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20 posts from May 2009

May 29, 2009

The HSUS Strategy for Success

When you are the largest and most accomplished organization in the animal protection movement, it’s logical that you’ll be feared by groups or corporations that stand in the way of progress. They typically don’t argue on the merits of the issues, but instead try to divert attention and reframe the debate. That’s the case with their rejoinders to The HSUS, which is the object of sustained attacks, caricatures, and mischaracterizations by people who inhabit the domains of cockfighting, puppy mills, horse slaughter, trophy hunting, trapping, fur fashion, animal agribusiness, commercial whaling, and other animal exploitation industries. Survey the leadership of any of these economic interests, ask them which group they fear most, and you’ll get these four letters: HSUS. If you doubt that, simply read their blogs or trade publications, and the conclusion is inescapable.

Puppy carried by HSUS staff
© The HSUS
Our work confronting cruelty is unmatched.

They’d ignore us if they thought we were naïve or silly. But the fact is, they fear us because we are effective, we drive public opinion, and we won’t accept their adherence to their present conduct or economic formulas.

While The HSUS may not have always been viewed over the decades as the most influential group in our field, there’s little doubt about our preeminent status now. In the last five years, we’ve combined our operations with other groups or created sister organizations (e.g., The Fund for Animals, Doris Day Animal League, Humane Society Legislative Fund, Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association), added or expanded internal capabilities (e.g., Animal Protection Litigation, Campaigns, Investigations, Equine Protection, Field Services, and Emergency Services), nearly doubled in size, aimed for the mainstream of American thought, and brought a must-win attitude to the fight. We think America, and the world, needs a hard-hitting, highly effective force for animal protection, and that’s exactly what we are.

As counter-maneuvers to our offensives against animal abuse, our opponents try to set up a straw man caricature of The HSUS and then knock it down. Take the case of the public interest hackers at the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), a front group for corporations that cause widespread animal abuse, jeopardize public health, and harm the environment. CCF says The HSUS gets donations by saying it runs or funds the nation’s animal shelters, and even apparently got a local television station to take the bait and regurgitate its viewpoint (the station subsequently took down the piece after we detailed its reckless disregard for the truth).

If anyone reads my daily blog, looks at our website, reads our magazines, or scans our email and direct mail letters, you’ll find no claims that we run America’s 3,500 animal shelters, or serve as a granting agency for them—or that any one organization serves this function. Their accusation is a fiction. In fact, I launched this blog two years ago in order to inform people about the depth and breadth of our programs in public policy and enforcement, corporate reforms, education and awareness building, and hands-on care and services for animals (we provided direct-care services to more than 70,000 animals last year). Yes, we do help shelters in myriad ways, and are tremendous advocates for them, but we do much more than that, because someone has to challenge cruelty in other arenas, and especially at the national and international level. And you, our supporters, know exactly what The HSUS does and what we stand for.

CCF and other opponents would love it if we just gave money to shelters. That way, the corporations that fund CCF would have much clearer sailing in conducting their animal exploitation activities. So CCF’s straw man construction is not only a deceit, but also their fondest desire. Right now, we’re their worst nightmare, and we are not going away.

Yellow tabby kitten at shelter
© The HSUS/Petros
Promoting adoption is one of many priorities.

In the United States, there are 3.7 million dogs and cats euthanized at public and private shelters every year—at least 3 million of them thought to be healthy or treatable and suitable for adoption. That’s a tragedy, and we as a nation must do better when it comes to caring for our companion animals. The HSUS is conducting major national campaigns against puppy mills and dogfighting as part of the answer. We’re launching, with the Ad Council and Maddie’s Fund, a multi-million dollar Shelter Pet Project in July to drive shelter adoptions with the goal of ending euthanasia. We’ve also launched our “After Katrina Project” in the Gulf Coast to drive spaying and neutering, with the hope that the execution of a research-driven, professional marketing effort can move the needle on this problem, succeed in achieving widespread sterilization of dogs and cats, and then allow us to export this plan to other parts of the country. It is our firm ambition and plan to drive euthanasia rates of healthy and treatable animals to levels approaching zero.

And while we are putting significant resources into the fight to eliminate the euthanasia of millions of dogs and cats, and joining our friends at Maddie’s Fund and others in this battle, it would be a terrible dereliction of duty if we did not address the other problems of animals in society. There are 10 billion animals raised for food, principally on factory farms, in America every year—and that’s nearly 30 million a day. There are tens of millions of animals used in laboratory experiments. More than 100 million killed for sport. Tens of millions killed in the fur trade, and tens of millions killed worldwide in cockfights and dogfights.

In addition to criticisms from industry groups, there are individuals who fall within the broad boundaries of the animal protection movement who would like us to spend all of our resources on their favored issue, or gripe because we do not hew to their orthodoxy. But I’m afraid they often miss the bigger picture, and our interest in reaching mainstream Americans. We have to be there for as many animals as we can, and use our finite resources in a highly strategic way to achieve the biggest impacts.

