A Responsibility to Protect Animals: Paul Shapiro Interview

Among the flurry of awesome people I met at AR 2012, Paul Shapiro stuck out for a couple reasons: 1) his presentation was so well put together, entertaining, and fun to watch, and 2) he was with the Humane Society of the United States, a group that some may not expect to be at a conference that included ALF supporters and talk of direct action. But I give props to HSUS for speaking and representing there, showing that they care about all forms of action that alleviates cruelty to animals. Paul got his start in activism way back in 1995, founding Compassion Over Killing and being instrumental in many of its campaigns until 2006, when he joined the Humane Society. Now he is their senior director of factory farming campaigns. Below is a conversation we had via e-mail:

Thanks so much for taking the time to do this, Paul. When we met it was in the middle of a huge animal rights conference. It would be erroneous to say that there wasn’t any controversy over HSUS being there, yet your speech on Sunday was one of the most invigorating. What are your overall thoughts on AR 2012, now that it’s passed?

Thanks, Sam. I appreciate your kind words about my talk. I was glad to speak there. The response to the three speeches I gave was overwhelmingly positive, and the same was the case for other HSUS speakers like Michael Greger and Jon Balcombe, too. I was glad to be there and see so many old and new friends.

I understand that some people may not exactly be card-carrying HSUS members there, but that’s the way it goes. We should just keep in mind that the animal agribusiness industry views HSUS as a major threat for a reason, and spends millions of dollars to combat HSUS precisely because we’re effective at creating a societal shift in where farm animals land on people’s moral compass.

I want to jump right into what I believe is the main source of contention between some AR activists and HSUS. While I was aware of your relationship with the United Egg Producers, it never seemed to be the grievous move that people like Bob Linden are calling it (a “hi-jacking” as he says).

I want to understand your position on this: why is your negotiation with the UEP important? And can it exist with the Humane Society’s other initiatives, such as the promotion of “humane eating?” For you and many other HSUS members (including Wayne Pacelle) I know this means a plant-based diet (and consequent vegan lifestyle).

In all honesty, this legislation isn’t the main source of contention—it goes back a bit more. I respect Bob, and I respectfully agree to disagree with him. In 2008, he campaigned hard to deride California’s Prop 2 ballot measure and now he’s doing the same with the federal hen protection bill.  Some others who don’t like the federal hen bill also didn’t support Prop 2 (such as the Humane Farming Association and Friends of Animals). This isn’t really new for most of them. The beef and pork industries are fighting hard to kill this legislation, and we shouldn’t make their job easier.

More to the heart of your question, though: All of the animal groups that spearheaded the Prop 2 campaign support the federal hen bill (Mercy For Animals has a good page about why that is), and virtually all of the major meat and dairy trade groups oppose the bill, with the beef industry’s lobby group calling its defeat the group’s “number one priority.”

The meat and dairy industry so vigorously oppose this bill because they say they’re concerned about the precedent of having federal legal protection for animals on factory farms. It’s hard to imagine animals in a worse situation that egg-laying hens. Hundreds of millions of them are essentially immobilized in cages for 18 months prior to slaughter. It’s miserable. Of course this bill is modest, and if enacted, it would certainly reduce animal suffering, and importantly, it’s the best realistic option these hundreds of millions of animals have for the foreseeable future.

Those who don’t like this bill fail to offer any alternative legislative plan for the hundreds of millions of animals the bill would help. They’re not suggesting another legislative way forward for hens, nor are they showing how this bill is worse than having no law at all.

Simply put, no realistic alternatives are offered because none of us in the movement are aware of any. The 280 million hens in our country aren’t just a statistic.  These are real animals who endure real suffering, and we have a chance to help alleviate some of their misery with this bill.  Without it, they will be significantly worse off.

Some have suggested that people should simply stop eating animal products. Of course, one can do that while also supporting this legislation; being vegan does not preclude also reducing the suffering of the countless animals who will be helped by this bill if it’s enacted. As a vegan of 19 years, I’m heartened to see the animal movement focusing more on ethical eating options.  At the same time, I’m heartened that our movement is making so many strides to gain farm animals more legal protection from the worst cruelties, and I would value both approaches if I were a battery hen.

Groups like HSUS, Farm Sanctuary, Mercy For Animals, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the ASPCA, and Compassion Over Killing have been waging legislative campaigns to help farm animals on a state by state basis. Now we’re in our best position ever to gain federal protection for hundreds of millions of animals every year.  This will improve their lives compared to what they are today, and compared to what their prospects will be without the bill.

Would you explain why HSUS chooses to call itself an “animal protection” organization – words which I’m sure were chosen carefully – as opposed to “animal rights,” “animal welfare,” or something else?

To the general public these terms are largely distinctions without difference. The bottom line, though, is that we’re for helping animals. One reason HSUS has been so successful – whether in shutting down dogfighting rings and puppy mills, passing laws to help farm animals, or getting millions more plant-based meals served every year through our Meatless Mondays program – is because we focus our efforts on the human responsibility to protect animals.

