#TimesUp in the Animal Charity World

Feb 3, 2018

The investigation of sexual harassment at the Humane Society of the United States is important.

Without deflecting from it, here are some things a former animal charity VP wants to add to the conversation.

The CEO of the Humane Society of the United States has just resigned

This followed recent news stories including a Politico investigation into claims that CEO Wayne Pacelle and (now former) VP of farm animal protection Paul Shapiro have sexually humiliated HSUS staffers. 

In the words of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, wider concerns involve a "frat-like 'bro' culture" that manipulates and stifles advocacy careers.  

Some say the #MeToo problem in advocacy can be fixed with more female leadership. And yet, the most famous animal advocate is PETA's Ingrid Newkirk. Under Newkirk's leadership, gendered violence is treated as a joke.

Meanness Isn't Male

Domination, bullying, spite and strife — and, in the case of Newkirk's PETA, glorification of sexism — are all too common in the incorporated animal advocacy world.  

I have watched numerous hurtful circumstances put into motion by female leaders — some heading groups with regional influence, some with local influence. I have seen these leaders treat people as interchangeable and disposable. I've seen them orchestrate internal competition and resentments, and invent degrading portrayals of people on their side or against it.    

Chronic frustration in the charity workplace leads to high turnover, and stymies the potential of organized charity. The charity raters (Guidestar, Charity Navigator) don't examine staff turnover. Board members can steer clear of employees' calls for help or change — and all too often, regardless of their gender identity, that's what board members do.  

Nor is victimhood female. #MeToo includes many who have experienced harassment yet identify as male or trans, nonbinary or intersex. Let's make this clear, to avoid further isolating people disadvantaged by workplace bias who do not fit the more common gender pattern. 

Sexual harassment is one type of bullying — a kind that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

And bullying can take non-sexual forms that may also stifle or ruin careers.

Gentleness, respect, and generosity of spirit are attributes everyone, regardless of gender, can cultivate. Respect ought to be standard in our altruism-focused sphere. It should be expected equally across the board. If it were, sexual harassment would be understood as unacceptable and extinguished before it starts. 

Socialized Sexism 

A gendered association with aggression (replicating messages from Hollywood and television, from PETA, etc.) can play out in careers, because it becomes a social norm. Animal advocates are not immune.

A book that achieved a degree of popularity with activists is titled Meat Is for Pussies. The premise — "eating animals is for the weak" — expressly uses female genitalia as a symbol of inferior character. 

The male aggression trope again surfaced when the majority of the HSUS board at first tried to shield Wayne Pacelle. Explaining the board’s retention of Pacelle during an in-house investigation, HSUS board member Erika Brunson said, as reported by the New York Times, that Pacelle had done nothing wrong. Brunson explained:

Which red-blooded male hasn’t sexually harassed somebody? Women should be able to take care of themselves.

A few years ago, such a remark would have flown under the radar; today, it's rightly exposed as offensive and absurd. Brunson has since resigned. 

The #MeToo movement is pressing society to recognize and reject sexism. And today it's plain to see that socialized sexism has found a home in the animal-advocacy world. It's right to interrogate people's tolerance for it as a longstanding pattern, even as individual claims are now heard out. 

That said, let's take care not to suggest that subjugating staff is an inherently male practice. Disrespect has no gender.

Sexual Harassment Needs to Be Interrogatedand Seen as Related to Manipulative Advocacy  

As for HSUS, ordinary animal advocates have three options: 

 Door Number 1: Hope for the best with incoming HSUS leadership; 

 Door Number 2: Build a better version of incorporated charity; or 

 Door Number 3: Seek alternative platforms for animal advocacy. 

For those who choose Door Number 2, much depends on whether well-meaning people consider the problem solely a gender conflict. Most of the public and the HSUS board will almost certainly treat it as such, and I doubt that gets us to the root of the problem.  