We concentrate, in terms of our offensives against human-caused cruelty, on several major areas: factory farming, animal fighting and cruelty, puppy mills and pet overpopulation, horse slaughter and other equine abuses, seal killing and the fur trade, captive hunts and other hunting abuses, and the trade in wild animals and their parts. And increasingly, we do it not just in the United States, but also abroad.

Take a look at our accomplishments, some of which from the last four years are enumerated here. Overlay it against the other groups in our field, or look at it compared to the past progress for animal protection. You’ll see unmatched achievement and unparalleled progress, and you'll see why your HSUS is the subject of attacks.

So I say to the industry critics, it’s time for you to address these problems, and start adjusting to the evolving ethos in American culture. You’ll get ahead through innovation and adaption, not stubborn adherence to custom or current business operations. And to the single issue folks within our movement, good for you for caring about your favored issues, since animals need all of the advocates and focused attention they can get. But The HSUS must work to fulfill its broader mission, and we won’t criticize others for not working on all of the other issues that we must attend to and cover.

While we help many thousands of animals in distress, our primary strategy is to strike at the root of the problem, rather than to address the symptoms. Whether it’s in the field, in the courts, in legislatures, in influencing public opinion, conducting undercover investigations, or by some other lawful and mainstream means, there’s no group that is a greater agent of change or brings the arsenal of tools we do to the fight for animals.

Again, I encourage you to take a look at our record of achievement in just the last four years.

May 28, 2009

Our Very Own SWAT Unit

Katrina was a wake-up call to The HSUS and to the rest of the animal protection movement that we had to amp up our disaster response capabilities. From that point forward, I thought we needed a capability to respond not only to natural disasters, but also human-caused crises, such as puppy mills, hoarders, or animal fighting operations.

Last year, under the direction of Emergency Services director Scotlund Haisley, we had more than 40 deployments—one every nine days. And the pace is just as brisk this year.

Puppies were among nearly 400 dogs rescued from a Kennewick, Wash. puppy mill
© The HSUS
Newborns at the Washington puppy mill.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about our intervention in Nebraska to save 200 starving horses, with nearly half of the horses going to our Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch. During this last week, we've had two more.

Yesterday we helped to rescue nearly 400 American Eskimo dogs from a puppy mill in Washington state, where the dogs had been living in deplorable conditions, confined to shopping carts and rusty cages caked with waste. And last week we assisted in the seizure of 374 neglected animals—dogs, horses, exotic birds, rabbits and more—from a ranch in Wisconsin, resulting in criminal animal cruelty charges being filed against the property owner.

In addition to strengthening our disaster response capacity, we've been expanding our presence in the states. We now have staff in 33 states, and we plan on covering every state as soon as resources allow.

Our state directors give us a leg up in learning of crisis situations and then allowing us to coordinate with local law enforcement agencies and local and national animal welfare groups. Many of these operations—as was the case with the Wisconsin raid and with a recent puppy mill bust in Arkansas—are set into motion with investigative work by HSUS staff in the respective states after receiving tips from concerned community members.

There's no group like The HSUS, with the range of tools and resources we have. And one great measure of our work are the tens of thousands of little lives spared from misery and cruelty due to our interventions. Last year alone, The HSUS provided hands-on care to more than 70,000 animals, whether they were rescued from floods or fires, abusive puppy mills or animal fighting operations, spayed and neutered through our programs, or provided medical care through our sanctuaries or rural veterinary programs.

If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to familiarize yourself with the HSUS regional staff nearest you.

May 27, 2009

Turning the Page for Farm Animals

The HSUS doesn’t have the luxury of focusing exclusively on any one issue. We put a stake in the ground on most of the major forms of widespread or institutionalized cruelty—in the U.S. and increasingly abroad.

Since its beginnings in the 1950s, The HSUS has always taken aim at farm animal abuses. The only difference now is our sense of urgency, since confinement, transport, and slaughter systems have become needlessly harsh and because the number of animals raised for food is so staggeringly large.

If the howls from leaders within the big agribusiness sector are solid indicators, we are making some meaningful progress. And never more so than in 2008, when we broke our Hallmark/Westland slaughter plant investigation and also led the charge to pass Proposition 2 in California.

Last week, Wendy’s agreed to start purchasing a modest but meaningful portion of eggs from cage-free producers. And this morning, one of our staff members spoke at a McDonald’s shareholder meeting urging the company to align itself with other fast-food giants and begin to phase in the use of cage-free eggs at its American outlets, or even to mirror its action in Europe, where McDonald’s has already agreed to switch to 100 percent cage-free whole eggs by next year.