Back in your days at Compassion Over Killing you were instrumental in removing the “Animal Care Certified” label from egg cartons, showing that the treatment of said hens was anything but “humane.” Do you think that current labeling, such as Whole Foods “5-Step” system, are meaningful and worthwhile?

There’s a dizzying array of welfare-related labels and some are misleading while others aren’t. HSUS is taking on some of the more misleading labels in court (for example, see our case regarding Perdue’s “humane” claim). I think HSUS does a good job of explaining what the most common ones mean—and don’t mean—at www.humanesociety.org/labels.

In your speech at AR 2012 you discussed the decline of meat consumption, and we’ve recently seen Tyson, Cargill, and other meat producers witness a drop in earnings over the last two quarters. How does this relate to the animal welfare standards of these companies?

Good question—I’m not sure it does alter what they’re doing (or not doing) on animal welfare.

In Kentucky, as you may know, we have a very strange Livestock Care Standards Commission, which listened to testimony from your colleague Matt Dominguez and others (myself included) about their silence on policies like tail docking and gestation crates. Why are regulators so resistant to enforce these now-common standards?

First, thanks so much for testifying there! That’s awesome, man. Second, there’s often a resistance from those in the agribusiness industry to providing any legal protection for animals from abuse whatsoever. On principle, many folks in the industry oppose any agricultural regulation, especially when it comes to regulations to prevent animal cruelty.

You wrote Food Day’s blog, regarding eating fewer animals, that “Very few issues have such clear connections among public health, animal welfare and sustainability.” How do we get others to understand that? Many think that dietary choices are simple, uninteresting debates based purely on taste.

There’s no doubt that eating is a moral act. What we choose to eat has profound consequences not just for us, but for animals and the planet, too.

HSUS—like so many other animal groups—advocates both to reduce the suffering of farm animals who are going to be raised for food and to reduce the total number of animals who are raised for food. For example, in addition to our efforts to ban some of the worst abuses of farm animals, HSUS’s resources include the HSUS Guide to Meat-Free Meals, our Meatless Monday video, our free recipe of the week, our recipe library, and more.

As far as advice for how to help people make better dietary decisions, Nick Cooney’s “Change of Heart” is a great book to read.

Simply put, is a plant-based diet the future for America? Do you envision a day when the majority of Americans eat this way?

Meat consumption is declining in the US. Per capita consumption of meat has dropped by 12.2% in the past five years and is projected to continue falling. Egg and dairy consumption is also on the decline. We’re raising and killing more than a billion fewer farm animals today in the US than we were five years ago, despite an ever-increasing human population. The number of people cutting back on animal consumption continues to grow, and major food industry trade publications tout meat-free options as one of the hottest trends in dining. Add to that cultural icons (think Bill Clinton, Oprah, Ellen and more) who are touting the benefits of plant-based eating, and you see that an issue that was once very fringe is now firmly in the mainstream. I definitely see that continuing.

Anything else you would like to add:

The animal movement has taken impressively important steps in recent years, especially when it comes to farm animal protection. This is progress we should celebrate for sure. Of course, the longest journeys begin with single steps, and we can’t forget that we’ve still got a long way to go. History proves that progress tends to beget progress, yet this doesn’t happen in a self-executing type of way. Laws don’t pass themselves. Campaigns don’t wage and win themselves. This progress our movement is making is only because of the tireless work of so many dedicated animal advocates who are working for tangible advancements, and it’s because of their continued efforts that we’re going to continue moving the ball forward for animals.

I want to thank Paul again for his generous time and explanations of the issues. Regardless of what lean of activist you may be, it’s important to recognize that HSUS is doing some effective work. I’ve ask Paul to check the comments to respond to any follow-up questions you may have.

  • Jon

    Great interview!

  • BTF1

    The outrageous UEP-HSUS legislation would establish egg factory CAGES as a national standard that could never be challenged or changed by state law or public vote. Instead of outlawing cages, this crazy measure would outlaw the BANNING of cages. That is why it is being pushed by the egg industry itself! The Stop the Rotten Egg Bill (http://www.StopTheRottenEggBill.org) campaign is getting it right. Check it out. This bill would stop cage-free laws dead in their tracks and take away our voting rights!

  • Tim

    To read why Mercy For Animals–and every single group that’s ever spearheaded a successful legislative campaign to ban battery cages–supports this important federal legislation, go here: http://www.mercyforanimals.org/hen-bill-faq.aspx The link “BTF1” points to is by a group called the “Humane Farming Association,” which didn’t even support California’s Prop 2, and also opposed the California law banning foie gras production. What a shame to see them now helping the pork and beef industry try to kill this federal hen protection legislation.

  • Cody_Carlson

    Whether you call it animal rights, animal welfare, or animal protection, folks like Paul are taking it mainstream. I can’t think of one person who’s done more for farmed animals. Great interview.