Wayne Pacelle, Humane Society

Wayne Pacelle, right, President and CEO of Humane Society of the United States at a press conference in the Mayor's Press Room where Mayor Villaraigosa was joined by Los Angeles City Councilmembers Richard Alarcón and Tony Cardenas. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times / July 18, 2008)

Animal welfare activists don't usually invoke the National Rifle Assn. as a role model. After all, hunting animals for sport and protecting animals from sport hunters are mutually exclusive endeavors.

But Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, finds something to admire about the gun rights group: its brute strength.

"Our movement needs an NRA-type organization to get the job done," Pacelle said. "There are lots of gun rights groups, but the one that you hear about and the one that is feared is the NRA."

No, he doesn't want to run an organization that is only feared.

"I'd rather be loved -- and feared."

In the four years since the 42-year-old vegan -- he neither eats nor wears animal products -- ascended to the top spot at the Humane Society, Pacelle has retooled a venerable organization seen as a mild-mannered protector of dogs and cats into an aggressive interest group flexing muscle in state legislatures and courtrooms.

His predecessors may have built the Humane Society's wealth, but he doubled its net assets to nearly $207 million. (The Humane Society is the largest and richest among hundreds of nonprofit animal advocacy membership organizations in the country.) He didn't pioneer the use of hidden-camera video to reveal animal cruelty (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals did), but he has increased the number of Humane Society undercover investigators and packaged the resulting videos with the flair of TMZ and the intensity of "60 Minutes."

The Humane Society's hidden-camera video of cows at a Chino slaughterhouse being dragged, pushed and hosed got the plant closed in February and sparked the largest meat recall in U.S. history. Recently, the Humane Society released video of abuse of dairy cows at five animal auctions.

"Before Wayne took over, you never heard of anything that HSUS was doing that was proactive," said Jane Garrison, a longtime animal welfare activist from Redondo Beach. "Since Wayne has taken over, it's an extremely proactive group."

But the large profile casts a large shadow. Pacelle and his organization have become targets for critics on all sides of animal issues: Some say he's just a radical masquerading in business suits, bent on abolishing meat-eating. (He's not.) And there are animal welfare advocates who argue he hasn't been aggressive enough.

Pacelle eschews the gimmicks of radicals who make their points by disrupting fashion shows featuring fur-clad models or handing out "unhappy meals" outside fast-food restaurants containing toy animals with slit throats.

Instead, his group litigates, launches public awareness campaigns and lobbies against animal fighting, puppy mills, seal hunting and killing for fur, "canned" hunting of animals trapped in reserves and the cruelty of factory farming. He also set up a separate political arm to campaign against politicians with poor records on animal-related issues.

Along the way, the organization has become adept at promotion. Humane Society officials staged an elaborate dinner last year at Spago at which chef-owner Wolfgang Puck announced that he would use only the eggs of cage-free hens in his products and would no longer serve foie gras, which is made from the livers of ducks and geese that are force-fed.

Pacelle is particularly proud of the Humane Society's track record using ballot initiatives.

One of its most ambitious campaigns, launched with Farm Sanctuary, a longtime farm animal protection group, is underway in California. The Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act -- Proposition 2 on the Nov. 4 ballot -- would ban small, confining crates or cages for egg-laying hens, veal calves and pregnant sows. No portion of that measure has ever survived a trip through the Legislature of this agricultural state.

Pacelle casts it as a no-brainer for voters. "I don't believe that the people of California are going to vote against a measure that simply says that animals raised for food should have an opportunity to turn around."

Pacelle retains the lanky grace of the ranked high school tennis player he once was. Tall and good-looking, his dark hair flecked with gray, he garners a certain amount of attention in the animal welfare community, which happens to be significantly populated with women.

"When I first saw him, I almost fell into a swimming pool," said one woman, a Los Angeles animal welfare advocate, who met him at an event at a private home.

At the Humane Society's annual Genesis Awards gala this spring, Pacelle, clad in black tie, stood in the middle of the Beverly Hilton Hotel ballroom working the room. Or, rather, he stood there and let the room work him. Surrounded by a hive of supporters and activists, he shook hands, squeezed shoulders, kissed cheeks, laughed easily.