Humane Society CEO Under Investigation for Sexual Relationship With Employee

LINDA DAVIDSON/THE WASHINGTON POST/GETTY IMAGES Wayne Pacelle started working at the Humane Society in 1994 and has been its chief executive since 2004.

By Marc Gunther

The Board of Directors of the Humane Society of the United States, the nation’s most influential animal-welfare group, has hired a Washington law firm to investigate an allegation of workplace misconduct against its longtime chief executive, Wayne Pacelle.

The investigation, which began last month, is being run by Grace Speights, who leads the labor and employment practice at Morgan Lewis. Among the topics, insiders say, is an alleged sexual relationship between Mr. Pacelle and a female employee.

In a statement, Eric Bernthal, chair of the board of the Humane Society, said: “We believe it is important to deal in substance and not rumors, and our process is designed to ensure confidentiality and fair consideration of these issues.”

Mr. Pacelle, who did not respond to an email seeking comment, continues to work there. He joined the Humane Society in 1994, became its chief executive in 2004, and was paid about $380,000 in 2016, according to the charity’s latest IRS filing.

Naming Harassers

The Humane Society investigation is unfolding against a backdrop of organizing by women in the animal-welfare movement who say that a public conversation about sexual harassment and gender bias is long overdue. They are publicly naming prominent activists and accusing men of offenses that range from perpetuating a frat-like “bro” culture to sexual assault.

“I have heard from at least a dozen survivors who have felt compelled to leave organizations or even leave town to get away from men in the movement who were stalking them or whose past violence made it impossible to continue to work with them,”  Pattrice Jones,  co-founder of a Vermont animal sanctuary called VINE, wrote on her blog.

Donors Threatened to Pull Money Over Bias Claims

Donors are voicing concern. Tofurky, which donated about $250,000 in cash and products to animal-welfare groups last year, released a statement last fall saying it would no longer support nonprofits without strong policies on gender bias that include mandatory disclosure of allegations of sexual discrimination and the representation of men and women in leadership positions and on boards.

Rachel Perman, Tofurky’s director of charitable giving, wrote: “Moving forward, I will not be donating to groups that have known chronic problems with sexual harassment and/or gender discrimination, whether it be problem individuals or chronic patterns of organizational behavior. Too many women have left the animal movement due to these issues. It must stop.”

Carol Adams, a writer and activist who published a book called The Sexual Politics of Meatback in 1990, has published a series of commentaries on her blog calling on animal charities to address sexual harassment and urging individuals to accept responsibility for their misdeeds.

“We are realizing that the progressive values that aim to prevent cruelty, suffering, and harassment of animals have in some ways failed to be truly applied to the treatment of women (and some men) in our workplaces,” a guest blogger wrote.

Women Discouraged From Speaking Out

The culture of the movement creates conditions that are ripe for exploitation, insiders say. Female staff and volunteers are often idealistic, sensitive souls who empathize with the suffering of animals. They assume that men in the movement are kindred spirits. Bonding over their refusal to eat meat or wear animal products, they socialize as well as work together.

When problems arise, women have been discouraged from speaking out. “Women were told for the good of the movement that they should stay quiet,” Ms. Adams said. “Men who should have held the other men accountable chose friendship over justice. You’ve got almost an impregnable group of people protecting one another.”

Some of the problems have burst into public view since a group called the Coalition Against Nonprofit Harassment and Discrimination built a website that asks people in the animal-protection movement to respond to a survey and post testimonials about their experiences. They describe, among other things, sexually aggressive bosses and underfunded charities that ask men and women to share rooms when traveling.

Ms. Adams says those conditions must change: “If we don’t have justice for women in this movement, we aren’t going to have a movement.”

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