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Foxes in the Hen House: Could the Animal Welfare World Be An Unusually Bad Place for Women to Work?

One might expect an industry that prioritizes empathy for others to also be a friendly workplace environment for women. But that's not always the case.
Wayne Pacelle speaks onstage during the Humane Society of the United States' Los Angeles Benefit Gala at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on May 16th, 2015, in Beverly Hills, California.

Wayne Pacelle speaks onstage during the Humane Society of the United States' Los Angeles Benefit Gala at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on May 16th, 2015, in Beverly Hills, California.

"Which red-blooded male hasn't sexually harassed somebody?" asked Erika Brunson, an 83-year-old board member of the Humane Society of the United States. "We'd have no CEOs and no executives of American companies if none of them had affairs."

These quotes, given to a New York Times reporter and printed on February 2nd, could not have pleased Wayne Pacelle, the chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States who is himself in the midst of sexual harassment allegations (originally reported in the Chronicle of Philanthropy). According to one accuser, Pacelle, whose compensation is over $330,000 a year, asked if he could masturbate in front of her. Pacelle calls this accusation part of "a coordinated attempt to attack me." Last week, with HSUS facing a donor revolt, Pacelle stepped down from his position.

There's a troubling paradox at the intersection of animal advocacy and sexual harassment. Organizations such as HSUS, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Mercy for Animals, Farm Sanctuary, Direct Action Everywhere—and dozens of others—aim to protect society's most vulnerable beings from exploitation. Their work demands a level of compassion that takes seriously the suffering of sentient animals. The depth of empathy required to grant moral consideration to cows, chickens, and pigs (dogs and cats might be a bit easier) would seem to be at odds with a swaggering bro-culture where women are systematically demeaned and intimidated. But—at least at HSUS—this is evidently not the case.

Notable women working in animal advocacy have long identified the extent of this problem. Carol Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, hosted a guest blog during the HSUS blow up that claimed, "We are realizing that the progressive values that aim to prevent cruelty, suffering, and harassment of animals have in some ways failed to be truly applied to the treatment of women (and some men) in our workplaces." Especially frustrating to Adams and other female activists is the fact that this point has now been made for several decades—and, in the last couple of years, with particular stridency. The problem, as many critics see it, is more than a few bad actors. It's cultural.

To support that point, Politico reported that the HSUS's vice president of policy, Paul Shapiro, also stood accused of fostering a sexually intimidating workplace. Several women reported being bullied by Shapiro, who worked closely with Pacelle at the HSUS. According to the Politico investigation, Shapiro, who was alone in an Airbnb with a female employee (they were on a business trip, and another person was supposed to be with them), emerged from the bathroom naked except for the boxer briefs he held over his groin. This unwanted exposure happened to the woman after she refused an invitation to sit closely next to Shapiro on a love seat and watch a program on his iPad. Shapiro also allegedly sent around pornographic images to other men in the office, told sexually lewd jokes, and suggested that one female HSUS member who was being flirted with by a wealthy donor "take one for the team" and just have sex with him.

THE ECONOMIC PRICE OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT: Research finds being subjected to workplace misconduct can inhibit women's careers.

Professionally speaking, Shapiro and Pacelle were superstars who became known for a string of animal welfare accomplishments. They shifted the organization's emphasis from rescuing cats and dogs to a more ambitious critique of industrial agriculture. This transition culminated in numerous legal victories, notably Proposition 2, which ended the use of battery cages in California's egg industry. Shapiro is specifically credited with convincing McDonald's to use only cage-free eggs—something that a decade earlier would have seemed impossible to even imagine. Together, Pacelle and Shapiro helped improve the lives of millions of animals. But their ship sank in unison. A month after Pacelle came under investigation, in early December, for sexual harassment, Shapiro left, claiming that he wanted to spend time promoting his new book, Clean Meat (reviewed here in Pacific Standard).

"In years past at my previous job, I sometimes acted inappropriately, for which I'm deeply sorry. I engaged in sophomoric and unprofessional behavior. I should have known better and sincerely regret my thoughtlessness and poor decisions," Shapiro said in a written statement provided to Pacific Standard. "I apologized privately then and do so publicly now to anyone I've hurt or offended. As a result of my embarrassing actions, in October 2016 I assumed a new role with less responsibility and no employees reporting to me. ... Many of the assertions that have been publicly reported are simply false. I was rightfully held accountable for what I actually did, which was irresponsible enough."*

The leadership of the animal welfare "industry," as it were, is largely male. The notable exception is PETA, where Ingrid Newkirk, who co-founded the organization over 35 years ago, is still in charge. But PETA is the one animal welfare operation known primarily for making advertisements that brutally objectify women, thereby undermining whatever gender justice might be achieved through charismatic female leadership. PETA's decision to raise awareness about animal welfare though the sexual objectification of women therefore adds to the argument that sexual harassment is a problem that goes beyond the HSUS. Indeed, there's much to indicate that it's endemic to animal advocacy in general.

