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Sat April 9, 2011
Books

Humane Society CEO On Katrina, Michael Vick And More

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." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Scott Simon.

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

Mr. Vick was nearing the end of an 18-month sentence he was serving for dog-fighting crimes. And Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, had been one of Mr. Vick's most vocal critics.

The story of how Michael Vick actually became an advocate for animal welfare is one of the many chapters that Wayne Pacelle relates in his new book, "The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them."

Wayne Pacelle, who has been with the Humane Society for 17 years, joins us in our studios.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. WAYNE PACELLE (President/CEO, Humane Society of the United States): Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And inevitably, we have to talk about Michael Vick first. Did you believe him?

Mr. PACELLE: I think it is really difficult to get into a man's heart and figure out what his underlying values are, especially someone who did such terrible things to animals. But I think Michael has changed, and he was jolted by this public shaming, by his time in jail.

SIMON: I'm interested in what he told you - that, actually, I like animals. Because at first, reading the book - I mean, you said to him: Like animals? You drowns dogs in buckets. And yet at another level, you kind of understood what he was saying.

Mr. PACELLE: Absolutely. And you know, this is the issue of the title of the book, "The Bond." I have a view that all of us are connected to animals at some level. But dog fighters and cock fighters, they are really interested in these animals. They value the musculature of the animals, the agility, the toughness - what they call the gameness in the dog, putting him in the street. So Vick had all that. I mean, he was really interested in pit bulls. It just got corrupted somewhere along the line. And you know, fascination turned into exploitation rather than love.

SIMON: Before we go on to the rest of the book, a final question has to be raised about your relationship with Michael Vick. Are you using each other? You'd have - make a point, and for that matter, him, to kind of earn a credit back into respectful society.

Mr. PACELLE: I think that there is utility for the animal protection cause in having him out there speaking, especially in communities where we have not had a very strong voice - in urban communities with young, African-American males and boys.

In terms of Vick and his own relationship with me and the Humane Society of the United States, clearly he has a professional interest in redeeming himself. He needed to aggressively attack this perception that he was cruel and heartless. He's been doing it. Clearly, there's self-interest but sometimes, when you've got self-interest working in your favor, that's a very powerful and beneficial motivator.

SIMON: Want to get you to talk about your role during Hurricane Katrina. You talk about that at some length in the book. Help us understand that because I think that led to a change in a lot of evacuation procedures.

Mr. PACELLE: Well, it was really a, you know, terrible moment for our country to see what happened in the Southeast, in New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana -and Mississippi and Alabama. And of course, you know, it was a human tragedy on an enormous scale. I mean, more than a thousand people died; hundreds of thousands were displaced; and lives were really thrown into tumult. And of course, in the days after that crisis, our focus was on the human tragedy.

But the animal tragedy began to poke its head, you know, out of second-story windows, or they poked their head up when they were standing on top of a car in a flooded community. And it was a seminal moment in our understanding of the human-animal bond, that you could not have a proper response to an afflicted community by just focusing on the people.

When the first responders would only take the people but not someone's two German shepherds or their three cats, so many people stayed behind. And it undermined the effectiveness of the response. And we worked to get about 20 states to pass legislation to include pets in disaster planning. We got the Congress to do the same. And we've worked on preparedness in communities that are at risk for natural disasters.

SIMON: It's sometimes asserted that under your stewardship, the Humane Society has a new kind of profile, a level of aggressiveness. It's gone from being an organization that says love your animals and get them spayed and neutered, to a group that has undercover investigations, and is often bringing up videos of practices in slaughterhouses and on whaling boats, and that sort of thing.

Did that develop, or did you decide there was a need to mix it up a little?

Mr. PACELLE: Well, I think that the Humane Society has always had a broad view of human-caused cruelty, and never restricted its concern just to dogs and cats, or other companion animals. I think what I may have done, in bringing on other outstanding people to work with the organization, is that weve brought a great level of urgency to our fight, and that weve brought a real strategic sense and a real attitude of winning. And if that requires our taking on agribusiness and challenging factory farming - which is, you know, an enormous industry and has a very big lobby behind it - then we're going to be prepared to do that.

I mean we are going to call cruelty by its name. But I dont think that aggressiveness is a synonym for extreme. I think we are a mainstream group; we are representing mainstream sensibilities and values, and we want to do something about cruelty when we see it. And we're going to use the full range of legal and accepted tools to get there.

SIMON: Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. His new book, The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them.

Thanks so much.

Mr. PACELLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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