HSUS: Hero or Villian?

Nothing divides animal advocates more than the gradualist/abolitionist debate. My report on HSUS’s investigation into a Wyoming pig farm sparked a fierce but mostly civil deabte here at eatingplants.org. What follows are a few of the highlights (with light editing). Personally speaking, this HSUS story did not raise for me the perrennially explosive question about welfare strategies. I think I was too much overcome by the video, which, I think all would agree, could easily drive a behavioral omnivore (note the wording change!) to become a vegan on ethical grounds. In any case, the issue, as you will see below, isn’t easily resolved and, as with every genuine debate, there are serious points to consider on both sides of the divide.


-As despicable as this cruelty is, I don’t think these videos [of abused animals on factory farms] are the answer. HSUS knows full well that no matter what cruelty is exposed, no matter what reforms are in place — even if industrial farming is ended — it is impossible to monitor the breeding, raising, and killing of billions of farm animals. Still, it continues to promote reforms and so-called “humane farms” because truth be told, HSUS would collapse without animal exploitation. These videos embarrass specific farming operations that will probably wind up with no more than a fine, but by singling out one farm, it allows consumers to think other farms are ok, especially if they’re labeled “free-range” or “humane.” That’s good for HSUS since it benefits from animal use.

 -It is seriously misguided to shoot HSUS down, even weakly, for their strategy to effect animal welfare reforms rather than taking a stance to eradicate cages immediately and demand everyone go vegan today. I mean, how well are Francione’s dictates working? What measurable results has he or his followers gotten? Excuse me if my impatience with [abolitionsist Gary] Francione shows. In my opinion, he has done more harm to animals than good by leading well-intentioned animal activists astray . . . Despite the criticisms from a splintered little group of animal activists (abolitionists), HSUS battles on against big, mean, powerful, and moneyed opponents (factory farmers, puppy millers, canned hunters, seal clubbers, would-be horse slaughterers, dog fighters, cock fighters, CCF goons, and others) who hate them BECAUSE they are getting results.

-I think there’s a larger convo here– I don’t follow Francione (I like his ideas and have read his books but frankly I think he presents them in public as a total wing nut and I think his following, at least the hard-core part of it, borders on cultish…) and it’s a shame that he has co-opted and in effect put his peronal Brand on the word “abolition”, which really just means liberation. This is partly why I use the word liberation instead of abolition. I am frustrated about all that too, but just as much as I am frustrated about those who unblinkingly make apologies for reform  . . . Because I think there need to be reasonable discussions about strategy and what works and what doesn’t, I don’t think most AR activists (including Francionites) are well-versed in that, and I think there are good reasons to believe that we need to talk about liberation not reform, and fight for it. I wish there were a better way to talk about this, because I think we all want liberation, and I think there *are* reasonable ways to act on that.

 -It is HSUS, not Francione, who leads activists astray, including myself, until I woke up to the reality that when no one is standing over the animal producer’s shoulder, laws are meaningless! For just one example, some years ago they were amending the Humane Slaughter Act, and I worked with other activists to get this legislation passed. Victory, I thought …. until I learned that many farm animals are being dismembered while they’re still conscious.  . . I support honest advocacy that doesn’t feign victories for animals, that admits we are doing far more harm than good by promoting so-called compassionate farming, as HSUS, Mercy for Animals, Animal Legal Defense and other groups are doing.

-I’m a vegan and I understand [the] dismissal of “humane farming”. . .  I cannot wave my magic wand and make the whole world over into my image of an ideal world. I can’t make the world vegan, today. I must live in the real world. That means that I will work with the HSUS, PETA and humane farmers to alleviate suffering wherever and whenever I can. I believe that I am morally obligated to do so. If I can get a hen out of a battery cage, I will do so. It has been accomplished. If I can get pigs out of gestation crates, I will do so. It has been done. Thanks to groups like the HSUS, PETA, MFA and COK, their advocacy and their undercover videos.

