The Humane Society and Big Ag slug it out over animal rights

Around lunchtime on February 5 in Vale, South Dakota, a 33-year-old cattle rancher finished a morning of blogging, then stepped outside with a bottle of wine and a video camera.

“Hello, my name is Troy Hadrick. I’m a fifth-generation United States rancher in South Dakota,” he ad-libbed. “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.” Hadrick said he couldn’t support such a company. “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 cocked the bottle, flicked his wrist and sent the contents pouring to the snow-covered earth like a stream of piss.

“I hope you will do the same. Thank you for supporting American agriculture and the family farmers and ranchers in this country.”

Five minutes later, with his 54-second “Yellow Tail Fail” clip posted to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, Hadrick finished his chores and headed with his family to the Black Hills Stock Show & Rodeo. Back online that night, he was shocked by the viewing stats for his first Internet video.

First it was 500. Then several thousand. The tally kept climbing. Within two weeks, the Australia-based wine giant announced that it was rescinding the remainder of its $300,000 pledge to the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society.

A week later, Tennessee-based Pilot Travel Centers announced that it would stop collecting Humane Society donations at its rest stops. Then Dallas-based Mary Kay cosmetics 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 represented a tipping point in a battle that has seen food producers playing defense for nearly a decade — farmers vs. activists, agriculture vs. animal rights.

On one side are corporation- and family-owned farms that raise 10 billion animals a year, 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 of all animals, from dogs and cats to seals and whales to hens and cattle.

The nonprofit had a mild-mannered reputation until about a decade ago, when its president and chief executive officer, Wayne Pacelle, launched an “End Factory Farming” campaign to wipe out the practice of lifelong livestock confinement in densely packed or restrictive crates and cages.

Rather than protesting or pulling stunts like those of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Humane Society has favored a political route. One strategy has been “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 strategy is more direct: Ask American voters if, in Pacelle’s words, “animals built to move should be allowed to move.”

Pacelle got the first so-called factory-farm law passed in Florida eight years ago via a ballot initiative. He has since chalked up wins in six additional states, and last year lawmakers introduced copycat legislation in four more states.

For a long time, the ag industry didn’t seem to see a way to fight back. But within the past year, through social media, influence peddling and, most recently, pre-emptive political maneuvering, farmers big and small have begun to circle the wagons to protect their livelihoods.

The continuing battle raises questions: 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 that 1999 marked the first time he spoke with Pacelle about legislation to target confinement hog farming. Hall, the director of agriculture policy for the Florida Farm Bureau, says Pacelle wanted help passing a law. Hall recalls the Humane Society’s then-chief lobbyist explaining that if the Humane Society’s efforts at the state capitol failed, 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.”

The Humane Society was mobilizing to turn back an industrial tide that had been rising for more than 60 years. Since World War II, agriculture in the United States had become less diversified and increasingly consolidated into ever-larger corporations.

“Agriculture” had turned into “agribusiness,” notes Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and author of 1975’s seminal Animal Liberation.

As Singer writes, old-school animal husbandry gradually gave way to higher-tech operations. Livestock that previously foraged for feed was warehoused in concentrated animal-feeding operations, or CAFOs, where food delivery was mechanized and regulated.

The system was efficient. It lowered costs and virtually guaranteed that every porterhouse on every American plate would look and taste the same.

To do this, a few twists of nature had been necessary. Livestock had to be bred more quickly and slaughtered sooner. Traits such as aggressiveness had to be selectively bred out so animals would reside calmly in a cage or crate or on a paved feedlot.

It’s only relatively recently that the perceived horrors of the “factory farm” began to catch popular attention. Best-selling reports such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and the Oscar-nominated 2008 documentary Food Inc. all cast livestock confinement in a negative light and sounded alarms for human health, by showing how CAFOs and the antibiotic-laced diets that are required to keep livestock healthy in crowded environments may be contributing to the spread of virulent new superbugs.

The Humane Society believed a nation that had lost touch with its food supply was primed for an intervention.

The nonprofit’s agenda is straightforward, as demonstrated by the stripped-down wording of its ballot initiatives: Animals are entitled to a place to “stand up, lie down and turn around freely, and fully extend all limbs.”