Yesterday, we had major votes on farm animal welfare issues in California—and with great results, thanks in part to the political message sent by the landslide passage of Prop 2. The California Senate, by a vote of 27-12, approved a bill to ban the painful mutilation procedure of tail docking of dairy cattle—and that’s especially significant because California is the largest dairy state in the nation, with 1.8 million of the nation’s 9 million dairy cows. And the California Assembly passed A.B. 1437, a bill to ban the sale of eggs from battery cage operations, for both humane and health reasons.

Both bills have a ways to go, needing approval by the other legislative chamber and then the governor, but these are exciting advances.

The Face on Your Plate by Jeffrey Masson/The Inner World of Farm Animals by Amy Hatkoff

There’s also an uptick in publishing on food and farm animal issues, and I’ve just read two books on the subject. The first, "The Face on Your Plate," is by Jeffrey Masson, author of a number of books on the emotional lives of animals. Masson lays out the case against industrial animal agriculture methodically, focusing chapters on the global environmental costs of meat consumption; the emotional capacities of animals raised for food and the cruelty imposed upon them throughout their lives; the disturbing business of fish farming as a source of cruelty and environmental despoliation; the psychological mechanisms by which we shield ourselves from the reality of animal suffering; and his personal experience with what he calls a “veganish” diet.

I found Masson’s chapter on denial most provocative, drawing as it does on his training as a psychoanalyst. Having created a stir in the psychoanalytic community some years ago with his criticisms of Sigmund and Anna Freud, he is no stranger to provocation. When it comes to farm animals, he believes, the range of empathy on the part of the general public is still quite narrow, and he is blunt about the self-deluding practices that many consumers engage in when it comes to thinking about animal welfare and diet. Masson argues his case with passion and intelligence, and "The Face on Your Plate" is an important contribution to a growing body of work on farm animals.

The second work, Amy Hatkoff’s "The Inner World of Farm Animals," focuses on the social, emotional, and intellectual capacities of farm animals, and I provided an afterword for it. I read this fine work in draft form while in the midst of the Prop 2 campaign in California, and I was glad to have before me such a compelling case for improved treatment of farm animals during that crucial time.

Hatkoff’s book is aimed at young audiences, and, drawing on the latest scientific evidence available, it really fills a niche. In chapters devoted to chickens; geese, ducks and turkeys; cows; and pigs, sheep and goats, the author intersperses general accounts with charming vignettes of individual animals.

These books, and all of the other activity on farm animal issues, are markers of a national movement to re-examine where our food comes from, to assess the economic and non-economic costs of industrial animal agriculture, and imagine ways of doing better. As individuals, we must be conscious consumers, and we can do our part to educate ourselves, to influence corporate practices, and to influence policy. When millions of HSUS members take collective action like that, there can be no other outcome except forward movement for farm animals.

May 26, 2009

Driving Dolphins to Despair

The HSUS and our international affiliate, Humane Society International, engineered the European Parliament’s May 5 vote to ban the trade in seal fur, and it’s a serious blow against Canada’s annual seal hunt. But half a world away from Newfoundland’s blood-stained ice, another sickening slaughter of marine wildlife plays out along the coastline of Japan.

Fishermen corral dolphins for slaughter in Taiji, Japan
© savejapandolphins.org
Fishermen corral and slaughter dolphins annually in Taiji.

Each year at the picture postcard village of Taiji in southwestern Honshu, large pods of dolphins are driven from the ocean by a line of power boats. They are “herded” into a tiny cove and trapped in shallow waters. As the terrified animals thrash in fear and frenzy, hunters tear into them with blades. Some die slowly owing to injuries and loss of blood. Some drown. Others are literally butchered to death after being dragged ashore for processing.

Not all of the animals are killed, however. Hunts are attended by trainers from aquariums, marine-themed amusement parks, and swim-with-dolphin attractions who pay up to $200,000 for “show quality” females.

With the annual massacre of up to 2,300 coastal dolphins—as well as some 1,000 great whales killed in the southern and northern Pacific oceans and up to 18,000 Dall’s porpoises slaughtered in Japan's offshore waters—Japan is responsible for the world’s biggest massacre of cetaceans. Thousands of magnificent oceanic animals transformed into cellophane-wrapped packages of prime cuts on supermarket shelves, or ground up for pet food and fertilizer.

Campaigning by HSI and other animal welfare and conservation groups has made the world well aware that Japan’s continuing insistence on killing whales for “scientific research” is a thinly veiled charade for a commercial operation that is heavily subsidized by the government.

Not so well documented is their annual high seas slaughter of Dall’s porpoises.

Smaller than their dolphin cousins, the porpoises are easily caught with hand-thrown harpoons as they ride the bow-wave of the hunting boats. They are then gaffed, hauled aboard, and left to die of blood loss or shock. Japan’s hunt occurs in direct defiance of a request by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to cut their take in half because it is unsustainable.

The Taiji hunt has wiped out the regional population of striped dolphins and a similar fate may await other coastal dolphin species. But what really appalls animal welfare advocates, many conservationists, and even a growing number of scientists is its sheer cruelty.