I don’t give a damn about priniciples. My concern is what works for animals, not activists!  Pigs on “free-range” farms may not be housed in gestation crates, but do you really believe they don’t cry when their babies are taken, that “ceritified humane” producers are always nice to farm animals, or that male chicks will be spared on “cage-free” egg farms? While you gloat in your victories, I’ve talked with numerous consumers who are actually proud of eating “humane food.” Congratulations to HSUS and similar organizations for collaborating with animal producers to invent guilt-free animal products!  Further, there are other animals to consider, as well. The farms HSUS and other groups promote inevitably require more land that will rob the habitats of free-living animals who depend these areas for their own survival. For them, such farms are a death sentence. In good conscience, I am obliged do everything I can to work against HSUS and other groups that ultimately promote animal farming.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

16 Responses to HSUS: Hero or Villian?

  1. Provoked says:

    It’s true that if HSUS is included in discussions on either side of the animal issue it brings about heated disagreement on tactics…

    My hunch is (because I want to believe everyone desires the best for our fur/feathered/finned friends) is that HSUS are shrewd poker-players. I think their goal is exactly what is feared by the industry… They do, in eventuality, want to see the total end of animal exploitation. The idea of that ever happening to the point where they would be “put out of business” just doesn’t even seem possible — in any stretch of my imagination.

    Finally… An observation/question more than a comment: Today HSUS responded to Tyson’s statement about the obvious “mishandling” of pigs in that video. They urged again that Tyson make a pledge to eliminate gestation crates. Now what does twirling piglets, “thumping” them (to kill them), neglecting to properly euthanize the sick ones, or kicking the crippled ones have to do with crates? Seems many of these pig-victims would be safer inside them!

    I’m only wondering because this seems like how their strategy goes… They release a video that really has nothing to do with crates or cages – But then pushes for their elimination. It’s a strategy to get to corporate interests… But it could also be strategy to get people to go “veg” if used right… Maybe they think/know it does both?

    • Could not have said it better, Provoked: “HSUS are shrewd poker-players. I think their goal is exactly what is feared by the industry.” Thankfully, they are shrewd enough to keep that goal under the radar, much to the chagrin of animal activists who don’t understand. I would urge everyone to read Wayne Pacelle’s The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them, to learn more about the why’s and wherefore’s of HSUS’s brilliant strategies.

  2. Ellie Maldonado says:

    I agree with your observation of the video, Provoked, but am at a loss as to how campaigning against gestation crates can lead people to go “veg”? From everything I’ve seen, these measures lead people to buy from “humane farms”, the kind HSUS gets paid for certifying.

    I think HSUS does what’s best for HSUS. If it took a stand against animal exploitation, as an animal advocacy group should, it would lose millions of dollars in donations and (no, I’m not looking for a fight) in paid memberships as well. Why? Because consumers with a conscience want to think they’re eating “humane” products, and because some activists so need to feel they’re making a difference, they’re willing to believe the hollow victories HSUS claims.

    Has anyone seen the two HSUS TV commercials showing homeless dogs and cats, asking viewers to join HSUS “to end cruelty to animals”? I’ve seen them about a hundred times. In the first commercial, HSUS claimed to rescue many thousands of animals each year. I forget if the claim was tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, but either way, it was complete nonsense. I suspect plenty of activists knew that, and challeged the Ad, which is why HSUS released a new commercial with homesless dogs and cats, minus the lies about rescuing thousands of animals. With $160 million in the bank, it has the money to save millions of dogs, but it doesn’t even have a shelter.

    So to say the least, HSUS does not inspire me with trust, and plenty of others feel the same:

    I have my disagreements with Nathan Winograd, but I think he’s right about HSUS, PeTA, the ASPCA, and the rest of the animal welfare machine.


    I’m sure it cashed in on the publicity with Michael Vick, ” when they as an organization were lobbying TO HAVE ALL THE DOGS KILLED”:

    • Provoked says:

      Hi Ellie – I don’t mean to say I’m certain on anything. Generally any comments I make on these debates are riddled with more questions than answers.