A brief dive into the HSUS method of animal advocacy can tell us something about how manipulation is valued in today's nonprofit sector. Recall for a moment the campaigns Wayne Pacelle and Paul Shapiro have produced. A key example: the Whole Foods Market collaboration.

Whole Foods Market has a weird view of selling animals. Shoppers pay extra to obtain milk from a “happy herd” or a turkey from a farmer who promises to cry when slicing the bird’s artery. This marketing style keeps customers exploiting animals while claiming to care about them. 

Donors who can afford these products can, of course, also afford to supply quite a bit of income to a large-scale charity that manages to become an industry partner. 

Whole Foods Market, for more than a decade, has enriched itself with HSUS "animal welfare" endorsements. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey has even scored a spot on the HSUS Board of Directors. And a pig farmer named Joe Maxwell, hired by HSUS to advance the expansion of the “humane” meat market, was chosen from Whole Foods Market’s suppliers. 

It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Remember how excited many vegans were to see Wayne picked as CEO? "Finally!" was the cry. "We put a vegan in charge!" But what veganism exists that helps promote the use of animal bodies?

Something similar is poised to occur now. It's quite likely that a permanent HSUS leader will be anointed that can have activists exclaiming: "What a relief! We put a woman in charge!"

The HSUS household can receive a new coat of paint through a CEO change, but what about the manipulative use of the ethic of animal advocacy that has seeped deep into the structural elements of the house? 

Sugar-Coated Tyranny 

Some HSUS employees told The Washington Post they're coming forward with their harassment claims because they want to repair the culture at a nonprofit that helps animals. 

We should all be thanking these people for their fortitude. And we should also ask: If the HSUS can get away with calling itself advocacy while systematically embedding itself with animal vendors, then why wouldn't its leaders think they could get away with taking advantage of their position on multiple levels?  

If the sugar-coated tyranny that allows a "humane" group to market animal exploitation were to spread outward to human beings who staff the Society, should we be shocked?

Do you see where I'm going with this?

Those who have called out the HSUS for conflicts of interest in meat promotions have been silenced and sidelined by Wayne and Paul for years. 

For years, the silencing and sidelining method worked for them.

We Have Deep Questions to Ask

Yes, we must take harassment to task, and hold abusers accountable. 

And because of the #MeToo movement, now we can and we do. 

At the same time, maybe the whole of the #MeToo movement has deeper questions to ask. 

Yes, time's up for sex-based subordination in Hollywood and other fields, and that's a milestone. Yet let's also look at the messages Hollywood produces for society, and deal with its glorification of weaponry, its association of violence with power, its male-hero-to-the-rescue tropes.    

May the people who are coming forward to call #TimesUp in animal advocacy, like their counterparts in Hollywood, in athletics, and all fields, land on their feet. May decent people with the means to help come forward to help them. May we see to it that this happens.

May donors to the charity world now start asking about retention and the everyday workplace dynamics — in short, whether humans are respected —  in the nonprofit world.

And may we also insist that advocacy questions its tendency to exploit and manipulate the very beings it claims to defend, that it sticks to principle, and that its leaders finally start listening to substantive critiques.   

Finding Our Dignity 

Some have asked why an altruistic field such as animal advocacy needed to wait for a #TimesUp movement to examine its own. As the HSUS investigation unfolds, we'll all be called to reflect on the self-protective tendency human beings have to let things go until they become explosive. 

We are taught that management wins in an at-will work environment, and we pick up the social cue that it's undignified as well as career sabotage to air laundry in public.

And I imagine how difficult it is when the issue to speak up about is sexual harassment. 

The people who've come forward to confront harassment dignify themselves by taking that step. I believe they are helping, ultimately, to strengthen our whole field. Whether we have careers in advocacy or our work is self-sustained or crowdfunded, we all have a stake in the strength of animal advocacy, whether or not the HSUS's mega-corporate model can or should survive. 

Lee Hall

3 Feb. 2018

Banner image: Tie Clips by Mauro Cateb, via Wikimedia Commons 


By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 143 exclusive posts
By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 143 exclusive posts