Dolphins are gregarious, social, highly intelligent animals who often maintain lifelong bonds with fellow pod-mates. My colleague, HSI senior scientist and marine mammal biologist Naomi Rose, Ph.D., says dolphins suffer terrible trauma during the hunt. “These animals are thinking and self-aware,” she says. “The fear, pain, and suffering they feel when the killing begins are profound. They know exactly what is happening.”

Dolphin in captivity

For the few spared an agonizing death, the trauma lasts a lifetime—and a reprieve as a captive entertainer only postpones the inevitable. As co-author of the recently published fourth edition of “The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity,” Dr. Rose points out that dolphins—who can live 40 to 50 years in the wild—rarely live for long after capture in the drive fisheries.

At IWC meetings, The HSUS has long campaigned against Japan’s cetacean killing, and we have worked in Japan, mostly with supermarket chains, to end the demand for the meat. We have also worked with our allies in Congress urging the passage of Sen. Frank Lautenberg's resolution calling on Japan to end these drive fisheries of dolphins and other cetaceans. Just over a year ago at our annual Genesis Awards event, I was delighted to present the young actress Hayden Panettiere with the Wyler Award for confronting the dolphin killers at the Taiji hunt in 2007. She followed Sir Paul McCartney, our 2006 top Genesis honoree, who joined The HSUS on the ice to protest the Canadian seal hunt. Also last year at Genesis, The HSUS presented journalist Boyd Harnell with the 2008 Brigitte Bardot International Print award for his three-part series in The Japan Times on the continuing dolphin slaughter.

Next year, I won’t be surprised if coverage of the Taiji carnage isn’t up for a third Genesis. A documentary called "The Cove," clandestinely filmed underwater and from the headlands above the inlet where the dolphins are slaughtered, will open in July at movie theaters nationwide. "The Cove" won an audience choice award in January at the Sundance Film Festival, and it deserves the widest possible audience here and in Japan.

Canada’s seal hunt has rightly drawn the world’s ire. Japan’s unconscionable killing of whales, porpoises and dolphins deserves the same condemnation, and now.

May 22, 2009

Talk Back: Michael Vick As Messenger

I remember the first time I read the eyewitness accounts and confessions of what took place at Michael Vick's house in Surry County, Virginia, and, like many of you, I remember how furious I was that anyone could commit such unconscionable acts against animals.

I wanted to be sure that he and the others involved in Bad Newz Kennels were held legally and morally responsible for their crimes, and that's exactly what we did. We worked with investigators, the NFL, corporate sponsors, and political leaders to demonstrate a zero-tolerance policy for dogfighting and to mete out stern punishment for those involved. We also channeled our anger into resolve in our broader campaign against animal fighting, and we worked methodically in the states to strengthen laws and to build an array of on-the-ground programs to attack the problem at its root. Our supporters at The HSUS were with us every step of the way, and last year alone, we had a role in more than 250 busts of animal fighting operations, after strengthening the laws in more than 20 states.

We are confronted with a new challenge now that Vick has served nearly two years of time in a federal penitentiary and seen his personal assets liquidated. He’s served his sentence, and now he’s made a personal appeal to The HSUS to involve him in anti-dogfighting and anti-cruelty efforts. Will we continue to flog Michael Vick indefinitely, or will we take advantage of his expressed desire to do better, to be an agent of change for animals?

Word cloud of blog reader reaction to Michael Vick
© Wordle
This word cloud visually represents blog readers' feedback on
Michael Vick, with a weight assigned to each word based
on frequency. Click the image to see a full-size version.

I knew it would be controversial, but I decided it was the right thing to engage with Michael and give him a chance to participate in our anti-dogfighting efforts. We at The HSUS are about change, even the hard cases. Sitting with Michael at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, I saw a man who, if he had the resolve, could do powerful and persuasive outreach to at-risk youth and steer them away from dogfighting. He told me he saw dogfighting when we he was a boy, and from there, he came to accept the activity and to get involved. Nobody was there to step in and pull him out of that morass, and he obviously didn’t have the strength to get away from it himself.

Intervening with young kids involved in dogfighting is not a new idea for The HSUS, because we've been doing it for some time. Ex-dogfighters and ex-gang members are some of our ambassadors in our community-based programs, and they reach kids who are drawn into the world of dogfighting and show them there are alternatives, such as training and agility classes for pit bulls. Street fighting in urban centers is the one growth area for dogfighting, and maybe Vick can get us closer to our goal of eradicating dogfighting in every dark corner where it festers.

Only time will tell if he lives up to his word to me, that he’s sincere about actively helping to suppress dog fighting. But if he fails in this next test in his life, he will have squandered an opportunity to help himself and to help others.

Well you’ve heard my feelings about the issue for three straight days. And I’ve been grateful for your outpouring of thoughts and observations. Below is a sampling of reader comments.

