Scandal? Tragedy? Farce?
It’s been a roller-coaster week for the Humane Society of the US (HSUS), for the women who work there and for the animals they care about. But the controversy over sexual harassment that rocked the organization came to a climax on Friday afternoon when Wayne Pacelle, the chief executive of HSUS since 2004, resigned his position, effective immediately.
Pacelle stepped down less than 24 hours after HSUS’s 31-member board called off an investigation into his workplace conduct and voted to keep him on the job, despite evidence that he treated women badly and then lied about his actions. The board vote came even as major donors were asking the board to hold Pacelle accountable, not only for his actions but for a workplace culture that allowed the behavior of Paul Shapiro, a top HSUS executive whose conduct was exposed earlier in the week in an investigative story in Politico.
Now the board needs to be held accountable for its action, which has done untold damage to the Humane Society brand and the animal-welfare cause.
In an email to HSUS staff on Friday, Pacelle wrote:
We need to come together. Our mission depends on unity. For that reason, I am recommending that the board launch a search for a successor. I am resigning, effective immediately, to allow that process to move forward expeditiously and to put aside any distractions, in the best interests of all parties.
It’s very fitting that Kitty Block, a fabulous and highly qualified advocate, will now server as acting president and CEO. She’s been a cherished colleague to many of us here for nearly a quarter century.
A swift and forceful reaction to the board vote led to Pacelle’s departure:
–Seven HSUS board members quit in protest.
–Major donors said they would withdraw or reconsider their support.
–Two of Pacelle’s accusers went public with their charges. Others surfaced.
–HSUS’s top lobbyist in California, Jennifer Fearing, ended her contract with the group.
–A nonprofit that rates charities amended its evaluation of HSUS.
Dozens of HSUS staff members, meanwhile, organized into a by-invitation-only Facebook group to decide how to effectively voice their unhappiness.
Reasa Haggard Currier, HSUS’s director of faith outreach, told me: “The young women and men in our organization are watching and it’s a defining moment.”
It was Currier’s complaint against Pacelle–she said he kissed her against her wishes back in 2005, when she was a 20-something intern with HSUS–that set off the investigation by a Washington law firm, Morgan Lewis.
When Currier returned to the DC headquarters of HSUS last year after working remotely from Colorado, she heard similar stories from other women and decided to step forward. “It is a pattern of behavior for Wayne,” she said,
Others, too, were emboldened by the board vote to speak out during this #metoo moment.
“Enough is enough,” said Josh Skipworth, HSUS’s state director in Iowa. “We white dudes need to do a hell of a lot better job of calling out other guys.”
Pacelle has steadfastly denied wrongdoing. He told The Washington Post: “This is a coordinated attempt to attack me and the organization.”
His resignation note did not include words of apology or regret, or any admission of wrongdoing.
But the willingness of women and men to speak out, and the support they got from donors, evidently persuaded him to step down, rather than continue to fight the charges.
It would have been an uphill battle, no matter what. Why would anyone believe that women working in the animal protection movement would organize a campaign to attack him and HSUS unless he had given them ample reasons to do so.
“I am someone who loves this organization with every fiber of my body,” Currier told me. “My work is my joy.”
Ashley Rhinehart, a former HSUS employee who came forward publicly, also had nothing to gain. She told investigators that Pacelle wanted to dance with her and then repeatedly tried to get her into his office alone. On her Facebook page, she wrote: “There is no enjoyment in describing sexual misconduct or harassment within a movement you care very deeply about.”
Today [Friday, Feb 3], a former HSUS employee and a respected figure in the animal protection movement, emailed me to say: “In 2001, I was a 23-year-old graduate student looking for a job at an HSUS conference. Wayne Pacelle tried to kiss me, and I turned away. It was an unwelcome advance. He was a VP at the time, and it was after hours.” She asked not to be named, in part because she’s in the movement.
In a powerful post on Carol J. Adams’ blog, yet another woman who worked at HSUS urged others to come forward. “No one makes these stories up for fun,” she said.
These woman deserve praise for their courage. It’s not easy to speak out against the charismatic leader of the US’s most influential animal protection group.
Donors, too, played a vital role, particularly Rachel Perman, director of charitable giving at Tofurky, who was moved to publish a strong policy on sexual harassment after hearing a panel discussion about gender and race at an Animal Law Conference in October. [See my blogpost, The latest: #Metoo and the animal welfare movement, for more.] Jim Greenbaum, the founder and managing director of the Greenbaum Foundation, who said he gave $100k to HSUS last year, was also vocal in his criticism of the way the board handled the Pacelle investigation, as was Nicole Brodeur, who with her husband, Alex Payne, also said they gave $100K last year.
Joining Pacelle is departing HSUS is board member Erika Brunson, who lent a farcical element to the this week’s saga by telling a reporter: “Which red-blooded male hasn’t sexually harassed somebody? Women should be able to take care of themselves.”
Earlier, when Perman, the Tofurky executive, expressed concern about sexual harassment inside HSUS, Brunson responded: “Don’t you have anything better to do in life than air your repressed sexual fantasies in public?”
To the embarrassment of all, Brunson’s remarks were the only word out of the HSUS board for nearly 24 hours after the meeting. No more evidence is needed that this board is not up to the task of guiding HSUS.
Other pressures on Pacelle came from the Open Philanthropy Project, which is believed to be HSUS’s largest donor. Open Philanthropy has given roughly $4.9m to HSUS and its international affiliates in recent years.
Holden Karnofsky, executive director of the Open Philanthropy Project, told me by email:
The Open Philanthropy Project is deeply concerned about reported sexual harassment and misconduct at the Humane Society of the United States. We have contacted the chair of the HSUS board of directors requesting a prompt explanation of their actions. We will be reevaluating our funding of HSUS in light of what we learn.
Animal Charity Evaluators, a nonprofit that evaluates animal welfare groups, which had previously recommended HSUS’s farm animal program as a “standout charity,” wrote on Friday:
We have removed two paragraphs from our HSUS Farm Animal Protection review where we praised Paul (Shapiro) and Wayne, and added a disclaimer at the top of the review to acknowledge the change. Specifically, we note that “This review was edited on January 31, 2018 to remove information that we no longer believe to be accurate about the leadership and culture of HSUS farm animal protection campaign.”
Credit also belongs to feminists who have long been active in the animal protection movement, including Carol J. Adams, Lisa Kemmerer, Erica Meier, Leah Garcés and the anonymous women behind the Coalition Against Nonprofit Harassment and Discrimination.
Let’s give the last word to Reasa Haggard Currier, who willingness to come forward set today’s events into motion. About Pacelle’s departure, she wrote:
In many ways this journey has just started and I know there is a lot of healing yet to do. It is true, though, that no matter what journey you find yourself on God will give you the right companions. I have learned so much and have so much more to learn, but for now it is time to get back to work.
Amen to that.
UPDATE: ACE has rescinded its designation of HSUS as a standout charity. Here is an explanation from the ACE blog. At least one woman has suggested to me that ACE was slow to look into allegations of sexual harassment in the movement, and timid in its response.