Pacheco After PETA: Seeking a Humane America
Jun. 15, 2000
It's been 19 years since a college student named Alex Pacheco walked into a Silver Spring, Maryland, laboratory as a novice animal activist and came out as the co-founder of what is now the most high-profile animal rights organization in the world. The landmark Silver Spring Monkeys case put People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) on the front page of major newspapers, and the group has been making headlines?and thousands of friends, enemies, and dollars?ever since.
So it may surprise many people to learn that Pacheco quietly left PETA late last year to embark on a voyage into new territory. He is now president of the nonprofit Humane America Animal Foundation as well as the founder of a for-profit venture called All-American Animals. The move comes at what he considers a pivotal point in his life, looking ahead rather than behind.
Why did he leave PETA? "Well, [for] a whole series of reasons," Pacheco explains. "Everything from differences of opinion on the direction of the organization to wanting to branch out and take on new projects in a new way." He says that his desire to expand PETA's programs to include business ventures and other programs with "a more direct payoff for the animals" was not shared by PETA co-founder and president Ingrid Newkirk, so he was faced with a tough decision. "I could've stayed at PETA and fought, but I don't like to fight," he says. While Newkirk had directed the group's high-profile campaigns, Pacheco had concentrated on legislative issues and the organization's infrastructure.
"Program-wise, I feel like the last 20 years I've been doing a variety of things, and I know now that I've sort of reached that turning midpoint in life and I'm looking at things in terms of 'What am I going to do for the rest of my life?'," he says. "Getting older definitely makes you look at things more closely....Now that I'm 41, I pick my fights more selectively." He calls PETA's often sensational and confrontational campaigns "good fights, valuable fights, and important fights," but was concerned that such tactics didn't immediately result in saving large numbers of animals.
"I could've stayed and argued my case, but I stopped when things started flying across the room. I didn't want to cause a civil war," Pacheco says.
So last fall, he walked away. "It gave me pause," he recalls thoughtfully. "It felt like a divorce. Ingrid was the mom and I was the dad. We didn't have any kids, but the baby is PETA." He expresses no ill will toward Newkirk. "I learned a lot from her," he says. "We were very much equal in different ways...a very nice combination."
Newkirk acknowledges that she and Pacheco "had rows because I wanted PETA to be true to its original purpose: to push the envelope..." She says of their partnership, "Relationships change, people change, and you have to accept that. I've always been a hardhead, Alex is a conciliator....I was very sorry to see Alex leave, but it is good for the organization."
When PETA moved its headquarters from Rockville , Maryland , to Norfolk , Virginia , in 1996, Pacheco didn't go to the new site, choosing instead to work from Los Angeles . He moved to Florida in 1998. California is the headquarters of both Humane America and All-American Animals, and he plans to relocate there in the coming year. And what a year he has planned.
On June 3, Humane America will hold its coming-out party at the New York City studio of artist Peter Max, who serves as the group's creative director. David Meyer, formerly of Last Chance for Animals, is the executive director; Amy Luwis and Doug Mckee are the art and research directors, respectively. Two major donors have provided the group's seed money, but Pacheco will be aggressively fundraising to support Humane America's first major project: 1-800-SAVE-A-PET, a coordinated effort among a variety of groups and individuals working to solve the companion animal overpopulation problem nationwide, starting in Los Angeles . Pacheco notes that for the past three years the city's euthanasia rates have gone up while its adoption rates have gone down, so the goal is to reduce the animal supply while increasing the demand. "Instead of saying we're going to have a no-kill shelter," he explains, "we're going to have a no-kill region."
Using what he calls a "customer service approach," 1-800-SAVE-A-PET programs will use demographic data to target some areas for promoting adoptions and other areas for aggressive spay/neuter programs. Mobile adoption units will be brought to shopping centers with available animals and a computer system that can match potential adopters with animals housed elsewhere. The group will also provide pickup, spay/neuter, and drop-off services to low-income areas, even going so far as to pay individuals $5-$10 for each animal altered. Humane America 's "Females First" program will focus special attention on spaying as a means of stemming the reproductive tide. This year the group aims to place 9,000 animals and perform 33,000 surgeries more than are currently done in Los Angeles . A similar program is in the works for the San Diego area.
Humane America 's companion animal program is being supported by corporate and private funding, and will be publicized through media advertising, sporting events, public service announcements, and elsewhere. Actress Alicia Silverstone will appear in the first series of ads to promote it.
Pacheco's second group, All-American Animals, is much different. It is a lower-profile, profit-sharing venture aimed at channeling money from vegan products and services back into animal-saving programs. "We're going to be doing partnerships with businesses," Pacheco explains, although many details are not yet ready for public announcement. He raves about a convenient and economical "vegan meat" product that will be marketed for use in large-scale institutional programs such as disaster relief, the military, and school systems, as well as home products. "It absolutely knocks any other protein out of the water," he says.
Among the projects to be financed from business profits will be two strategies close to Pacheco's heart: undercover investigations and helping smaller animal protection organizations grow. He reveals only that the investigations will target "all the bad guys," but is much more explicit about his desire to empower other groups.
"It just kills me to see so many dedicated, good people struggling because they don't have the proper power structure around them that would allow them to be effective," he says. His hope is for smaller groups to function less as independent "cells" and more as part of a larger, cooperative effort. "Some people are really good at what they do, and very effective at it, but what needs to happen is for that person to be training people in other organizations." Toward that end, Pacheco is making himself available to individual organizations interested in making themselves more professional, which in his definition means having a plan for such things as campaigning, lobbying, and fundraising. "The plans are pretty simple, and it's all stuff that I've done myself," he says. For example, he claims to be able to teach an all-volunteer group how to expand and be able to afford a paid staff within a year's time.
He admits his high ambitions are not yet matched by a high budget, and operating with far fewer resources than he was used to at PETA is challenging. He points out that none of the new groups' projects compete or overlap with PETA's programs. He says he is encouraged by a growing group of supporters, and isn't daunted by starting fresh. "It's quite exciting....Everything's new, from top to bottom, from the projects to the people involved in them," he says. "It's keeping me busy, very busy."
Alex Pacheco is in perpetual motion, and has one simple prediction: "These programs are going to succeed."