I applaud the president of the HSUS for giving Michael Vick a second chance and I hope that Michael is sincere in wanting to give back to the animals that he so brutally abused. I work with at-risk students in a local school district and have seen students make a change when introduced to a better way of life. I pray that Michael Vick will do the same and learn to love and respect dogs. I myself am an owner of a pit bull and must admit that I was reluctant to adopt the dog who has now become my best friend. I am amazed at the unconditional love that I receive from Bennie each day. I will continue to follow Michael Vick's story as I am an NFL season ticket holder and an avid member of the HSUS. I pray that Michael is sincere. —Robyn Stultz

I despise Michael Vick—and I wholeheartedly support his involvement in the End Dogfighting campaign. This kind of pragmatic move is what makes the HSUS so effective. In Oakland, Calif., where I live, dogfighting is indeed epidemic, and the sad signs of it are obvious, if you know where to look. I don't know whether Michael Vick is sincere or not, but if he can help turn some boys away from dogfighting it will be his chance to redeem himself. Thank you so much for all you do. —Tai

If Michael Vick can convince young people to view dogfighting as a cruel and inhumane sport, I'm in favor of him speaking for HSUS. We need to make this the most uncool thing ever and if that resonates with kids, Michael Vick will have gone a small distance in making up for the misery he's caused. —Jodie Carey

You are a stronger person than I am. My anger and outrage towards Michael Vick would never have let me see how he could help end the cycle of violence towards animals. However, after reading your thoughts above, I agree with you completely. I believe that this could be an excellent opportunity to reach children who might not have otherwise been taught to respect and love animals. As you stated, we will just have to see if his desire to help is truly genuine. I have my doubts, but no harm can come from trying. If even one child learns from his actions and one animal is spared the horrific life that those dogs endured, then it's all worth it. —Carrie

I am very surprised with this and not sure how I feel about it. What he did is terrible; are you sure he is not using you as an opportunity to gain publicity to clean his cruel act and come back to make millions? What he did to the poor dogs will always be there, no matter how sorry he "thinks" he is. Sorry, it is really hard for me to understand this. —Vanina Doce-Mood

I am a faithful supporter of the HSUS and can't believe that you would welcome Michael Vick into the ranks. NO ONE can change what is at their very core, in just 23 months. Many people can't even bear to look at the man knowing what he did to innocent animals. I am hugely disappointed and saddened by this possibility. Unfortunately, if Michael Vick is invited into the HSUS, I will no longer support the organization that I have held dear to my heart for so long. —Debbie

As a longtime supporter of the HSUS, I applaud this decision to give Mr. Vick a chance to make a difference in the community of dogfighting. People engaging in these activities are so much more likely to listen to someone like Vick than to any other authority figure or animal rights group. You will never know his heart or his intentions if you don't give him a chance. If he is sincere, you'll know it, and if he's not, it will be quickly apparent. I am a huge believer that when people take their punishment for bad deeds, they should be given the chance to change. And I hope he will take this chance and really make a difference in a world where he caused so much pain and suffering. Any positive action on his part will not erase the bad deeds, but it will allow all of us who love and respect animals to forgive him and trust that it is possible to change. I will be wishing only positive things for this HSUS endeavor. —Kelli Smith

Continue reading "Talk Back: Michael Vick As Messenger" »

May 21, 2009

More Thoughts on Michael Vick

Our society has had a consensus view on dogfighting for a long time, with the first laws against the activity dating back to the mid-19th century. Civilized people have long despised dogfighting because they knew it was morally wrong to place animals in a pit to fight to the death for gambling and the thrill of the bloodletting.

But the case against Michael Vick dragged some other horrible dogfighting practices, like the violent culling of poor-performing dogs, into the light of day. These shocking practices fanned the ire of the public about what Vick and the other ringleaders at Bad Newz Kennels did. It almost made me sick to read the first-hand accounts and confessions of defendants and others after they told prosecutors what really happened in Surry County, Virginia.

But as I said yesterday, the end-game was never permanent exile for Michael Vick. It was successful prosecution and the imposition of appropriate penalties for a group of men who did terrible things. Our larger goal then and now was the eradication of dogfighting in America and throughout the world.

Happy pit bull face
© The HSUS
Our grassroots efforts are changing attitudes.

We can all be forever mad and angry at Michael Vick for what he did. But if that’s not channeled usefully and productively, then it does no good for animals. During the last two years, The Humane Society of the United States channeled the anger about Vick into 21 new strengthened state and federal laws against animal fighting, along with a host of other actions to combat cruelty. Last year, we were involved in a record-breaking 250 busts of animal fighting operations. That’s productive action for animals, taking a terrible case of cruelty and using it as momentum toward broader reform.

When it comes to dogfighting, a straight law enforcement approach is never going to solve the problem. The growth in dogfighting is occurring in inner cities, and it’s predominantly with young African American boys and men. That’s a fact, and we have to do something to arrest these social trends.

