Days after the Harvey Weinstein horror story broke, the anger among women in the animal welfare movement, which had simmered for years, boiled over during a panel on gender and race at the Animal Law Conference in Portland, Oregon.
“Too often we excuse the wrongdoing of our colleagues who treat their employees with disrespect and downright cruelty,” said Joyce Tischler, the founder of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
“There are some cruel and vicious people in (our) organizations, right now,” said lauren Ornelas, founder of the Food Empowerment Project.
“There is no legitimate excuse for tolerating predatory male behavior,” declared Jennifer Fearing, who led policy and advocacy efforts in California for the Humane Society of the U.S. before starting her own advocacy and lobbying firm.
The movement is vulnerable to lawsuits, or a PR crisis, Fearing warned.
Yep. That PR crisis is here.
Much of what has surfaced in the last week — a Washington Post story detailing damaging allegations against Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society, of the US (HSUS), a Politico investigation of charges against Paul Shapiro, a former Humane Society executive, and my own reporting on this blog and in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, which broke the news that an outside law firm was investigating Pacelle — can be traced back to that Saturday afternoon panel discussion in Portland. (You can watch it on YouTube.)
An influential donor
In the audience was Rachel Perman, an animal-welfare activist and the director of charitable giving at Tofurky, the vegetarian food company, and a pivotal figure in what has unfolded in the last few months. During her talk, lauren Ornelas urged donors to look at the staffs, boards and gender bias policies of animal-welfare groups. Perman did exactly that, and she reached out to other donors, notably an Oregon woman named Nicole Brodeur. Soon after, Tofurky imposed new demands on the groups it supports, while Brodeur and her husband, Alex Payne, one of the first engineers hired at Twitter, wrote on her Facebook page that they had come to believe that several nonprofits they support had, as they put it, “been harboring serial harassers, either on staff or as board members.”
“If the causes we support are to be successful,” Brodeur and Payne wrote, “it is essential that the movement leaders we invest in do not replicate the sort of predatory and exploitative injustices that we are struggling against together.
The movement took notice.
Days later, prominent activist Nick Cooney resigned from a top job at Mercy for Animals and left the board of The Humane League, a group he had started. In an email to me last week, Cooney said that a threat from two women to cause financial harm to MFA played a contributing role in his decision to leave.
In mid-November, Perman emailed the 31 members of the Humane Society board about her concerns. She got a jaw-dropping response from an elderly HSUS board member and donor named Erika Brunson, who runs an interior design and furniture business in West Hollywood.
As a donor and supporter of HSUS, both personally (I’m a former HSUS Oregon State Council member) and in my professional capacity as Director of Charitable Giving at Tofurky, I am concerned about alleged issues of pervasive sexual harassment within HSUS…I respectfully request that, as a member of the HSUS Board of Directors, you ask for a thorough, independent review of sexual harassment complaints/cases within HSUS over the period of the last 15 years.
Are you out of your mind? Don’t you have anything better to do in life, than air your repressed sexual fantasies in public?
There is no better evidence of the importance of putting people with integrity, intelligence and independence onto nonprofit boards. Brunson fails on all three counts.
Why boards matter
To his credit, when he learned of the exchange, Eric Bernthal, the chair of the HSUS board, contacted Rachel Perman. Bernthal told me, by email, that he told Perman that
Ms. Brunson was responding on her own and not on behalf of the HSUS board, that I had not seen or authorized her response, and that I disagreed with the tone and substance of her response. I said that it absolutely did not reflect the views of HSUS, and I apologized unequivocally for the email.
Nonprofit boards stacked with donors or friends of the executive director do the organization no good.
In other developments:
Another donor spoke out. Jim Greenbaum emailed Bernthal to ask that Pacelle step down as chief executive of HSUS while the investigation continues:
As a $100,000 donor to The Humane Society of the United States in 2017, I am dismayed to learn that the HSUS Board, given the level of the charges against Mr. Pacelle, hasn’t followed the customary business practice of suspending Mr. Pacelle during the pendency of the investigation.
