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Humane Society's Litigation Arm Walks Tightrope Between Radicalism, Complaisance

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On Tuesday morning, Wayne Pacelle, the CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, announced that he was pursuing a seat on the corporate board of meat giant Tyson Foods. A few hours later, the animal rights group announced that Iowa CCI -- a group representing independent pork farmers -- had signed on as co-plaintiffs in its pending lawsuit against the USDA over actions undertaken by the National Pork Board.

These two alliances aren't as unlikely as they initially appear. That's because the Humane Society, the country's largest animal advocacy organization, has increasingly embraced a moderate, Goldilocks approach to animal rights advocacy over the past several years. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Humane Society's litigation group, which was founded by attorney Jon Lovvorn in 2005.

"We look at cases that are going to have a concrete impact on animals but that are winnable," Lovvorn told The Huffington Post. "You won't see us out asking for courts to declare animals persons. Or to file habeas corpus requests on behalf of animals, or other things that require judges to go way beyond what they're comfortable with."

The narrow path between animal rights extremists and the agricultural industry can be lonely. The Humane Society sometimes gets pilloried by critics on both sides at once. But experts in the field say the group's moderation has produced real results. The group started with just three full-time lawyers, including Lovvorn; it now employs 25 and works with 2,000 others on a pro-bono basis. Lovvorn, 43, estimated that he and his colleagues have won about three dozen cases in the past seven years.

"They are definitely the leading shop for litigation for animal protection," attorney David Wolfson, who teaches courses on animals and public policy and animal law at NYU and NYU Law, respectively, explained. "They are generally extremely disciplined, focused and professional. I would also characterize them as extremely pragmatic and realistic. They're not chasing dreams."

The ultimate dream for animal rights advocates would be something like the application of the 14th Amendment's equal protection to animals as well as humans. Such a ruling might ban the rearing of domesticated animals for meat altogether. And some major thinkers in the field -- most famously Steve Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project -- are actively pursuing it.

"Right now, it's really easy to determine who has the capacity to have a right," he explained. "You look at the species. If you're human, you have rights. If you're not, you don't. What we're arguing is that species is completely arbitrary. There are many nonhuman animals that have really serious cognitive complexity. And we think that cognitive complexity alone is a sufficient condition to make some animals legal persons."

Lovvorn, a committed vegan who avoids even inedible animal products whenever possible, is passionate about animal rights. But he believes the kind of revolutionary shifts that Wise advocates will take decades, if not centuries. So in the meantime, he's using existing laws to advance the animal rights movement.

Pets -- which Lovvorn calls "companion animals" -- are already protected by animal cruelty laws. And wild animals are already protected by statutes like the Endangered Species Act. Lovvorn's team works on cases in both of these categories, but they're relatively straightforward.

The protection of animals raised for food is much trickier, because almost every animal cruelty rule contains an exception for farms. But it's also crucially important, given that an estimated 98 percent of the terrestrial animals that humans interact with are destined to be eaten by people.

Lovvorn and the rest of the Humane Society legal team have taken a two-fold approach to this thorny paradox. They occasionally find small breaches of the few legal protections given to farm animals, and then multiply the damages associated with these breaches over thousands or millions of livestock, elevating the case in financial -- if not moral -- importance. Early on, for example, they noticed that an old law regulating the amount of time livestock could spend in transit wasn't being applied to truck shipment as stringently as it had been applied to train shipment.

But those opportunities don't crop up every month. More often, they apply existing laws in fields outside animal protection to fight the meat industry in more oblique ways.

They've taken this latter approach in their pending lawsuit against the USDA. They and their co-plaintiffs from Iowa are alleging that the National Pork Board inappropriately funneled federal money to anti-animal rights lobbying by paying the National Pork Producers Council an unfairly high price for the use of its "The Other White Meat" slogan.

Chris Novak, CEO of the National Pork Board, compared the Humane Society's treatment of his group to "harassment."

"We've seen this pattern where they're utilizing a variety of legal tools to make their point publicly," Novak told The Huffington Post. "There's been very little that seems to have come to fruition. It's their way of pushing and promoting their agenda."

Lovvorn admitted that his team's work gets a lot of press, but he denied the idea that they would ever take on a case just to generate publicity.

"We take this very seriously," he said. "If we were just going to file publicity cases, we'd have a lot less lawyers and a lot less work to do."

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