When Michael Vick asked to help, I was as skeptical as anyone. And then I put my strategist hat on, and tried to imagine what a guy like Vick could do to help us combat the problem. We used his case to strengthen the laws in America, and now we can use his celebrity and the story of his fall as a parable to reach kids in the cities who will pay attention to him.

In talking to Michael Vick, I also kept in the forefront of my mind our larger goal at The HSUS: protection of animals, by helping encourage individual people and institutions to change for the better in all of their dealings with animals.

I am not convinced yet. If this is simply a self-interested ploy to rehabilitate his image or return to football, we will find out soon enough, and we will repudiate it. But if Michael Vick is sincere, then we can, we must, use his story to advance our broader mission—saving lives and ending dogfighting.

Very few of us had it all together at a young age. We all have traveled a path and it’s been a process of awakening, awareness, and behavior modification. It took me a while before I made a commitment to change my diet and stop causing harm to animals through my purchasing practices, after I learned about factory farming abuses. And now today, The HSUS has within its ranks ex-trophy hunters, ex-trappers, and lots of folks who did pretty bad stuff at earlier points in life. We gave them a chance to help end some of the suffering they once caused, and they took it. In our innovative grassroots outreach programs we work with ex-dogfighters who are now ambassadors for The HSUS and show at-risk youth that change is possible. They are all welcome in our tent because The HSUS is about helping push people to do better for animals by changing their ways. You are welcome here if you are moving in the right direction. We don’t require you to be perfect.

Yes, Michael Vick has a long road to travel, since he did such terrible things to animals. But if we are to change society, we need to help people travel paths that now may look like an impossible climb. If we stick just with the easy cases, or if we work with folks that just have similar experiences to ours, or are in total agreement with our perspectives, then we’ll never get where we must go as a society.

When people travel a long, hard, and seemingly impossible path, that’s when we know we are winning.

May 20, 2009

What’s Next for Michael Vick?

There was nobody tougher on Michael Vick than The Humane Society of the United States. After sufficient facts came to light about the happenings at Bad Newz Kennels in Surry County, Virginia—the sometime residence of Vick that had morphed into a dogfighting staging ground—The HSUS urged state and federal authorities to prosecute him and we made a key confidential informant available to federal authorities, which proved vital to the case.

We also campaigned, along with others, to urge the Atlanta Falcons to drop Vick, the NFL to suspend him, and his corporate sponsors (such as Nike) to sever their ties. All of that happened, and the fuel that drove all of these actions was the rage and disgust that so many millions of Americans felt once the details came out.

Vick and the other three individuals at the vortex of the criminal network at Bad Newz should have been prosecuted and punished, and they were. They did horrible things.

Long before the Vick case, it was The HSUS, working with our allies in Congress led by Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Elton Gallegly, that drove the enactment of strong federal laws to crack down on animal fighting—banning any interstate or foreign transport of animals for fighting and upgrading penalties with amendments to the Animal Welfare Act in 2002. We worked on a further upgrade of the law in 2007 to make it a federal felony to move dogs across state lines. For years, we had been working with the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture—the Office of Inspector General—sharing intelligence on animal fighting crimes, emphasizing the corrosive impact of animal fighting on our communities, and urging them to be more aggressive in investigating cases. When the Vick case came to light, these federal authorities grabbed the torch, especially after they saw the Surry County prosecutor failing to take action. For their leadership, we honored federal prosecutors and investigators in 2007 at our annual Law Enforcement Awards ceremony.

Young boy holding pit bull
© The HSUS
The HSUS End Dogfighting program mobilizes community members.

For The HSUS, dogfighting had long been a priority concern, and we knew it was an epidemic problem, especially in urban communities. But most people considered it a relic issue—a settled matter and a rare occurrence. The Vick case synced public sentiment with the scale of the problem, and dogfighting rightly reoccupied a priority slot on the animal protection agenda in America.

The HSUS tried to channel this energy in the aftermath of the Vick case, and we helped to pass a remarkable 21 new laws against animal fighting, including a third upgrade of the federal law. Thanks to our supporters, we amped up our rewards program and worked with state Attorneys General and other law enforcement agencies to advertise the program. We set up tip lines so we could gather other information. We established community-based programs to do outreach to young people at risk of getting enmeshed in the world of dogfighting. We expanded our training of law enforcement agents in investigation and prosecution of animal fighting crimes.

Last year, we were involved in more than 250 busts of animal fighting operations, both dogfighting and cockfighting.

So with this record of action, I think I’d be the least likely guy to end up sitting at a small table and talking calmly with Michael Vick about his interest in working with us.

But when you step back and ponder it, we are actually the most logical place for him to go. We have the most developed programs on the issue, so if he’s sincere about making a difference, there’s no better place to land.