Florida was 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 predominantly on the urban coasts, far from farmlands.

On November 5, 2002, a state constitutional amendment banning crates for pregnant sows passed with 55 percent of the vote. (The apparatus doesn’t permit the occupant to turn more than its head.)

According to the farm bureau’s Hall, the new law affected only 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 that 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.)


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, 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.”

“The pressure and the importance of the issue has been ratcheted up in each state since,” he says.

In February 2008, a slaughterhouse in Southern California shut down following an undercover “investigation” by a Humane Society worker. The staffer had videotaped workers dragging “downer” cattle — animals too ill or injured to stand — and forcing them onto the kill line with electrical prods, chains and forklifts.

State prosecutors 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.

Meanwhile, the Humane Society was gearing up for its biggest anti-factory-farming showdown.

California is the fifth-largest egg producer in the United States. 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 on the November 2008 ballot, when voters flocked 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 a Bel-Air gala that netted more than $1 million to finance the campaign.

Californians for Safe Food, the opposition, collected its campaign funds primarily from the egg industry.

Prime-time ads bombarded viewers. The “Yes for Prop 2!” campaign showed pigs gnawing at metal crates, veal calves struggling to stand while tethered to their pens, and chickens fighting for space to flap their wings. Californians for Safe Food countered with warnings that food prices would rise, eggs would be trucked in from Mexico, and food safety would be compromised.

The Humane Society swayed 63.5 percent of the voters. bills itself as a Humane Society watchdog. Its main weapon: David Martosko’s blog, which competes with Pacelle’s.

Pacelle points out his Yale University degree, Martosko his Dartmouth College bona fides. Pacelle sports an image of himself cradling his cat. (Though technically he and his ex now share the cat in a “joint custody arrangement.”) Martosko is depicted getting kissed by a dog. (It’s unclear whose dog; when asked, he becomes visibly irritated and refuses to comment.)

Their offices are eight blocks away from each other on Washington, D.C.’s infamous K Street.

Pacelle and Martosko have never met, but they shared 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” — if Pacelle would eat it in front of “a few dozen cameras.”

Martosko knew that Pacelle wouldn’t bite. Pacelle has been a vegan since 1985, when he founded Yale’s first animal-rights group after seeing hog farms with a college buddy from Iowa and mulling over how humans exert control over animals in ways that contradict animals’ natures.

Pacelle, 44, may have experienced the spectrum of human-animal interactions, gliding across ice floes with baby seals and being threatened by bear hunters. Widely acknowledged as a “gifted communicator,” he keeps his speech measured.


After 10 years as a lobbyist for the Humane Society, Pacelle became its head in 2004. For decades, the group had focused primarily on issues such as 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 those wearing fur or protesting 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 (he declined a request to meet at work), the 39-year-old Martosko details his own youth in the “Drew Carey suburbs” of Cleveland, his opera studies at Dartmouth, and a current paycheck that he says he’s “contractually obligated not to disclose” but which doesn’t afford him fancy stuff like foie gras. (He has never tried it.)

Martosko is husky, his delivery breathless and buoyant. He’s an opposition researcher for Carl 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.

Martosko 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 humans do not have dominion over animals. As sentient beings, animals deserve freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition; from pain, injury and disease; and from fear and distress. And they deserve the freedom to express normal behavior.

So is that animal welfare or is it animal rights?

According to Peter Singer, “animal rights” is a catchall for Americans because, he says, “They imbibe their Bill of Rights with their mother’s milk.” In reality, the Australian philosopher explains, that descriptor is “too absolutist.”

The distinction between welfare and rights is important to people like Pacelle and Martosko, for whom message means everything.

Pacelle eschews the “rights” terminology.

Martosko, however, is convinced that Pacelle is an animal-agriculture “abolitionist” who wishes veganism upon everyone.

Martosko is in demand among commodity groups to teach the industry that “it’s not enough just to tell the truth about yourself. You also have to tell the truth about your opponent.”

