The Cornhuckster

Humane Society of the United States CEO Wayne Pacelle may not moonlight as a comedian, but we were left chuckling last week when we saw that he told the Omaha World-Herald that HSUS is “not trying to destroy American agriculture.” And we probably weren’t alone, as most livestock farmers get the joke.

Then Pacelle doubled down, telling Nebraska Radio Network yesterday that “We don’t talk about animal rights…. I’ve said it a thousand times, we do not want to end livestock production. We’ve not said it.”

For the unfamiliar, HSUS IS an animal-rights group like PETA that tries to look mainstream. Occasionally that façade collapses, such as when one HSUS vice president told an animal-rights crowd in 2006 that HSUS wants to “get rid of” the entire animal agriculture industry and promotes veganism. Pacelle and other leaders at HSUS have long histories in the radical animal-rights movement.

But given the softening of rhetoric and the push by HSUS to reach out in Nebraska, it’s worth examining whether Pacelle stands a chance of “selling” his re-brand. In short, it’s doubtful.

We wrote several months back about HSUS’s lack of gravitas in state legislatures, signaled by major HSUS losses in Oregon and Washington (on egg issues) and Missouri (on Proposition B reform).

In May, six Congressmen wrote to the IRS Inspector General demanding a thorough investigation of HSUS. They believe HSUS’s lobbying activities may put its charitable status in question.

And recently, HSUS was able to scramble together a potentially big deal with the US’s biggest egg trade group to promote a federal bill mandating bigger hen cages. But HSUS only did this by going back on its own position statements (by accepting cages), and HSUS was late to the party on even this. Credible groups like the American Humane Association had already accepted the bigger cages as humane.

This brings us back to Nebraska, where Pacelle stopped last week on his never-ending book tour (four months and counting). HSUS faces major political obstacles in the state, from the Governor publicly attacking the animal rights group down to local chambers of commerce passing anti-HSUS, pro-farmer resolutions.

Pacelle’s appears to believe that he can woo over Nebraskans. By making enough book-tour stops to talk about “the bond” between people and animals, holding a “town hall” meeting, and making media appearances in Cornhusker State, Pacelle hopes to get a seat at the table.

But all that exposure accomplishes is to keep giving farmers a reminder of the threat posed by HSUS to their way of life. It gives them more motivation. It’s one thing for HSUS to go into a coastal, heavily urban state where many people don’t have a background in farming and buy into 30-second sound bites. It’s another to try to court an agricultural state.

Stakeholders understand that HSUS won’t be satisfied with compromise. Already, HSUS is essentially working to undermine its deal with the egg trade group. While HSUS agreed to not push cage-free ballot initiatives, it’s still pushing restaurants and other companies to switch to cage-free eggs. That amounts to backdoor pressure on producers.

Wayne Pacelle, who has been an animal rights activist for over two decades, is too radioactive. Nobody in Nebraska will be fooled by smooth-talk and empty promises. As Nebraska’s governor recently said about HSUS, “It’s an organization you cannot trust and I do not trust.”

Here’s our prediction: Pacelle will become more and more of a lightning rod as time goes on. He’ll get fewer and fewer free passes in the media. And his lobbying successes will be marginal. He can try to put the same old wine in a brand new bottle, but farmers in Nebraska and elsewhere won’t buy it.