman declines to identify them.CCF hatched the HumaneWatch.org website in late 2008 but let it lie dormant until February of this year, just as the Humane Society's 2010 legislative push got under way. The site is becoming a clearinghouse for social-media uprisings against the Humane Society, all of which Martosko catalogues in catchy, snarky prose. He says the animal-rights movement reminds him of a religion. "'Every animal is a person, and every person is an animal, and we're no better than they are,'" he mimics. "That's their creed. I don't agree with it, but I find it fascinating to watch how they live out their faith."The prevailing sentiment among activists and scholars is that man does not have dominion over animals. As sentient beings, they deserve freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition; from pain, injury and disease; from fear and distress; and the freedom to express normal behavior.So: Is that animal welfare, or is it animal rights? According to Peter Singer, "animal rights" is a convenient catchall for Americans, because, he says, "They imbibe their Bill of Rights with their mother's milk." In reality, explains the Australian philosopher, that descriptor is "too absolutist." Realistic progress for animals, Singer says, can only be "incremental."Frivolous though it may seem, the distinction between welfare and rights is important to people like Pacelle and Martosko, for whom message means everything. Pacelle eschews the "rights" terminology. Which makes Martosko detect a conspiracy.He believes Pacelle is intentionally softening his rhetoric in order to disguise his belief that animals have the moral right to not be eaten. Pacelle, he is convinced, is an animal-agriculture "abolitionist" who wishes veganism upon everyone. The rhetoric resonates: Martosko is in demand among commodity groups around the nation to teach the industrial lot that "it's not enough just to tell the truth about yourself. You also have to tell the truth about your opponent."Via blog posts, bus-stop billboards and

 
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