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Festival of Books: Humane Society's Wayne Pacelle on our complex relationship with animals

May 2, 2011 |  7:30 am

Pacelle
Some of us treat dogs and cats like members of the family but eat eggs from chickens that live in square inches of space. That moral contradiction is at the heart of Wayne Pacelle's book "The Bond: Our Kinship With Animals, Our Call to Defend Them." Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, talked with L.A. Times editorial writer Carla Hall at the Festival of Books on Sunday.

Pacelle spoke about the powerful bonds we have with animals as well as the "normalized cruelty" they experience. His kinship with animals started early -- about the age of 2 -- and has continued throughout his life, including his conversion to veganism in college.

"I knew they were different," he said of his early impressions of animals, "but in good ways; I thought they were fascinating and wonderful and beautiful."

In his work with the Humane Society, Pacelle has brought about about legislation and policies regarding the treatment of animals. In his years with the society, he has seen his share of uplifting moments with animals as well as travesties, many of which he documented in the book. That juxtaposition is what Pacelle continues to  confront; he'd like to see a world in which our moral values sync up with animals as much as they do people.

"The problem is a confounding one," he said, "because we have inconsistent values when it comes to caring for animals. We do have all sorts of normalized cruelty," such as factory farms, where animals are often kept in horrible conditions and killed with cruel methods.

"We've got a lot of institutionalized uses of animals," he added, "and I think we're still grappling with these issues. I wrote the book to highlight the inconsistencies."

Some people, he noted, love steak but don't want to think about where it comes from and how it gets to their plate. But Pacelle would like people to think about it -- to consider avoiding  foods such as foie gras, for instance, because of the way the geese are force fed to create this product.

"For us, it's a gustatory preference..." he said, "but it means everything to the animal."

Though Pacelle noted that dealing with the multibillion-dollar agriculture business is frustrating ("They're going to fight to keep things going," he said), he's optimistic that change will happen, just as it will in the health and medical realm, where animals are still being used for testing many things -- cosmetics as well as cancer drugs.

Although acknowledging that this is another challenging moral issue, he added that he'd like to see the government and medical institutions placing more emphasis on finding alternatives to animal testing.

Pacelle, whose audience seemed overwhelmingly made up of animal lovers (there were even a couple of dogs), said he didn't always agree with the sometimes-strict methods that some animal rescue and adoption agencies use to screen potential owners.

"Some of them are too strict," he said. "Screening is important, but you should not have to jump through hoops" to adopt an animal. "Otherwise people are going to go elsewhere." Yet he championed the adoption of animals, particularly mixed-breed dogs, from shelters. "When you do that, you help relieve the problem by housing a homeless animal."

Pacelle also touched on his relationship with Michael Vick,the NFL player who was sent to prison for dog fighting. Pacelle says he's hopeful that Vick is a changed man and continues discussions with him about spreading the word, especially to the African American community, about the evils of dog fighting.

"All of our values push us in the direction to be merciful and decent to others," he said, "and to be merciful and decent to animals."

-- Jeannine  Stein  

Photo: Wayne Pacelle at the Festival of Books, May 1, 2011. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

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