Using blog posts, bus-stop billboards and full-page ads in The New York Times and USA Today, aims to be the go-to resource for that effort, not by offering a defense of industrial food production but by launching a frontal attack on the Humane Society.

Martosko’s favorite nugget is polling data showing that 59 percent of Americans believe the Humane Society contributes most of its funds to shelters which help dogs and cats. Not so, Martosko says, pointing to IRS records showing that less than 1 percent of the group’s expenses go to “hands-on dog and cat sheltering.”

Pacelle counters with a laundry list of Humane Society programs dealing directly or indirectly with sheltering and pets.

As for the “absurd” notion that he’s out to abolish livestock production, Pacelle is dismissive. “We are an organization with 11 million supporters, and David Martosko gets his money from a handful of animal-abuse companies, and he won’t disclose who they are. … He’s a paid gun.”


In New Florence, Missouri (population 735), a farmer is gearing up for his spring lambing season, solidifying plans to sell his product at farmers markets — and fretting that the state is next on the Humane Society’s war map.

“Taking up this profession, you have to fight the weather, you have to fight disease, you have to fight so much,” says Dave Hillebrand. “You shouldn’t have to worry about the next piece of legislation coming down the pike.”

The Humane Society is seeking a November ballot measure in Missouri to outlaw puppy mills. The state’s ag industry fears that the group will tackle farming and ranching next, and the Missouri House of Representatives has issued a pre-emptive strike: It passed a proposed constitutional amendment to ban anyone from seeking a ballot measure concerning crops or livestock if it is not “based upon generally accepted scientific principles.”

Hillebrand, though, is no industrial farmer. His 700 sheep feed on fescue and perennial rye, sea salt and kelp. His operation involves no confinement. Hillebrand’s flock has more than 160 acres to mow.

Yet he, too, is scared that broadly written laws formulated by outsiders could mandate practices that are cost-prohibitive and go against the grain of animal husbandry. “If they dictate to me how to treat my animals,” says the sheep man, “I’ll pull the plug.”

His fellow small-scale farmers around the nation agree.

“The food system in this country quite frankly sucks in every way possible, starting with food-safety issues, the whole nine yards,” observes Iowa Farmers Union President Chris Petersen, who pasture-raises hogs on the Iowa-Minnesota border.

But, he notes, politics is a delicate art. “Let me give you an example. Bobby Kennedy Jr., who I am the best of friends with — I can call him on his cell phone! — he came to Iowa in 2002 and stepped in it real bad when he said CAFOs are a bigger threat to Americans than Osama bin Laden. It was a year before we recovered from that!”

His point is that activists need to engage all kinds of farmers when trying to cut deals and to remember the cardinal rule in politics: The locals know best.

Another example: The Humane Society basically ignored the people who were “doing things the right way” in Ohio.

In February 2009, the Humane Society asked the Ohio Farm Bureau to help craft an anti-confinement law and shepherd it through the state Legislature. The nonprofit didn’t invite the Ohio Farmers Union to the table, neither to weigh in nor help broker a compromise when the talks broke down.

“Mr. Pacelle basically said, ‘This is what we’re going to do. You can help us or fight us,'” says Farm Bureau spokesman Joe Cornely.

The state’s commodity groups decided that they weren’t going to play ball. Instead, with the Farm Bureau’s help, they launched their own campaign to create the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board, a politically appointed regulatory group with full authority over animal-welfare issues.

The measure passed handily last November, and the tactic is now being copied in at least nine other states.

It’s a development that many animal-welfare advocates find troubling.

“The problem is that some of the language in these bills calls for including ‘generally accepted farm-management practices’ — and that includes confinement farming. So they want to codify that as an accepted standard,” says Marcia Kramer, legislative director of the Chicago-based National Anti-Vivisection Society, an animal-advocacy group. “It would make it harder to change later on or to bring suits against a particular farm that was excessively harming animals.”


Advocates of fair trade decry the populist tactics.

“The Humane Society is dividing people and making our jobs a lot harder,” says Tim Gibbons, communications director for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. “They’re causing the industry to say, ‘You’re either for us or you’re for the Humane Society.’ And that’s not the truth.”