      I can only say this – That I don’t support HSUS in any financial way. I don’t ever send anyone to their organization’s site. I don’t link to them on my own blog either… I literally pick and choose when I wish to acknowledge them. Not *everything* they do is unworthy. Same goes for peta.

      I agree that most of the time the response I see from their investigations is people leaning ever more to happier meat. But that’s the same no matter who’s under-cover video or discovery is exposed. As we know, people will bend any which way to avoid walking upright to a vegan solution.

      I suppose what I do is ignore what I don’t agree with and continue on doing my own thing. I don’t think anything I do (or don’t do) makes any difference to peta or hsus… And I’ve been trying to avoid the infighting about them for almost 5 years now… Unsuccessfully. It’s a debate that I just don’t have the answers to. I wish I knew the exact formula that works to get people engaged in justice and compassion – But since I don’t… I’m not so keen on dismissing any tactic (just yet).

      I hope you can appreciate my position. I certainly mean no slight to what you’re saying… And I, like you, certainly only have the interest of the animals on the forefront of my mind.

      • Ellie Maldonado says:

        Hi Provoked — I agree that not everything HSUS and PeTA does is unworthy, and I think I can understand why you want to keep the door open to different tactics. So I’ll try to explain why I closed the door to organizations like HSUS, PeTA, the ASPCA, and other welfare groups

        I think if we want to encourage others to engage in justice and compassion, then we must be certain that we are presenting justice and compassion when we ask others to join us. Are we we presenting justice for nonhuman animals by campaigning for more space? As I asked in the previous discussion, will nonhuman mothers not suffer the loss of their babies on “free-range” farms? Will male chicks be spared? Will farm animals be spared the mutilations they are subjected to in industrial farms? Will their personal interest in their well being and that of offspring be validated? The answers, I think, are no, no, no, no, and no. And let’s not forget the free-living animals who die as a consequence of giving farm animals more space.

        In my view, justice requires a new paradigim that rejects the concept of human supremacy, and which recognizes that like us, nonhumans belong to themselves. Thankfully, science is on our side, because the more other animals are studied, the more we see how similar we really are. In contrast, the campaigns that seek to reform animal use enforce the notion that we can do whatever we want, so long as we do it “humanely”, because after all they’re only animals.

        That said, if it can be shown that reforms will lead to liberation, I might be willing to open the door.

  3. Ellie Maldonado says:

    Also, since Francione was mentioned, I think he’s right about ending the property status of nonhuman animals and the need to work toward recognition of their legal personhood. I’m also fine with both terms, “abolition” and “liberation”. With respect to nonhuman animals, I think they essentially mean the same thing.

    I’ve never seen Francione in public, and have only spoken with his followers online. He’s one of the signatories of the Letter to the New York Times, and I thank him for that …. can’t say the same for Wayne Pacelle.

  4. James asked, I’ll answer: HSUS = Hero!! No doubt!!

    “More than 100,000 people so far have taken action by contacting Tyson Foods and urging the company to stop lagging behind its competitors on the gestation crate issue. Thank you to every single one of you who’s spoken up for pigs by contacting the company. In addition to TV broadcasts of this story all across the country, in the days since the investigation broke, about 200,000 people have watched the video on YouTube. I just returned to my office a few minutes ago from CNN where I taped a segment for tonight’s Jane Velez Mitchell’s show on Headline News.” — Wayne Pacelle

    Now those are measurable results. Thank you, HSUS. for your unflagging advocacy for all animal persons! My heartfelt thanks.


    • Ellie Maldonado says:

      Are Wayne Pacelle and his cronies at HSUS capable of honest activism? Can we not see that the suffering of these pigs goes far beyond gestation crates? To focus on crates and ignore the rest of their suffering is despicable!

  5. You want results? All you have to do is pay attention. Here are just two recent examples out of hundreds of victories HSUS has achieved over the years to vastly improve animal lives.

