An Unlikely Ally? Getting To Know The Humane Society Of The United States

by | 06.24.2015 | 5:52pm

The announcement last month that the Jockey Club and Breeders' Cup would join forces with the Humane Society of the United States to back a federal anti-doping bill was a surprise to some in the Thoroughbred world. With the alphabet soup of animal rights and welfare organizations, it can be difficult to distinguish one group from another—a differentiation made more stark for racing fans by the fact that some of those organizations have publicly declared themselves anti-racing.

The Humane Society of the United States does not fall into that category, according to its president and CEO, Wayne Pacelle.

“We're not against racing,” said Pacelle. “We want it done well and humanely.”

Pacelle said HSUS does have a number of concerns about practices within the sport, and many of the items on his list have also been on the minds of internal racing reform advocates for years: breeding for soundness, overbreeding, raceday medication, masking and performance-enhancing drugs, aftercare, track surface safety, 2-year-old racing, and appropriate whip use.

“There are a number of concerns that are routine animal welfare issues that I think everyone should be concerned about, not just the Humane Society of the U.S., but every person within in the racing world should be concerned about those issues and striving to do better,” said Pacelle.

That's why it made sense to Pacelle to partner with the racing industry on reform legislation. For Jockey Club president and COO James Gagliano, the partnership was a mutually beneficial one.

“I was pleased to see that they had a deep understanding of the subject and had very practical solutions and suggestions,” said Gagliano, who began meeting with the group last year along with other industry representatives. “They have good footing politically. We thought that could be very valuable as we developed a coalition and put together political strategies toward that end.

“I think the matter of animal rights resonates more and more with the American public. They'll tell you that these issues are becoming much more mainstream.”

The partnership came about when Joe De Francis, the CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club from 1989 to 2007, reconnected with former colleague Rick Bernthal, who had become the chairman of the board for HSUS. The two collaborated on dog welfare legislation in Maryland, and it occurred to De Francis that HSUS could be a good ally for horse people, too.

“Unlike, for example, a group like PETA who I would describe as unrealistic extremists who essentially just want to abolish horse racing, the Humane Society is a very reasonable, very professional organization that has a long history of working with industry groups to affect realistic and meaningful reforms,” said De Francis.

An important terminology note about HSUS's platforms: HSUS advocates for animal welfare, not animal rights. Animal rights is a phrase to describe efforts to change animals' legal status, as demonstrated by the Nonhuman Rights Project, which successfully won a motion to have a chimpanzee recognized as a “legal person” with rights including freedom from confinement earlier this year.

“For me, the big linguistic issue is about rights versus responsibilities. At HSUS, we don't really talk so much about animal rights, but we talk about human responsibility,” said Pacelle. “That it's really up to us to handle our power over animals in an appropriate way; that it's precisely because we are different than other animals that we have a duty to be merciful and humane to them.”

Instead, HSUS works primarily as a lobbying group and has worked on legislative and awareness campaigns against horse slaughter, animal testing, cruelty in large-scale farming, puppy mills, dog-fighting, wildlife trafficking, and the hunting of wolves, sharks, and seals. It also opposes greyhound racing and has worked with Congress to end soring in the gaited horse community. HSUS reported over $186 million in donations and assets for last year and dedicated over $61 million to advocacy and another $35 million to cruelty prevention programs. The organization's annual report for 2014 credited it with 139 new state and local laws to help animals.

Pacelle admits that's a pretty full plate, and as a result, the group has had to pick and choose which equine welfare issues to tackle first. He is aware that after PETA's undercover investigation in 2014, horse racing insiders may be a little jumpy about partnering with a welfare group, even on reform legislation.

Wayne Pacelle, president/CEO of HSUS

Wayne Pacelle, president/CEO of HSUS

“I do think that there are folks who either don't want to reform, who will then characterize the proponents of reform as extreme or overreaching … and then there are others who maybe don't understand that animal welfare groups come with varying philosophies and that while PETA may be an anti-racing organization, HSUS isn't,” said Pacelle.

Another common misconception is that HSUS is the national regulatory body for local and regional animal shelters with “humane” in their names. In fact, HSUS's primary focus is lawmaking and public awareness, and it does not own or operate any animal shelters. According to its website, HSUS does provide information, training, and legislative resources to rescue groups around the country. Critics have noted that the organization's fundraising campaigns on TV have not hesitated to portray caged dogs and cats, which may contribute to the perception that the group oversees shelters.

HSUS is also not the group that creates or enforces guidelines for animals used in film or television—that's the American Humane Association.

Like many welfare organizations, HSUS has its fair share of critics. It has been the subject of negative reports from consumer watchdog groups CharityWatch and Charity Navigator. Charity Navigator issued a donor advisory based on concerns that the group used donated money to settle a lawsuit centering around its assertion that Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus abused its performing elephants. CharityWatch's rating was based primarily on financial metrics, comparing dollars spent on program costs versus fundraising efforts. Neither watchdog group deals with testing program effectiveness or analyzing policy. The Center for Consumer Freedom, a group often connected with pro-restaurant and agribusiness lobbying efforts, has chimed in to the list of critiques, questioning allocation of HSUS funds into offshore investment portfolios.

HSUS is accredited by the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, however, and retorts that the watchdog ratings are “single-minded” and “factually incorrect.”

When he presented testimony before a Congressional subcommittee hearing back in 2013, Pacelle noted that racing does not seem capable of moving itself forward without help from an outside group of some kind.

“This industry has had decades to clean up its act, but it hasn't done so,” he said in his testimony. “We are here today precisely because of the failure of self-regulation.”

Ultimately, Pacelle believes the tides are turning for the animal welfare movement—that the public is becoming increasingly aware of welfare issues and is more willing to spend time and money advocating for reform when it believes there are animals being mistreated. For a sport struggling to attract customers, that paradigm shift could prove a force for positive change and give the racing industry the opportunity to decide its own fate.

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