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“The sentiment was strong from the beginning, from the age of 3 or 4,” Pacelle explains during an interview in the Humane Society’s headquarters. “But there was no epiphany. No moment when 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 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 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, that doesn’t afford him fancy stuff such as 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 (CCF), 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 catalogs 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 Singer, “animal rights” is a convenient catchall for Americans because “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 full-page ads in The New York Times and USA Today, HumaneWatch.org 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 so far consists of recent telephone-polling data showing that 59 percent of the 1,008 Americans queried believe the Humane Society contributes most of its funds to shelters that help dogs and cats. Not so, says Martosko, pointing to IRS records showing that less than 1 percent of the group’s expenses go to “hands-on dog and cat sheltering.”