I sat with the man, but I still don’t know what’s in his heart. He told me he did terrible things to dogs. He said he grew up with dogfighting as a boy, and that he never sufficiently questioned it as he grew into manhood.

He said this experience has been a trauma and he’s changed forever. And he said he wants to show the American public that he is committed to helping combat this problem. He asked for an opportunity to help. I want to give him that opportunity. If he makes the most of it, and demonstrates a sincere, long-term commitment to the task, then it may prove to be a tipping point in our campaign to eradicate dogfighting. If he demonstrates a fleeting or superficial interest, then it will be his own failing, not ours. Our campaign will march forward regardless. It’s up to him, and we at The HSUS reserve judgment until he demonstrates that he’s part of the solution rather than a further part of the problem.

Maybe if there had been an intervention program in Newport News 15 years ago, a young Michael Vick would have grown to love and respect pit bulls, and he would not have done these terrible things to dogs. For me, it’s not about Michael Vick and providing endless punitive treatment. It’s about stopping other young people from going down the road Vick took. It’s about having kids today put down their break sticks and destroy their pit bull treadmills.

We’ve done a lot with the law, and with law enforcement, and that work continues. But the most urgent challenge we face is interrupting the cycle of violence that leads kids down this dead end path, one that’s paved with animal misery. They need to see that dogfighters never succeed. They are criminals, and there’s no good outcome. Michael Vick’s story is a narrative they need to hear.

May 19, 2009

Closure in the Cockfighting Corridor

The big news related to animal fighting this week is that Michael Vick is getting out of prison, and I’ll be blogging in depth tomorrow on how we intend to interact with him.

But the guiding principle in all of our work is to hit animal fighting in every dark corner where it festers. We attend to this task every day, and this past weekend, we had another major strike. Acting on information supplied by The HSUS, federal and state authorities raided a large cockfighting pit in Hohenwald, Tenn. The Shiloh Game Club was one of the largest cockfighting operations in middle Tennessee, as evidenced by the nearly 300 people detained during the raid.

Rooster at 2007 Va. cockfighting raid
© 2007 The HSUS/Guzy

At the scene, law enforcement charged 37 people for drug offenses and seized $30,000 in cash. The HSUS personnel on the scene reported some of the most awful cruelty they’d ever witnessed. A colleague who has been on cockfighting raids all over the country said he would never forget the severely injured roosters discovered that day, describing this as the worst of the worst. This particular cockfighting derby was being advertised as “long knife only,” meaning the birds were fought with three-inch blades tied to their heels. Cockfighters had approximately 220 birds there, priming them for a day of fights. One winning bird was found with a gaping slash under a wing, internal organs exposed. Other birds were found thrown under a trailer after being mangled in the ring.

As is typical of Tennessee cockfights, many children were on hand to witness this carnage, with one child wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “cockfighting” above a picture of a rooster. Involving children in these spectacles compounds the crime and reveals the cockfighters’ appalling lack of civic behavior.

Thanks are due to the USDA’s Office of Inspector General for leading this investigation and striking a high-profile blow against this house of crime and cruelty. The FBI, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations, Tennessee District Attorney Kim Helper of the 21st Judicial District, and the Tennessee Highway Patrol also assisted in the raid, and we’re proud to have worked with all of these law enforcement agencies.

Tennessee is a core part of the “cockfighting corridor”—the four states that see the most illegal animal fighting activity (Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky) and that possess the weakest laws. It is our hope that the organizers of the fights will be prosecuted under federal law, which carries felony penalties. Most of those arrested though will be tried in state court, where the maximum penalty is a misdemeanor. District Attorney Helper spoke about this after Saturday’s bust, telling a Nashville TV station, "The penalties aren't there to discourage people from participating or coming to view those cockfights."

As other states ratchet up their laws, it is time for the states in the cockfighting corridor to align their laws with those of other states—a top priority for The HSUS’s Animal Cruelty and Fighting campaign.

The roosters at the Shiloh Game Club suffered immensely. But the carnage exposed in this raid will be powerful testimony in preventing such cruelty in the future. Animal fighting is a rot on our communities and our values.

May 18, 2009

Polly Wants a Permanent Home

In my travels and my work for The HSUS, I see the best and the worst of the human spirit. I have seen pigeon shoots, cockfighting operations, puppy mills, and many more manifestations of cruelty and greed firsthand. When I see these naked animal cruelty cases, it makes me shake my head in revulsion, but it almost always leaves me more resolute in my wish to eradicate them.

On the positive side, though, I also get to see The HSUS’s direct care work and its network of animal care centers, along with the fabulous efforts of local humane societies and sanctuaries throughout the nation. I’ve been to hundreds of sanctuaries and humane societies, and whenever I visit them I have an upwelling of profound appreciation for the self-sacrificing people who do this work. Meeting them and seeing them recharges me, and I’m grateful for that.

