It’s certainly no secret that animal agribusiness regards animal-rights activists pretty much the way the Chinese government regards supporters of a free Tibet. And in the same way His Holiness the Dalai Lama keeps up to date on his homeland’s Communist oppressors, it is imperative that animal activists get into the heads of animal exploiters ― not just under their skin.


Well, here’s a great opportunity to learn what someone with 25 years of agribiz experience thinks of efforts by HSUS, PETA and others to impinge upon their ability to torture and kill farmed animals. The Cattle Network just published an in-depth interview with Steve Kopperud, senior vice president of Policy Directions, Inc., which lobbies on behalf of agribusiness.


I’m only hitting the high notes here: be sure to check out the entire article.

Q.  Steve, we know the animal rights organizations tend to be well-funded, sophisticated communicators.  Let’s define them, first.  What are the organizations we should watch and what are their agendas?  Tell me about the size of their memberships and their war chests.

A. Fifteen years ago we were confronted by about 150 animal rights organizations, subject to infighting and competition. Today, the movement is defined by the Humane Society of the U.S. and its president, Wayne Pacelle. When Pacelle joined HSUS as vice president, he declared he would create the “NRA (National Rifle Assn.) of animal rights, and he’s well on his way. The organization leverages its public image as a dog/cat, spay/neuter, pet adoption group, positioning itself as “moderate” in comparison to the PETAs of the movement. When you peel away the layers of public image, you’re left with an HSUS agenda that is anything but moderate, and not too radically different than that of PETA. You need only look at the organization’s legislative agenda, the comments of some of its officers, to see where HSUS would eventually hope to see animal agriculture wind up.


HSUS claims to have about 10 million members – 20,000 per congressional district – and has an annual budget in excess of $130 million.  Through mergers with smaller organizations, HSUS has grown, and under Pacelle’s watch, created the Humane Legislative Action Fund (HLAF) not-for-profit association with no limits on its lobbying activity – HSUS, by virtue of its 501(c) (3) status, is limited by IRS rules to about spending 20% of its previous year’s program spending on “advocacy,” so the HLAF is an important tool.  On the international front, Humane Society International works as an arm of HSUS. 


PETA continues to be the noisemaker; its apparent role is to keep the issue in the press, thereby keeping it mainstream. Its income each year continues to hover in the $20-30 million range, allowing it to maintain its global network of offices and harassment.  However, PETA has so marginalized itself in policy discussions as to be almost a non-player. 


PETA continues to frighten corporate targets, major brands which fear PETA will begin boycotts, pickets, disrupt annual meetings, etc. PETA’s outrageous behavior and unrealistic demands enable groups such as HSUS to contact the same target companies, offering itself as the “moderate” group with which the company can work. The company believes that by working with HSUS, it’s somehow protected from PETA. Not so. The company is only protected as long as it toes the line, issuing public statements about animal housing, care and such.  The worst thing any company can do is try to negotiate with any animal rights group. It signals weakness and fear and sets the company up as a perpetual target for other groups.


Farm Sanctuary, with a budget of about $1 million a year, operates almost as an independent subsidiary of HSUS, acting as HSUS’s foot soldiers on the ground in the various states in which HSUS has begun referenda campaigns, etc. 


Q. One of the things I’ve been watching is the process you’ve often described as getting “pecked to death by ducks.” First, Florida outlaws gestation crates.  Burger King covers its backside from a PETA push and earns that organization’s praise by declaring they will no longer buy eggs or pork from suppliers that keep their animals in cages or crates. Now, we have California’s Prop 2, which won with about 60% of the vote and will force huge changes in the farming practices of the biggest agriculture state in America.  Can we expect animal rights groups to press for similar legislation in other farm states?  And what will an expansion of similar laws do to the price of food at retail?

A. The strategy being followed by savvy animal rights groups is what the late animal activist Henry Spira, founder of Animal Rights International, called the “step-wise approach.” It translates into “We get a little bit this year, a little bit next year, and before you know it, we’ve forced real change.”  Spira once said to me that farmers and ranchers are their own worst enemies because they’re “too nice,” meaning, I think, that we expect the animal rights movement to operate on rules of honorable engagement and conventional issue management. I can assure you, after battling successfully animal rights initiatives for nearly 25 years, I’ve learned there is nothing conventional about “managing” the animal rights issue, and I think it’s this reality that industry – from farm to fork – must acknowledge. Managing the animal rights issue takes outside-the-box thinking and strategy. 


In a way, perhaps we are “too nice,” as we steadfastly avoid public confrontations with the animal rights groups.  We somehow believe that by confronting these groups, calling them out in the media, on Capitol Hill or in a state legislature, we will suffer some worse consequence than allowing these zealots to prevail.  We think because what we do is so fundamental to every citizen’s quality of life, that the “crazy people” cannot prevail.


The animal rights issue cannot be fought using statistics, economics, science and fact alone; it must utilize strategies that inspire positive emotion among consumers toward farming and ranching. There will be no gain without some pain, but it’s our job to ensure that the “pain” we feel is merely the temporary discomfort that comes from shifting away from a traditional approach to a more progressive one.


California’s Proposition 2 is a classic example. Proponents of that measure had no facts to support their demand that sow gestation stalls, veal stalls or egg layer cages were inhumane on their face because the overwhelming public testimony of vets and animal scientists showed just the opposite to be true. Instead, supporters ran TV ads that included video of downed animals and other emotional images of animal neglect and abuse, fully aware Proposition 2 would do nothing to solve these alleged problems. Why? Because emotion rules the day when it comes to human interaction with animals, no matter what the species or the animal’s ultimate fate. When you’ve got the attention of a politically overwhelmed constituency, you use images and emotion, not rhetoric. What thinking, feeling person condones any form of animal “abuse”?

Q. Every industry has its bad actors. We’ve seen them up close and personal, thanks to the undercover videos shot by HSUS undercover agents. Wayne Pacelle, HSUS CEO, says the practices exposed on those videos are endemic; Ag organizations say they’re anomalies, a position backed by industry experts like Temple Grandin. Regardless, it’s footage that, in the public’s eye, is damaging.  How would you go about reversing the damage?

A. Our responses to these episodes of unauthorized entry and video-taping of our facilities have been lukewarm. These episodes are anomalies, but not one can be tolerated as they paint the entire industry with the same brush, allowing HSUS leverage them to make its case that all producers are uncaring and that our industry needs state and/or federal regulation. When episodes of wrong behavior occur – and they will because no industry is perfect – then we must call them out as we see them with appropriate outrage, telling the public what they’ve seen is unacceptable and then swift and public action must be taken to rectify the situation. The public must understand that we share their concerns.


Having said that, I repeat my call to begin talking to the public consistently and loudly that we take animal wellbeing seriously, that it is and always has been the highest priority of our producers and processors, and that the public can trust the men and women who work in our industries. We must reintroduce the public to farming and ranching, explain who we are, what we do, how well we do it and that we share the public’s value of good husbandry. This must be as much a part of our product promotion and sales effort as the creation of recipes, new products and market development. When checkoff boards sit down to decide how those producer payments are to be spent in the best interest of the industry, selling the producer and the process must be every bit as important as selling the product. 


Again, readers, please take a moment to read the entire interview.