One fascinating thing about Wayne Pacelle's new book on the connection between people and animals is that, the more you read, the better its title gets. At first I thought The Bond seemed a bit sentimental, perhaps insubstantial. I cracked open the covers thinking it would tug at my heart more than appeal to my intellect. But in chapter after chapter Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, establishes multiple contexts -- genetic, societal, historical, ethical and even economic -- for his book's central conceit.
"There is something universal about the bond we have with animals -- an instinct to have them in our lives, to be near them and care for them," Pacelle writes in his Introduction. Even a teenager, he realized there was nothing "peculiar or unusual" in his interest in animals. And this powerfully instructs his dismay over "countervailing forces that negate the positive effects of the human-animal bond."
We live in an age when more people than ever profess to love animals while, simultaneously, we subject animals to misery, mistreatment, deprivation and death on a scale unprecedented in human history. Pacelle confronts this contradiction, urging that it be resolved in favor of kindness and mercy toward all animals, not just those we choose to notice and have in their lives.
Like all great moral causes, Pacelle writes, the defense of animals "reminds us of what we already know -- that to mistreat an animal is low, dishonorable, and an abuse of power that diminishes man and animal alike." Yet this abuse continues -- from the horrors of factory farms; to the squalor and shameless opportunism of puppy mills; to the vulgar "sport" of staging animal fights: to the cowardly hunting of bison, wolf, bear and other creatures; to the clubbing of baby seals in Canada, to the slaughter of horses for meat; to the unnecessary use of animals for testing new products.
Pacelle writes about all of these, not just as a commentator but as someone who has spent decades on the front lines, as a witness and advocate, in many cases leading successful campaigns to change laws and behavior. The HSUS, for instance, helped secure changes in disaster relief policy after Katrina dramatized the cruelty of forcing victims to leave behind beloved pets.
One chapter deals with Pacelle's complex relationship with Michael Vick, the NFL star imprisoned for dogfighting. No one was more disgusted by Vick's role in this brutal pastime than Pacelle, and no one has pushed harder for laws to put dogfighters behind bars. But when Vick reached out to Pacelle seeking to atone for his crime (and/or rehabilitate his image), Pacelle agreed to meet, in prison and afterward. He reacted incredulously at first to Vick's claim that "I have always loved dogs," but in the end facilitated his contacts with kids at risk of engaging in similar dogfighting activity.
If you Google "Wayne Pacelle," one of the things that comes up is an online petition that's collecting signatures seeking his ouster as president of the HSUS, in large part over his association with Michael Vick. In Pacelle's book, Vick expresses remorse for having mistreated animals and vows to "help more animals in the future than I harmed in the past." Pacelle's conclusion: "We have to embrace this kind of change. This is what we want."
The Bond has plenty of villains. Regulators who look the other way as animals are brutalized and food safety threatened. The American Veterinary Medical Association, a trade group that supports industry over animals at every turn. The American Kennel Club, which makes money off of breed-certification and thus resists the regulation of puppy mills. Hunters and politicians who insist that their way of life hinges on, say, being able to shoot wolves from helicopters or club baby seals for dwindling fur markets.
But Pacelle does more than criticize. He offers a way out. Take Canada's slaughter of baby seals, conducted during the brief period each spring between when the pups' moms leave but before they have learned to swim well enough to escape men with clubs. It's a gruesome spectacle, as Pacelle himself has seen: "I've watched seals in a pool of red, grasping for air [after being clubbed] and trying to raise their heads out of the blood."
The pelts and oils thus obtained generate gross revenue of about $1 million a year. Providing tactical support for the hunt -- breaking ice so sealers can get to the nurseries and keeping the media and protesters at bay -- costs between $3 million and $5 million a year. And this doesn't include government subsidies to the sealers and losses to the Canadian economy from a worldwide boycott of its seafood products.
"Any way you look at it, the hunt is a net loser for everyone involved," writes Pacelle, who suggests an alternative that wouldn't be: Open these nurseries to tourists with binoculars, cameras and disposable income. Surely the sight of hundreds of adorable baby seals with their humongous eyes and bright-white fur would attract eager spectators -- so long as they do not have to watch them being clubbed and shot to death.
Already, notes Pacelle, millions of dollars are now being made by companies that bring eager onlookers into contact with dolphins and whales; why not apply this model to other situations, to turn the bond between people and animals into other opportunities to make money? It's not just an appeal to self-interest, but a way to resolve the contradiction between how people feel toward animals and how they are often treated in favor of our better instincts.
At times The Bond reminded me of Matthew Scully's great book, Dominion, which covers some of the same ground and draws a mention from Pacelle in his acknowledgments. Both works blend impressive reporting with searing moral authority. But Pacelle's work is perhaps more accessible -- some of the people I've given Scully's book to have had a hard time getting through it. Whereas Scully makes a case for the merciful treatment of animals based in large part on Christian theology, Pacelle is focused on, well, The Bond. His subject and his solution is the connection with animals that people feel instinctively -- not because they are religious or even moral but because they are human.
The Bond is not a notably personal book, although Pacelle does draw freely on his experiences with various animal issues and campaigns. But at one point he does tell the story of how his childhood best friend, a poodle-beagle mix named Pericles, was killed by a car when Pacelle was eight years old. "I bawled for hours -- sitting down with my back against the garage wall on our makeshift basketball court, head buried in my folded arms, chest heaving, and my shirtsleeves absorbing the tears."
It was an experience many of us can relate to -- the sense of loss keenly felt, not minimized by the loved one's nonhuman status, indelible in memory. It's an ordinary human thing to have these feelings. The decision to honor this bond with commitment and action makes it extraordinary.
Bill Lueders, the news editor of Isthmus, has received two Genesis Awards from the Humane Society of the United States, in 2010 and 2011, for his reporting on university research involving animals. His new book is Watchdog: 25 Years of Muckraking and Rabblerousing (Jones Books).