The Humane Efforts of a Civilized Society

For many Americans, nothing symbolizes freedom more than a galloping herd of wild horses, blazing their own trails across wide, open spaces. And for horse lovers, nothing is more heartbreaking than the thought of these majestic creatures rounded up for slaughter, their remains exported to foreign countries where horsemeat is acceptable dinner fare.

These days, the guy in the white hat riding to the rescue is Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. The Humane Society has been at the forefront of efforts to ban the killing of horses for foreign consumption, specifically by promoting passage of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act (H.R. 503/S. 311).

Pacelle made a recent trip from his Washington, D.C. headquarters to appear in Montecito, where he had the opportunity to meet several Santa Barbara residents who were lucky enough to be invited to a swank Sunday afternoon reception at the elegant estate of Bill and Sandi Nicholson. A Yale graduate, Pacelle held the audience enthralled with stories of the Humane Society’s efforts on many animal abuse fronts. He prefaced his comments about erroneous dog breed stereotypes with a joke about an apocryphal adoptee, half pit bull and half St. Bernard: “First he attacks you, then he goes for help.”

“It’s all about celebrating animals, confronting cruelty,” he continued. He introduced two politicians in the room, Congressman Elton Gallegly (R-California) and Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara), emphasizing that the Humane Society works with party members “on both sides of the aisle.”

The Humane Society of the United States is a formidable organization for the 41-year-old Pacelle to head, with 10 million members and an operating budget that in 2005 was a cool $107 million. But everyone at the Nicholsons’ party agreed that Pacelle seems up to the job, including Arthur Gaudi, Raye Haskell, Sally Jordan, News-Press co-publishers Wendy McCaw and Arthur von Wiesenberger, Jo Ann Mermis, First District County Parks Commissioner Suzanne Perkins with her husband, Perry, and Wes and Marsha St. Clair.

Crackdown on Cockfighting

In addition to protecting horses, the Humane Society is also working against animal fighting, such as dog fighting, cockfighting, and the latest twist, hog versus dog fighting. This practice, which pits confined wild pigs against trained attack dogs, has been documented in 10 states. The Humane Society is promoting a bill on Animal Fighting (H.R. 137/S. 261), which would authorize felony-level jail time for violations of the federal law on animal fighting, and would ban interstate and foreign transport of cockfighting implements.

Last June, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department raided a cockfighting facility in Lompoc, where approximately 1,000 fighting birds were found in bad condition, many of them mutilated in preparation for their next fight. When asked about this in a recent telephone interview, Pacelle replied, “People come to ‘big pits’ from all over the world to watch cockfighting.” The Lompoc discovery was made only a month after another facility in neighboring Gonzales was raided, turning up several hundred more birds.

In California, cockfighting is a misdemeanor, in contrast to all neighboring states, which have felony-level animal fighting penalties. While it may seem an isolated “sport,” its consequences are not. In 2002, when Newcastle disease devastated poultry and egg farms in California, Pacelle said cockfighting was implicated as a source of the outbreak. The cost to American taxpayers to eradicate the epidemic: $200 million, not to mention the lost export markets, which cost the U.S. poultry industry many more millions.

Another bill endorsed by the Humane Society, the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act (S.382/H.R.817), would make it a felony to transport animals across state lines for fighting purposes. This bill has become particularly important as health authorities face the possibility of a bird flu pandemic. Fighting birds transported across state lines can pose a transmission risk, since their handlers move the birds often. Illegal fighting “derbies” have been documented to attract participants from as many as a dozen different states.

“Actually, there is a global trade in fighting birds,” said Pacelle, “and the Gallegly bill is designed to put a stop to any American contribution to that trade.” In Asia, at least eight people are known to have contracted bird flu through exposure to cockfighting activity.

Elaborating on the dangers of animal fighting in relation to a bird flu pandemic, Pacelle said, “American cockfighters go to big international events, such as the World Slasher Cup in the Philippines, which is like the ‘Super Bowl’ of cockfighting. The birds [from various countries] are co-mingled and American birds can be brought back into our country carrying bird flu.”

Disaster Preparedness

Many of Pacelle’s most sobering anecdotes at the Nicholson event related to the Humane Society’s efforts in dealing with national disasters. When Hurricane Katrina devastated the South, the Red Cross assisted thousands of victims, but not of the furry kind. The Humane Society stepped in and rescued 10,000 pets that had been left behind in the evacuations, housing and feeding them until they could be reunited with their owners.

As many more pets died in Hurricane Katrina than could be saved, Pacelle’s message was not lost on his audience. “We have helped with the passage of a Federal law and a California law to include pets in disaster planning, but there is no substitute for personal preparedness,” said Pacelle.

Santa Barbara, like New Orleans, is often thought of as a tourist town where bad things never happen. “We just sent a two-million-dollar check to the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to rebuild its shelter that was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina,” said Pacelle by phone, expressing concern that disaster can strike anywhere.

With the dangers posed to Californians by earthquakes, fires and floods, one of Pacelle’s goals is to get people to think about the threats, and to do so with pets in mind.

For information on activities and membership in the Humane Society of the United States, including registration for e-mail alerts on legislative efforts and tips on disaster preparedness for pets, visit