Gibbons says the D.C. group has put independent farmers, many of whom oppose confinement, between a rock and a hard place. To support the Humane Society would be to incur the wrath of “Big Ag” in their state and potentially endanger their businesses, Gibbons asserts. But endorsing livestock boards could subject the small farmers to costly, burdensome regulations favored by Big Ag — and similarly endanger their livelihood.

“You don’t have to be either-or,” Gibbons insists. “There is another position out there, and that’s having independent family farmers raising livestock ethically on open, competitive markets. It’s good for a state and for farmers and our national security and, for a whole multitude of reasons, it’s good for the economy.”

Over the past year and a half, Troy Hadrick says, he and his wife, Stacy, have been to both coasts and up and down the nation’s midsection, speaking to meat cutters, veterinarians and farmers of all stripes.

It’s a mild March night on the campus of North Dakota State University in Fargo. In their “Real Enemies of Agriculture” talk, the Hadricks spend 90 minutes showing the ag crowd the face of the opposition and equipping audience members with an arsenal for defense.

Troy runs down a roster of activist groups — PETA (“They say slavery was as bad as livestock handling”), the Humane Society (“Don’t tell me they’re not a vegan organization! Look at the recipe section on their Web site”), the Animal Liberation Front (“These are the guys that blow up professors’ houses”) — before Stacy names the ag community’s worst enemy: “Sorry, guys. No offense to anyone here in the room, but it’s you and me.”

The couple launched its motivational-speaking business, Advocates for Ag, four years ago. The premise is simple: With modern food production under attack, somebody needed to school farmers and ranchers in public relations.

The Hadricks came to this vocation after an extended conversation with one influential person.

Back in 2001, their neighbor heard from a journalist friend looking to learn about modern cattle ranching. Before long the New York Times Magazine writer was set up with Stacy’s father and uncle, who own and operate Blair Ranch, on which the extended family lives.

The reporter decided to buy a steer from the Blairs but have them take care of it as they would their own. This way, he could follow the typical beef cow from birth to slaughter and gain an understanding of the business’ slim profit margins.

The animal — “No. 534” as the ranchers referred to it — spent its first six months on the grassy ranch in Vale before getting trucked to a crowded Kansas feedlot, where over the next eight months, it fattened to 1,200 pounds on a diet of corn and antibiotics.

Then it was off to the slaughterhouse to be stunned to death and processed.

“The opportunity to put beef on the front page of The New York Times — wow!” Troy recalls. “We wanted to do the best possible job that we could.”

But the morning the article appeared in the Sunday magazine, the ranchers felt that they’d made a huge mistake by showing how the proverbial sausage gets made. “It sent shock waves through the entire beef industry,” Troy explains to the Fargo audience. “Cash prices dropped. Futures dropped. Packing plants and feed yards worried about protests. And every single person who read that article had their perception of reality shifted in the wrong direction.”


Troy recounts how he was called a “rotten, horrible, disgraceful human being” and told that he’d rot in hell.

He was a 25-year-old ranch hand at the time, taking care of “No. 534” and corresponding regularly with that now-famous scribe: Michael Pollan.

Adding insult to injury, Troy says, are Pollan’s hugely successful Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was derived from that Sunday-magazine article, his appearances on national television programs such as The Oprah Winfrey Show, and his lucrative speaking gigs across America. (Pollan commands $20,000 a speech; the Hadricks get $2,000 to $3,000.)

Perhaps worst of all was the floating of Pollan’s name in the mainstream press as a potential U.S. agriculture secretary. “He’s not an expert,” Troy sums up for the Fargo crowd. “You are. And you’ve got to get out and tell your story so some journalism professor at UC–Berkeley” — that would be Pollan — “doesn’t do it for you.”

Through an assistant, Pollan declined to be interviewed for this article.

Stacy works a 9-to-5 job at the state ag department’s extension office. She’s also studying for a master’s degree and keeps house with three kids. Troy toils on his blog, where he runs down press on everything from poverty to activist outrage at the “sport” known as donkey basketball.

