Sexual harassment and gender bias in the animal welfare movement have been talked about for years, mostly but not entirely in private. Now the problems are bursting into public view, and not a moment too soon.
Last night, the Chronicle of Philanthropy published my story about the Humane Society of the U.S. It reports that Humane Society’s board of directors has hired a Washington, DC, law firm to investigate an allegation of workplace misconduct against its longtime chief executive, Wayne Pacelle. Among the topics, insiders say, is an alleged sexual relationship between Pacelle and a female employee.
The investigation at HSUS, which is the nation’s most important animal welfare group, comes as women in the animal protection movement are publicly calling out some of the movement’s most prominent leaders, accusing of them of offenses that range in gravity from using language that creates a frat-like “bro” culture to sexual assault.
Several leaders will be named in this blogpost because people in the movement have heard the names, but please do keep in mind that an accusation is not the same as evidence of wrongdoing. In this #metoo moment, it is, sadly, all too easy to rush to judgment. Having said that, evidence indicates that false allegations of sexual assault are invariably and consistently low.
HSUS has said little about the investigation into Wayne Pacelle. The group’s board chairman, Eric Bernthal, said via email: “We believe it is important to deal in substance and not rumors, and our process is designed to ensure confidentiality and fair consideration of these issues.”
Pacelle continues to work at HSUS during the investigation, which is being done by Morgan Lewis, a DC firm with a substantial labor and employment practice. This is serious stuff. Most organizations frown upon even consensual relationships between superiors, especially the CEO, and subordinates. (Google “Brian Dunn” and “Harry Stonecipher” if you doubt.) Pacelle has worked for HSUS since 1994, and he has been its president and CEO since 2004.
This isn’t, however, a problem confined to HSUS. Having spoken or emailed in the last week with more than a dozen people in the movement, it’s become clear to me that gender bias and sexual harassment are significant problems for the animal protection movement, and they have been for a long time.
An overdue reckoning
Lisa Kemmerer, a professor of philosophy and religion at Montana State University who has written a series of academic papers about sexual harassment in social justice organizations, told me: “I’ve been in this movement for 30 years. This (reckoning) should have happened long ago.”
Carol J. Adams, a writer and activist who published a book called The Sexual Politics of Meat back in 1990, has been thinking and writing about this topic for decades. Adams, who has a masters of divinity from Yale and is also an expert on domestic violence, has spoken with victims. In a 2011 essay, she wrote:
Sexual inequality is one of the defining elements of the animal movement…Men still predominate as leaders and speakers, women as the grassroots workers.
The animal movement, by ignoring or remaining insufficiently attentive to the connections between patriarchy and speciesism, ends up reproducing women s inequality in its structure, its focus, its arguments, its use of women’s labor, and in the accessibility it provides to sexual exploiters. [emphasis added]
It was in 2011 that Nick Cooney, one of the movement’s best known leaders, was accused–falsely, he says–of having “a history of sexual and physical violence against women.” He filed a defamation suit in federal court against his accusers and won a judgment, he told me. Whatever the facts of the case–and his accusers cannot speak–this had the effect of discouraging other women in the movement from coming forward.
Several years later, Hugo Dominguez, an organizer with the animal-rights group Direct Action Everywhere, apologized on his Facebook page for his treatment of women, writing: “I’ve hurt, manipulated and exposed very explicit images and confidential information about female animal rights activists. I’ve broken many of the principles and values which I espouse.”
This past summer, before the #metoo hashtag went viral, a group that calls itself the Coalition Against Nonprofit Harassment and Discrimination built a website that asks people in the animal protection movement to respond to a survey and post testimonials about their experience. They’re anonymous, but the postings describe supervisors who are “aggressively sexual.” Some organizations, it’s said, ask male and female employees to share hotel rooms while traveling.
The #Metoo moment further emboldened women in the movement–notably donors.
Prominent among them is Rachel Perman, director of charitable giving at Tofurky, a major corporate donor to the animal-welfare causes. The company released a statement last fall saying it would no longer support nonprofits that do not have strong policies on gender bias and sexual harassment that, among other things, disclose the number of complaints filed and report on the percentages of men and women in leadership and board roles. (Board diversity is a key to addressing this problem. That’s an important topic, for another day.)
Perman explained the policy when it was released:
With issues of sexual harassment and assault dominating recent news cycles, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about similar problems within a social justice movement that is one of the most important things in my life – the animal protection movement.
I’ve come to realize that as the Director of Charitable Giving at Tofurky and a woman in the animal movement, I have a moral obligation to do what I can to address these issues.
Moving forward, I will not be donating to groups that have known chronic problems with sexual harassment and/or gender discrimination, whether it be problem individuals or chronic patterns of organizational behavior. Too many women have left the animal movement due to these issues. It must stop.
