How Colorado cooled the controversy between the Humane Society and big agriculture

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Frivolous though it may seem, the distinction between welfare and rights is important to people like Pacelle and Martosko, for whom message means everything. Pacelle eschews the "rights" terminology.

Which makes Martosko detect a conspiracy.

He believes Pacelle is intentionally softening his rhetoric in order to disguise his belief that animals have the moral right to not be eaten. Pacelle, he is convinced, is an animal-agriculture "abolitionist" who wishes veganism upon everyone.

The rhetoric resonates: Martosko is in demand among commodity groups around the nation to teach the industrial lot that "it's not enough just to tell the truth about yourself. You also have to tell the truth about your opponent."

Via blog posts, bus-stop billboards and full-page ads in the New York Times and USA Today, HumaneWatch.org aims to be the go-to resource for that effort, not by offering a defense of industrial food production, but by launching a frontal attack on the Humane Society. Martosko's favorite nugget so far consists of recent telephone-polling data showing that 59 percent of the 1,008 Americans queried believe the Humane Society contributes most of its funds to shelters that help dogs and cats. Not so, says Martosko, pointing to IRS records showing that less than 1 percent of the group's expenses go to "hands-on dog and cat sheltering."

Pacelle counters with a laundry list of HSUS programs dealing directly or indirectly with sheltering and pets, and he challenges Martosko to show evidence of deceptive fundraising practices. As for the "absurd" notion that he's out to abolish livestock production, Pacelle is dismissive. "We are an organization with 11 million supporters, and David Martosko gets his money from a handful of animal-abuse companies and he won't disclose who they are. His group has not cared for one animal, sheltered one homeless person or provided a cure for one disease. They are an entity that works to subvert the work of organizations trying to benefit a civil society.

"He's a paid gun."

Nine hundred miles from Washington, D.C., in the tiny town of New Florence, Missouri (population 735), a farmer is gearing up for his spring lambing season, solidifying plans to sell his product at farmers' markets in St. Louis eighty miles to the east — and fretting that his state is next on the Humane Society's war map.

"Taking up this profession, you have to fight the weather, you have to fight disease, you have to fight so much," says Dave Hillebrand. "You shouldn't have to worry about the next piece of legislation coming down the pike."

The Humane Society is seeking a November ballot measure in Missouri — to outlaw so-called puppy mills. But it's an incursion that has the state's ag industry fearing the group will tackle farming and ranching next. Lawmakers are so rattled that the Missouri House of Representatives has issued a preemptive strike: It passed a proposed constitutional amendment to ban anyone from seeking a ballot measure concerning crops or livestock if it is not "based upon generally accepted scientific principles."

Hillebrand is no industrial farmer. His 700 sheep nosh on fescue and perennial rye, sea salt and kelp. His operation involves no confinement. For the past ten years, Hillebrand's flock has had more than 160 acres to mow. Yet he's just as scared as his large-scale competitors that broadly written laws formulated by outsiders could result in practices that are cost-prohibitive or go against the grain of animal husbandry. "If they dictate to me how to treat my animals," says the sheep man, "I'll pull the plug."

It's not knee-jerk libertarianism, insist fellow small-scale farmers around the nation. "The food system in this country quite frankly sucks in every way possible, starting with food-safety issues, the whole nine yards," observes Iowa Farmers Union president Chris Petersen, who pasture-raises hogs on the Iowa-Minnesota border. "Now, whether it's Food & Water Watch or Humane Society at the national level, I think they're doing a lot of good work. At the same time, though, they're interfering."

Politics is a delicate art, Petersen elaborates, and outside groups just can't parade into a state raising hell for old-school animal husbandry. "Let me give you an example," he says. "Bobby Kennedy Jr., who I am the best of friends with — I can call him on his cell phone! — he came to Iowa in 2002 and stepped in it real bad when he said CAFOs are a bigger threat to Americans than Osama bin Laden. It was a year before we recovered from that deal! Farm Bureau and all them guys were so mad. We lost a whole bunch of meat out of our back-end cheeks for that one."

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Kristen Hinman
Contact: Kristen Hinman

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