Testimonies (all anonymous) provided to a website run by Coalition Against Nonprofit Harassment and Discrimination (none of these claims were vetted for accuracy) further suggest a pandemic of abuse. Consider just a few of the excerpted reports:

  • I was a victim of the CEO and executive officers of a major animal non-profit. I have signed an NDA and am unable to speak out. I'm feeling hopeless because the harassment case against the CEO recently closed without his being terminated. When will there be justice for those of us that have been bullied and then black listed?
  • I worked at an animal rights organization where I was routinely asked to participate in naked, or nearly naked, sexually-charged protests. Not only did it make me feel extremely uncomfortable (especially when male campaigners were the ones to ask), as if the only way I could REALLY help animals was through my body, I was also was made to feel like I hurt animals as a result of saying no.
  • At the animal rights organization where I am active, there is a man in leadership who preys on vulnerable activists. He picks out activists who are having relationship problems or mental health issues, etc. He tries to be their best friend, the only one who understands them and is there for them. He ends up having sex with them, saying he doesn't want a relationship, and forces them to keep silent about their encounter(s). He does this in a pretty threatening way. He is manipulative and playing mind games.
  • I was part of the crew for an animal rights campaign and worked closely with the manager and CEO. From the moment we landed on a different continent, the manager's behavior shifted to becoming aggressively sexual with me. I was in my twenties at the time and he was in his forties and the CEO. I also didn't have any previous experience with being abused and didn't realize I was being groomed. After weeks of trying to fight it off, being gaslighted, trying to stand up for myself then having the abuse escalate, I became terribly depressed and could barely function to be able to do my job. This caused the CEO to become even more abusive to me.
  • While I was employed at a vegan business, myself and my manager visited the headquarters of a vegan non-profit. We were visiting with one of the co-founders in his office when the man suddenly pulled me onto his lap. He was much older and I was in my early 20s. I immediately stood up and said that sitting in his lap was inappropriate. This incident made me question whether I could trust my manager because he did nothing to interfere.

These examples are striking in their consistency. They indicate that the tawdry behavior that infects other industriesmedia, film, the food and beverage industry—runs amok in the realm of animal welfare work too. But these testimonies are also more viscerally unsettling. By drawing attention to the systemic abuse of male power in the world of animal advocacy, they encourage a reconsideration of our opening paradox. We noted how one might reasonably think that an organization predicated on compassion for animals would actively oppose gender and sexual exploitation. But could it be the exact opposite? That is, could male leaders of organizations dedicated to helping animals be especially prone to abusing female employees?

There are two factors to consider when exploring this question. The first starts with how male leaders in the movement portray themselves for public consumption. I'd encourage readers to do image searches for leading figures in the major animal welfare organizations. What you will find are pictures of handsome, charismatic men snuggling with cute, vulnerable animals. Cases in point are Pacelle and Shapiro.

Of course, we have all taken pics with our beloved animals—nothing wrong with that. But when the images are used to represent powerful welfare advocates, they demand a different kind of scrutiny. What's being manufactured in these cases, after all, is a virtue-packed message of trust, tenderness, and compassion. These men are advertising what appears to be a rare sensitivity to the most vulnerable creatures in order to generate donations for their organization. This combination of institutional power plus the appealing image of compassion for fuzzy creatures places these men on a pedestal of attraction that other executives in other lines of work may not enjoy. This is a movement whose ranks are dominated by young women sickened by the notion of animal abuse. And here are these handsome sensitive types to fight the good fight, all the while cuddling a piglet. It's easy to see how this situation could turn exploitative.

WHY IS THE SEXUAL HARASSMENT RATE SO HIGH IN THE RESTAURANT INDUSTRY? Much of it can be traced to the consequences of tip-based compensation for workers in a predominantly female workforce.

The second factor centers on what happens after matters become exploitative. It's always difficult to come forward and accuse a workplace superior of abuse. The process places accusers at risk of being blackballed, slut-shamed, and being put through an emotional wringer. As we know, fear of retaliation does not prevent brave women from coming forward. It may help that the organization at stake produces goods that an employee might consider marginally relevant to a meaningful life: television shows, movies, high-end food, or energy drinks. But when the organization that stands to suffer is dedicated to helping animals, the calculus can shift.

Women in the animal welfare world often feel so deeply about their cause that they make radical personal choices to reduce animal suffering. They go vegan; they don't wear animal products; they avoid forms of entertainment that harm animals—that is, they structure their lives to be in accordance with the cause their organization espouses (or claims to espouse). So when it comes time to file an accusation against the organization whose work is dedicated to a cause they hold sacred, the accuser is unusually prone to, well, "take one for the team" and keep quiet.

This tendency was clearly evident in the remarks of one victim who, speaking to Politico, said: "You join this movement and you just want to do anything for it. You believe these guys are the heroes. You believe they're going to be compassionate because they're speaking up for animals and you trust them." Adams, the author, explained what this led to: "Women were told for the good of the movement that they should stay quiet." Animals' lives, after all, were at stake.

*Update—February 6th, 2018: This story has been updated to include a statement issued by Paul Shapiro.