Fear of retaliation
By phone, Perman told me that she has spoken first-hand with women who have been victimized. Why, I asked her, haven’t more women come forward?
“There’s still so much fear in the animal movement,” she said, “which speaks to the atmosphere of bullying and retaliation that still exists.”
Last month, Carol Adams ran a series of guest commentaries on her blog by women calling on animal groups to address the problems of sexual harassment, as well as the power imbalances that make them possible. “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,” wrote one.
Ten days ago, on her Facebook page, Adams identified Paul Shapiro, a former Humane Society executive and author of a new book, Clean Meat, as a “perpetrator.” At a book reading several days later, Shapiro was interrupted by a heckler asking him about sexual harassment. “I don’t want to be tried by social media,” he responded.
Shapiro had an improper relationship with a subordinate, insiders at HSUS tell me. He left HSUS recently. By email, he told me that this was unrelated to issues of workplace conduct:
I left HSUS on January 2 (the day the book came out) for the sole reason that I wanted to devote the time to the book launch that it required. As you know, since I began researching the book, my thinking really shifted about how best to help farm animals. (I now believe that food technology could more quickly advance animals’ interests.)
Another sign that something’s amiss: Mercy for Animals last fall lost its designation as a top charity of Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE), a meta-charity that seeks to identify effective ways to help animals. ACE won’t say much about why. “MFA declined to be reviewed or to have their review published this year,” the group says on its website.
There’s more to the story. Last year, ACE decided to examine workplace culture during its evaluation process. Why, I asked Jon Bockman, ACE’s executive director? “Precisely because of the rumblings we’ve heard for a while” about issues of gender bias and sexual harassment in the movement, he said. “I think it’s a real problem.”
As part of the process, Sofia Davis Fogel, ACE’s research editor, conducted telephone interviews with at least two people in 14 organizations that got a thorough reviews. Those staff members or volunteers were not part of leadership and they were promised anonymity. They had no incentive to overstate problems; to the contrary, they might be tempted to paint their employers in a favorable light, in the hope of securing a better rating and more donations.
Making those calls gave Fogel unique insight into the workplace culture of the movement.
“Gender bias came up in way more conversations than sexual harassment,” Fogel told me. In about half of the organizations, she said, women told her that they believed they were paid less or disrespected more than their male peers. Sexual harassment was identified as a problem in two or three groups, she said.
A threat to Mercy for Animals
Until November, Nick Cooney was executive vice president at Mercy For Animals. He’s got a stellar resume, as a founder or co-founder of The Humane League, the Good Food Institute and New Crop Capital. By email, I asked him whether his departure from MFA was tied to issues of workplace conduct. He replied with a long email, telling me that he had “a clear HR record” and excellent performance reviews at MFA. (His email, with minor edits, is posted here.) His resignation was primarily driven by differences of opinion about culture and communication, he said, but his reputation also came into play. He wrote:
In October, two people who did not work at MFA, and who I don’t really know other than casually meeting at some animal protection events, reached out to MFA with vaguely worded communications saying something to the effect that I had a negative history with women. My understanding is they threatened that they were going to reach out to all of MFA’s major donors and tell them to stop donating unless I left the organization.
I reached out to these two people several times to ask to speak with them, to hear what their concerns were, and to hear what they wanted me to do. I never received a response. But their threat to cause financial harm to an animal protection charity, to a charity I cared (and still care) a lot about, and to cause harm that—if carried out—could have hurt a huge number of animals, on top of what I mentioned earlier, tipped the scales into it seeming to be best for me to leave MFA to focus on something different.
Cooney also said:
I’m glad the #MeToo movement has shed more light on one of the very serious problems that exists in society, and I totally agree with the world that this movement would like to see. No one should be mistreated, denied equal opportunity, or hurt because of their gender (or sexual orientation, or race).
My story for The Chronicle of Philanthropy takes a stab at putting the situation in context:
The culture of the movement creates conditions that are ripe for exploitation, insiders say. Female staff and volunteers are often idealistic, sensitive souls who empathize with the suffering of animals. They assume that men in the movement are kindred spirits. Bonding over their refusal to eat meat or wear animal products, they socialize as well as work together.
When problems arise, women have been discouraged from speaking out. “Women were told for the good of the movement that they should stay quiet,” Ms. Adams said. “Men who should have held the other men accountable chose friendship over justice. You’ve got almost an impregnable group of people protecting one another.”
Finally, a mea culpa. I’ve written often about the animal welfare movement in the past few years, reporting on the important work of Wayne Pacelle, Paul Shapiro and Nick Cooney, among others. I have not devoted sufficient attention to women in the movement. I’ll try to do better, going forward.