With Mr. Pacelle still at the helm of the organization as the investigation continues, other employees who may have been aggrieved are going to be much less likely to come forward as it would almost certainly appear to them that the alleged perpetrator will still be their boss, and that the Board of Directors is not taking the allegations seriously.
Greenbaum said the board’s handling of the situation makes it “very unlikely that I will continue to fund HSUS.”
HSUS policy permits consensual affairs between managers and subordinates if managers disclose them in writing to HR and the legal department. The policy says: “Immediate disclosure is required of any romantic or physical relationship between a manager and any other employee where the other employee reports directly to the management employee.”
One exception are affairs with interns which are prohibited “until such time as the internship ends.” That’s reassuring.
Carol J. Adams, an author, feminist and longtime animal welfare advocate whose blog has been a hub of activity around #metoo and animal welfare, told me by email that the HSUS policy is “poorly thought out and erroneous in its assumptions and clearly allowed for exploitative behavior to continue.” This may well have been by design, a former employee told me.
Neither Pacelle nor Shapiro acquitted themselves well when they spoke to The Post and Politico. The Post reported:
Pacelle denied having a relationship with the subordinate. He also disputed there was anything inappropriate in the relationship to investigators, according to the memo.
So, er, which was it? Did he deny the relationship? Or did he say there was nothing wrong with it? It can’t be both, unless he is telling the Post there was no relationship while trying to justify it to the investigators. It may be that he’s hoping that no one can prove that the relationship was “romantic or physical,” the words used in the HSUS policy.
In a written statement to Politico, Shapiro said he has apologized to “those who may have been offended” by “inappropriate behavior years earlier in my career.” May have been offended? Gee. When six women go to HR to complain about harassment, and four take their stories to a reporter, you can be pretty sure that they were offended.
A former HSUS employee, who was not among those who spoke to Politico, described her experience to me as “tortured years of working in a climate of relentless sexual harassment and intimidation.” I’m guessing she was offended, too. When she complained to HR, she says, she was chastised.
Women who lead animal welfare groups are speaking out. They say the airing of these issues will be good for the case in the long run. In an email to supporters, Erica Meier of Compassion Over Killing, wrote:
Whenever individuals don’t feel safe or comfortable enough to fully engage in their work or related activities, our ability as a movement to bring about lasting and meaningful change is undermined. Harassment or other forms of discrimination disempower individuals and ultimately harm the animals we are all here to serve.
Leah Garcés, director of Compassion in World Farming USA, said:
Sexual harassment is unacceptable and pressure must come from stakeholders at every level to tackle the problem at its root and prevent further harm.
By phone, she told me: “Ultimately, we want to see a sustainable movement that respects everyone in it….We’ve failed at this stage to achieve that.
Aryenish Birdie of Encompass, a new group that aims to bring racial diversity to the movement, wrote:
While Encompass isn’t currently designed to tackle the specific issues of gender discrimination or sexual harassment, we are committed to equity and justice for all. To that end, we are able to connect women to resources and support services. Ultimately, if we don’t do this difficult—and sometimes painful—work we run the risk of failing both ourselves and the animals.
A final thought: I’ve grown to admire the idealism and dedication of people in the animal welfare movement. But it now seems clear that some women in the movement, shaped by their idealism, are so concerned about animals that they allowed themselves and others to be hurt. To stop one kind of abuse, they allowed another. Men, too, rationalized their silence, saying it was for the good of the cause. That must stop. People in social justice movements may choose to work long hours or accept low pay. They should not be exposed to a toxic workplace, no matter how vital the cause.
Update: Lewis Bollard, program officer for farm animal welfare at the Open Philanthropy Project, a major donor to animal welfare groups, emailed me this morning [Feb. 1] to say:
In the next few days, I’ll be sending a letter to all of my grantees making clear that…we expect all grantees to have rigorous sexual harassment policies and procedures in place. If they lack the resources to develop and implement such policies, the Open Philanthropy Project has given me approval to make grant funding available to eligible grantees to help them hire expert legal or human resources consultants to build grantee capacity in this area. I will be asking about the policies and procedures organizations have in place at my next check-in with each of them, and we may seek to withdraw funding or not renew our grants if grantees fail to develop and implement robust policies.