Advocates for Ag urges farmers and ranchers to take every opportunity — at state fairs, meat counters, ride lines at Disney World — to tell consumers one-on-one about the animal care and science that go into producing cheap meat. That way, when the curtain goes up on a movie like Food Inc., viewers will have heard the other side from the horse’s mouth.

“Just because you’re a big farm doesn’t mean you don’t care about your animals,” Troy says.

Call it the Colorado compromise.

In early 2007, Pacelle ran into Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and announced his intention to go for the jugular in Ritter’s state. Ritter persuaded Pacelle to meet with farmers instead. After the first tête-à-tête, at a Colorado steakhouse, it was clear that a negotiator would be needed.

Enter Bernard Rollin, a professor of philosophy and animal science at Colorado State University.

Rollin wrote the first ethics textbook for veterinarians and was an architect of a federal law enforcing certain standards for animals used in research labs. A New York Jew who settled in Colorado 40 years ago, he’s a weightlifting enthusiast who owns three motorcycles and flips the bird at helmet laws.

When it comes to livestock, Rollin has credibility with the independents and with the industry.

Ask Rollin whose side he’s on, and the response is easy: “I’m in it for the animals.”

He traces his approach back to an ancient, biblical social contract of animal husbandry, suggesting that those who are good to animals will have animals that are productive for them. In Rollin’s view, science and technology have no place in the discussion.

“Just because I own my own motorcycle doesn’t mean I can ride on the sidewalk at a hundred miles an hour or throw wheelies on Main Street. The line we hear all the time is, ‘I own those animals. I can do whatever I goddamn please.’ That’s not true — particularly not now.”

Societal mores are changing, Rollin notes, and in response, some food corporations are beginning to stipulate that livestock be raised a certain way. Smithfield, a hog packer, has a long-term plan to phase out gestation crates on all its corporate-owned and subcontractor-operated farms. Burger King and Wal-Mart are buying more cage-free eggs.


Companies can either change on their own, he says, “or get legislated by people who don’t necessarily understand the issues.”

With Rollin playing referee, Colorado’s pork producers won a few concessions from Pacelle: 10 years to phase out the pig crates, for one, and a loophole that allows sows to stay semi-crated until “confirmed” pregnant, which can take a month. The Humane Society also agreed not to push the battery-cage issue, leaving the egg industry unaffected.

For now, anyway.

In California, the Humane Society returned to the state capitol last year, pushing a ban on another industrial practice that it finds abhorrent. This time, the dairy industry was the target.

And the politicking was successful. In October, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law banning “tail docking,” the amputation of a milk cow’s tail, which is commonly performed without anesthetic. Some dairy producers believe that tail docking improves hygiene, udder health and the quality of the milk produced, though scientific research has not borne out those theories and the American Veterinary Medical Association opposes the practice.

In Michigan, after the Humane Society told the state’s agriculture industry last summer that it wanted changes there, large-scale egg and pork producers took a page out of Ohio’s playbook and attempted to put a livestock-standards board in place. But state legislators wouldn’t approve it, so the industry switched strategies and took a cue from Colorado, brokering a phaseout of crates and cages.

Now, eyes are back on Ohio. It’s the nation’s second-largest egg producer and ranks ninth in hog production.

The Humane Society is now collecting signatures for a state constitutional amendment that would require the Ohio livestock board to enforce anti-confinement standards for hogs, veal calves and egg-laying hens. The amendment would also outlaw the dragging around of downer cows and require all sick farm animals to be “humanely euthanized.” If it passes, the industry would have to meet all standards by 2016.

The Farm Bureau’s Joe Cornely says it’s a good sign that neither gubernatorial candidate supports the Humane Society’s campaign.

But Pacelle says he’s more confident than ever. “We are pro-farmer. And we’re pro-animal. And we don’t see any incompatibility between those two positions.”

According to ag-industry vet Wes Jamison, an associate professor of communication at Palm Beach Atlantic University, the campaign will come down not to facts but to messaging.

“Animal agriculture has either tried to argue science, or economics, or food security. They’ve done everything but the moral argument for what they do with animals. And if they can’t make the moral case, they will lose in the long run.”

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