    Just last year, HSUS instigated “landmark legislation that will close off Pacific U.S. ports and their role in facilitating the cruel and wasteful practice of shark finning.”

    In 2008, with HSUS at the helm, California overwhelmingly (63%) approved Prop. 2, Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, “a modest measure that stops cruel and inhumane treatment of animals, ending the practice of cramming farm animals into cages so small the animals can’t even turn around, lie down or extend their limbs.”

    Talk about raising awareness and getting voters and the mass population thinking about animal cruelty issues formerly never thought of at all. Prop. 2 was one of the primary reasons I became vegan when I did.

    • Provoked says:

      Hi Janet… You said that Prop. 2 was one of the primary reasons you became vegan. Likewise for me – I’m here because of a peta link. I shudder now… But at the time it was just what I needed to hear/see. I guess it takes all kinds… (?)

      • Yes, Provoked! PETA’s Meet Your Meat was the clincher for me as was Shaun Monson’s Earthlings. During HSUS’s highly successful Prop. 2 campaign, I forced myself to take off the blinders, watch those horrific films, and learn more. As a result, I vowed to be an animal activist for life. The choice to be vegan for life happened overnight, as well, beginning with all food items and progressing to the removal of all animal-derived products in my home–feather items, leather items, wool items, cleaning and personal care items–which, by now, are gone and no longer purchased. All from an HSUS campaign and two powerful films.

        You never know what is going to move people to change, which is why I applaud every effort for raising public awareness, whether it is to grossly inadequate cage sizes, to graphic undercover videos of egregious cruelty, to a poignant and well-written blog, to a TV commercial urging people to adopt their next pet, to a lone activist handing out a Why Vegan brochure, to a “Vegetarian Starter Kit” that arrives in the mail. There are probably as many ways to reach and motivate people to become vegan for life as there are people. It’s not one size fits all.

        I have appreciated and agree with most of James McWilliams well-written pieces that cause people to think about nonhuman animals in new and enlightened ways. I thank him for his unflagging voice and for using his writing skills to improve animal lives. I hope he continues to write and to be as supportive as he can of other groups and methods toward the same eventual goal: the end of all animal exploitation. May those cages become larger and larger and larger until, eventually, people figure out it is simply better, morally and ethically, to do away with them altogether. That day will come.

    • Ellie Maldonado says:

      In my view, this video implies Proposition 2 will end the suffering of farm animals, but did it? It also brings to mind an article published in the New York Times Magazine section, on Pacelle, reforms, and Proposition 2, “The Barnyard Strategist”: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/26/magazine/26animal-t.html?pagewanted=1

      Here are the letters published in response, among which, of the many letters I’ve sent the New York Times, this is only one it printed:

  6. This quote from a fellow Earthling sums it up for me: “[Animal] Welfarism… kinda like being a feminist & thinking domestic violence is fine in moderation.” ~Ali Pester @AliAliAliP

    Being the Change~Peace~Freedom~Love: Vegan!

  7. Roro says:

    It is a very interesting topic! right on! I was actually vegetarian for 7 years from ethical reason since I watched the factory farming horrific video of PETA. But I am back to eating meat recently from my health reason. What I do is to purchase strictly humanely treated animal products locally and organics. HSUS have been doing amazing job to reduce animal’s suffering and they are still fighting for the animal rights. No one should attack their achievement whoever that is. I believe that human should have a small amount of healthy animal product in your diet. As a matter of fact, I feel so much better and happier.

    I don’t know much about Francione you mentioned. I googled his name, but soon as I see his website, He is another “extremist vegan” theorist, which I am not interested. Vegans valued animals lives more than human’s happiness livings.

  8. Hero or villain? I would say neither — just one of the many partners in the fight against animal use/abuse. I think there will always be internal debate and disagreement about strategies and tactics (like the term gradualist, by the way), but agree with Carolyn Zaikowski’s comments in the previous post that we need to become more effective communicators and better strategists. Our movement depends on it.

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