Why you should care

Because billionaires are betting on animal welfare.

Campaigns against animal cruelty tend to conjure pious vegans or paint-splashing activists — non-profiteers fighting the good fight and not really getting anywhere. But who really holds sway over our buying practices? Corporations such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. A Fortune 500 boardroom decision to ditch eggs that come from caged chickens, for instance, can literally change the fates of millions of hens.

To some, harnessing the power of corporations for moral change seems like an oxymoron. But to Wayne Pacelle, head of the Humane Society of the United States, it’s a no-brainer. Among the arguments in his recent book, The Humane Economy: How Henry Ford and his automobiles arguably did more to end cruelty against horses than Henry Bergh, the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) — even if the idea of horsepower still lingers in our lingo today. We spoke with Pacelle about the notion of a humane economy. The transcript of our conversation has been condensed and edited.

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Can corporate America turn animal welfare into an opportunity?

Source Bloomberg/Getty

OZY: How did you get to the top dogs at McDonald’s?

Wayne Pacelle: Billionaire Carl Icahn called me out of the blue. He’s known as a really sharp-elbows kind of guy, who strikes fear in the heart of CEOs. After our meeting he got right on his phone and called the president of McDonald’s. By the end of that process in January 2015, McDonald’s agreed to phase out purchase of pork from gestation crates, where 300- to 500-pound pigs are held in spaces 6 feet long and 2 feet wide. Essentially all they can do is take one step backward or forward and are kept there for years, through nine or 10 successive pregnancies and misery and privation.

After McDonald’s, 60 other retailers followed suit. Now we’re in the process of seeing the whole pork industry changing. Then in September 2015, McDonald’s committed to stopping the purchase of eggs from hens in battery cages where birds are jammed together for 12 to 18 months. Then we worked with 175 companies like Wal-Mart, Kroger and Safeway, and they all committed to phasing out caged eggs. McDonald’s has been at the forefront of two big changes, and their involvement pushed almost every other food retailer in that direction.

OZY: How do you strike a balance between cooperating with corporations that are improving on inhumane treatment of animals and reprimanding them when they’re slow or resistant?

W.P.: That’s really the art form at the Humane Society of the United States. I’m 50 and I’ve been active in animal protection for three decades since I started an animal advocacy group at Yale. I have a feel for how hard to push, and I’m anchored by a set of core values.

OZY: In your book, you write that “just about every enterprise built on harming animals today is ripe for disruption.” Seeing exploitation as opportunity for innovation sounds very Silicon Valley.

W.P.: In my adult lifetime, I’ve seen the incredible revolution in the way we communicate and gather information. For me, that’s a tremendous example of how innovation can change the world — we make better decisions when we’re educated and informed. I think we’re going to be a smarter species and when it comes to animals, innovation can be the pathway out of old forms of exploitation. Silicon Valley is really at the leading edge of developing plant-based proteins that match the taste and texture of meat, with equal amounts of protein but without the fat, cholesterol, antibiotics, hormones, massive amounts of manure and any of the animal cruelty. Right now, 9 billion animals are raised for food every year. Take Hampton Creek, the fastest growing food startup that’s creating a plant-based substitute for eggs. It’s taken the chicken out of the equation. And there’s Pat Brown at Stanford, who’s developed a meat substitute that bleeds, looks and tastes like meat. It’s the future of food.

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Pacelle checking snare traps used by poachers in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park.

Source Visions of America/Getty Images

OZY: How do you get people who work in very disparate worlds to become animal activists?

W.P.: Ultimately, I believe that the ideas I’m espousing are mainstream sentiments. In an earlier era of animal protection, the whole set of views was seen as out of the mainstream. Now animal protection isn’t a sacrifice but an opportunity.

OZY: Where do we go from here?

W.P.: My book is that it’s hopeful. These ideas are on the path to triumph. We’re using human ingenuity and creativity and literally just problem solving to put exploitation into the history books. In fact a year ago, we learned Cecil the Lion was killed in Zimbabwe. Because of social media, that image got all over the world. Not only that, we got 45 airlines to agree to stop shipping “Big Five” trophies: leopards, lions, cape buffalo, elephants and rhino. They said, “We’re not going to be your getaway vehicle.” That alone is another incredible example of the humane economy.

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