© The HSUS
Touring the parrot sanctuary with Executive Director Matt Smith.

It was that latter feeling that was with me all day on Saturday when I visited the Central Virginia Parrot Sanctuary, also known as Project Perry, in Louisa, Va. This parrot sanctuary—for the cast-offs and the cruelty cases of the burgeoning parrot trade—is the inspiration of Matt Smith, who personally helped to build almost all of the state-of-the-art aviaries at the sanctuary. Matt told me he’s committed to the project for his life, and he’s just 31 years old.

This is only the third year of existence for Project Perry, and each year, Matt and his team of board members and directors have added capacity, in order to care for more birds (their work was spotlighted last year in our Animal Sheltering magazine). They now have 125 rescued birds there. It is a tribute to what they’ve done that at Saturday’s ribbon cutting ceremony for the African Grey parrot aviary, there were leaders in attendance from other reputable parrot sanctuaries based in Alabama and Rhode Island. While there are thousands of reputable humane societies, there are but a handful of professional parrot sanctuaries, and my visit to this wonderful place, on this special occasion, was a reminder of the incredible need for such facilities, given the terrible circumstances of parrots in captivity in America.

Parrots—African Greys, cockatoos, macaws, conures, and many other species—are highly intelligent, social, and long-lived animals. Eventually, almost all of these birds are homeless at some point, because many of them can live 80 years. Very few people contemplate the long-term commitment required for their care, and the fact is, many of the birds outlive their original keepers. More often than not, too, people can’t deal with the noise, or the demanding nature of the animals, and they evict them, burdening sanctuaries, rescue and foster groups, and other caring individuals. We are living through a huge boom in unwanted parrots just now, and it’s reaching crisis proportions.

The captive setting is in almost all cases an entirely inadequate environment for these birds in terms of enrichment, and one can see the sad psychological toll from completely deficient care and housing and enrichment. I met one bird, a cockatoo named Callie, who had a beautiful, feathered head, but virtually no feathers below the neckline. She had plucked all of them out, a victim of an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and she also bore the scars from even more serious acts of self-mutilation. Matt tells me that it’s very difficult to reverse this behavior, and even if the bird can be turned around, it’s often too late since their constant plucking does follicle damage and prevents feather regeneration. The birds are truly victims of a trade that denies them the parental nurturing and socialization essential to normal development.

African Grey parrot at Central Virginia Parrot Sanctuary
© Central Virginia Parrot Sanctuary
An African Grey parrot at Project Perry.

Parrots have the same brain-to-body mass ratio that humans do, and they are possessed with a remarkable intelligence. The New York Times ran two obituaries after Alex the African Grey parrot died a couple of years ago. Alex was capable of problem solving, counting, and many other amazing demonstrations of learning and intelligence.

Mira Tweti, in her pathbreaking and highly readable "Of Parrots and People," writes about birds in captivity either captured from the wild or raised on bird mills, the avian equivalent of puppy mills. After the Congress passed the Wild Bird Conservation Act in 1992, rightly banning the import of wild birds for the pet trade, the bird mill industry amped up dramatically. Some mills have thousands of birds, warehousing the animals on these mini-factory farms. Mira will be speaking about this important subject at the 2009 Taking Action for Animals conference, and I hope you will attend to learn about this and other animal protection issues.

If you know people interested in getting a parrot, urge them to go to a rescue group and not to a pet store. The rescues desperately need the space, and the birds need relief from impulse purchasers who may not realize the misery and suffering they are spawning with their purchasing practices.

May 15, 2009


I’ve always believed that progress tends to beget progress, and that we are now seeing a series of tangible reforms flowing from our landslide victory in California on Proposition 2 last November. In addition to a growing number of California retailers switching away from battery cage eggs to cage-free eggs in the wake of Prop 2’s passage, we’ve also seen important advances on the other side of the country in recent months.

Pig in gestation crate

For example, Massachusetts-based national egg producer Radlo Foods announced that it would phase out its use of battery cages altogether and become a completely cage-free company.

And this week, Maine Governor John Baldacci signed our bill to ban both veal crates and gestation crates in his state, after the legislature passed it unanimously. The HSUS worked hard to pass the bill, and we commend both the governor for signing it and state Sen. John Nutting (D-Androscoggin County) for championing it.

I remember when Floridians favored an HSUS-authored initiative in 2002 to make that state the first in the nation to prohibit gestation crates. Until we finally broke through with the Florida win, the treatment of animals on factory farms had been a mere footnote in serious public policy debates surrounding animal welfare, and no laws existed to halt the life-long confinement of animals in small cages or crates on factory farms.

Yet here we are in 2009 with six states now having acted to prevent certain kinds of extreme confinement of farm animals, and there is an aura of inevitable progress.   

Our hard work is paying off, even if progress was imperceptible for years. The HSUS is built around the idea of making tangible gains for animals, and the care of farm animals is a major element of the equation.