The leader of the nation’s biggest (and richest) animal advocacy group has millions of admirers, and nearly as many haters. Is he a radical, or a reformer? Here’s his response in his own words.

Anyone who’s anyone in animal agriculture knows who Wayne Pacelle is.

Since taking office as President and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, HSUS has become a highly influential advocacy group impacting the production practices across the board, and he himself a pivotal persona whose impact on animal agriculture cannot be underestimated.

To his supporters in the animal welfare community, he’s a bona fide hero, someone with the passion to persevere in pushing reform initiatives, coupled with the skill set to navigate the political swamp that has evolved as the modern replacement for the original swamp on which Washington, D.C., was constructed.

To many in the business of livestock production, he’s perceived as an anti-industry diehard masquerading as a benign reformer, a champion fund-raiser who pulls in millions each year with tear-jerking appeals to save stray kittens and abandoned puppies, only to use that money to attack American ranchers and producers.

To a journalist like me, who’s had the opportunity to meet him, to watch him in action, and to talk with his staff and his admirers, he is a man of commitment and charisma, smooth-talking but sincere, and someone who undeniably has leveraged changes unforeseen in the business when he took over HSUS 12 years ago.

His track record is impressive: HSUS has grown into an organization with 11 million members and constituents and annual revenues of some $160 million, with assets of more than $200 million.

Under his leadership, HSUS has forged alliances that have leveraged dozens of state bans on gestation stalls, battery cages and veal crates; virtually wiped out the once-thriving, if truly sordid, “sports” of dogfighting and cockfighting; led the movement to outlaw horse slaughter; forced a controversial end to the use of circus elephants; and taken the lead in pushing for a re-examination of state and local laws governing the operation of so-called puppy mills.

Along the way, he hasn’t made a whole lot of friends among those who earn a living is the profession of animal husbandry, and those allied with HSUS in various animal activist causes have often been strident critics of the very existence of livestock production and meat-eating as twin scourges upon the Earth and on humanity itself.

Through it all, Pacelle has always insisted that his and his organization’s goal has always been reform, not eradication, of animal agriculture, and toward that end he recently released his second best-seller, “The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals.” In it he posits some intriguing ideas about a “capitalist solution” to advancing the animal welfare agenda.

We’ll get to that and other issues with which producers have a beef in a moment, but for the record, his book stands as a thoughtful, occasionally lyrical, statement of possibility, an examination of ways that changes affecting the lives and well-being of animals might be accomplished through market forces, as well as traditional activist pressure.

I certainly don’t agree with all of Pacelle’s prescriptions, nor with the undercurrent of vegetarian superiority that he and his organization continually promote, although his take on wildlife protection, agricultural diversity and the sustainability of modern food production systems is quite provocative, if not fully resonant with someone who believes in the legitimacy of animal agriculture.

But let’s Mr. Pacelle detail his positions in his own words, as excerpted from a lengthy interview with Meat of the Matter commentator Dan Murphy.

Q. Let’s start with the issue of fund-raising. The criticism centers on the accusation that HSUS appeals to its donors with ads about abandoned puppies and homeless kittens, then uses the millions of dollars raised by those tear-jerking campaigns to attack hard-working American ranchers and producers. How do you respond to that?

Pacelle: Yes, that is a caricature of me and of HSUS, that we have our own set of values about solving the problems of animals for all of society. But the argument that I advance in the book is that much of the work that’s being done in the animal protection community is merely addressing the symptoms of the problem. We need to change practices and perceptions, for all sorts of animals who need our help. However, the truth is that most donors respond to crisis intervention. That’s why they donate, but [all that money] doesn’t solve the underlying problems of animal abuse.

Q. I can’t disagree that HSUS has been extremely successful in its fund-raising, but in conducting campaigns to force changes in livestock production practices, aren’t you taking advantage of the disconnect that the majority of Americans have with how food is produced and how food animals are raised? As is true with GMO labeling, people don’t understand what’s involved; they think that imposing a labeling statement doesn’t cost anything, or that production changes are easy to make.

Pacelle: Well, I think this is a case of people seeing the same set of facts, yet understanding the issues very differently.

Q. How so?

Pacelle: When I started in 2004, I told the [HSUS] board that the largest group of animals were food animals, and if we wanted to drive real reform, that’s where the organization had to focus. At the time, very few people saw animal agriculture as an important issue, certainly not as an engaging fund-raising tool.

But I would argue that we have been successful in making positive changes [for livestock]. Why? Because we engaged on the issues, yes, but more so because I’ve always believed that the American public is generally rational, and if you present a strong case for making changes that improve the lives of animals, they will respond. That’s why we have achieved some of the goals of reforming the way food animals are raised.

Don’t miss Part II of the Dan Murphy’s interview with Wayne Pacelle on Monday, June 13, as Pacelle discusses the unintended consequences of the regulations HSUS has championed; his organization’s break with the philosophy and tactics of PETA; his predictions for animal activism’s path forward; and how he views the future of livestock production in what he considers an “era of enlightenment” about the animal world within which humans co-exist.