Female Employees Allege Culture of Sexual Harassment at Humane Society

In September 2016, three employees of the Humane Society of the United States checked into a tiny Airbnb studio in Boston for a six-day business trip. Paul Shapiro, one of the nation’s most consequential animal rights advocates over the past decade, was accompanied by two campaign workers, a young man and a young woman. After a couple of nights, the male employee left to stay somewhere else, according to the 26-year-old female, leaving her alone with Shapiro.

Over the next few days, the woman told POLITICO, Shapiro, 37, repeatedly steered the conversation toward relationships and sex. He suggested she sit next to him on a small love seat to watch TV on his iPad, which she refused, and stripped down to his underwear in plain view while changing clothes. At one point, Shapiro leaned out of the bathroom naked, save for a bundled-up pair of boxer briefs held over his groin. The woman—who spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity because she still works in the animal rights movement and didn’t want to involve her new employer—was bothered by his behavior and texted her friends and called her mother.

“When she called me, I couldn’t believe it,” the woman’s mother told POLITICO. “I just said … do you want a hotel, I will pay for it. She said no, she was just going to deal with it.”

When the employee returned to work at the Humane Society’s offices in Gaithersburg, Maryland, she told two female colleagues what happened. A couple of days later, she and five other women met with two human resources representatives, detailing a pattern of behavior they had witnessed over the preceding six years. The women said Shapiro, the vice president of Farm Animal Protection, asked them to have sex and told lewd jokes in the office, according to a POLITICO investigation based on new interviews with seven current and former employees, including four of the women who filed the complaint. According to interviews, emails and an internal document reviewed by POLITICO, Shapiro suggested a female employee should “take one for the team” by having sex with a donor, sent pornography and lewd emails to male employees and discussed with colleagues his sexual philosophies, such as having as many sexual partners as possible. His alleged behavior, staffers say, led to the resignations of no fewer than five employees from 2015 to late 2017.

“These young women join this movement—I did it too—we’re so starry-eyed,” said Alexandra Bury, who worked with Shapiro from 2011-15. “We’ve seen the slaughterhouse videos. You join this movement and you just want to do anything for it. You believe these guys are the heroes. You believe they’re going to be compassionate because they’re speaking up for animals and you trust them.”

The Humane Society, according to an email obtained by POLITICO, assured the six women “we will be monitoring the situation carefully and will try to prevent any offensive conduct from occurring.” A month later, officials made a surprising announcement in an email to staff: Shapiro was getting moved to a different department to “advance HSUS’ broader agenda.” No mention was made of their allegations.

“I remember that morning just being really upset—crying, not being able to work,” said one of the women who filed the complaint and later quit her job. “It sounded, and everyone was reacting, like it was a promotion. They didn’t say anything about it being a disciplinary move.”

Now, just over a year later, the Humane Society, one of the largest animal rights groups in the country, finds itself ensnared in a widening controversy over sexual harassment in the upper levels of the nonprofit’s management. An outside law firm has investigated allegations against CEO Wayne Pacelle that date back to 2005, according to a memo obtained by the Washington Post. The memo details a perception, based on 33 interviews, that women could get ahead in the workplace by becoming romantically involved with Pacelle. One of the women reported that Pacelle, on a work trip in 2006, asked her to take off her clothes and perform oral sex, and asked her whether he could masturbate in front of her. Pacelle has denied the allegations.

Shapiro, in many respects the Humane Society’s most celebrated advocate until his departure earlier this month, also allegedly contributed to a pervasive climate of sexual innuendo in the office that contrasted jarringly with the ethical behavior toward animals that was the organization’s mission.

In a written statement to POLITICO, Shapiro said, “I’ve taken responsibility for inappropriate behavior years earlier in my career, and apologized to those who may have been offended. I cannot, however, respond to allegations that I’m unaware of, were never presented to my former employer or me during the inquiry 16 months ago, are alleged to have occurred many years ago and, frankly, just never happened.”

“After a very thorough investigation of the complaints that were made,” Shapiro wrote, “I was held accountable for what I’d actually done, and the matter was resolved.” Shapiro further said that as a result of the investigation, he was “removed as the head of a 30-person department which I’d run for 12 years, assumed a new position with less responsibility, no supervisees and no budgetary authority. I also went to one-on-one training.”

“I continued working there to help prevent cruelty to animals for an additional 16 months without incident,” Shapiro wrote, “at which time I left, by my own choosing, for unrelated reasons.”

The Humane Society declined to comment for this story, but did not dispute any of the allegations.

The complaints against Shapiro and Pacelle, who has led the organization through more than a decade of growth, come amid a wave of sexual harassment allegations across a variety of industries—including many, such as Hollywood and NPR, seen as bastions of liberal attitudes. Shapiro has built a reputation as a leading voice in the ethical food movement, helping to shift public attitudes about industrial farms. His new book, Clean Meat, which opened in the top 10 on the Washington Post’snonfiction best-seller list and received positive reviews in the Wall Street Journal and other major publications, makes the case to cultivate meat in labs as a means to end factory farming.

Shapiro’s ideas and charisma also helped elevate the Humane Society from a sleepy nonprofit to a powerful lobbying force. In recent years, the group has logged a series of wins banning small cages for farm animals in three states under Shapiro’s leadership, and in 2015, Shapiro personally persuaded McDonald’s to switch to cage-free eggs, a moment that was considered a landmark for farm animal welfare. In 2016, under his leadership, the Humane Society passed the first-ever ballot measure in Massachusetts to require the sale of cage-free eggs. But while he was championing ethical treatment of animals, Shapiro was, in the eyes of some employees, building a reputation within his own organization as someone who routinely crossed the line with female staffers.

Shapiro left his job at HSUS shortly after New Year’s, less than a month after the beginning of the new outside investigation into Pacelle’s conduct. Initially, he said it was to become more involved in Silicon Valley food startups and to promote his book. He said earlier this month that he would remain as a consultant to help lead a cage-free ballot measure in California this year, but after the allegations raised by POLITICO, HSUS spokeswoman Anna West said Shapiro is no longer affiliated with the organization.


When Shapiro arrived at the Humane Society in 2005, he was already well known in the animal rights world.

While still in high school, he founded the group Compassion Over Killing, which made a name conducting undercover video investigations of conditions at factory farms. Since its founding in 1954, the Humane Society had advocated for protections for research animals and those trapped for fur, but was mostly recognized as an organization that focused on pets. HSUS brought on Shapiro to launch a farm animal protection division, where the organization reasoned it could affect the largest number of animals. In 2008, he was inducted into the U.S. Animal Rights Hall of Fame. Shapiro has even developed a rapport with executives of companies he pushed to change, who say they find him to be affable and empathetic to their needs—the opposite of a militant PETA protester.

By the time Ashley Rhinehart, a volunteer for the Humane Society in Phoenix, met Shapiro in 2010, his division had successfully waged ballot-measure campaigns to ban small sow stalls and veal crates in Arizona and California, the latter of which also banned small cages for hens. Rhinehart met Shapiro at a talk he gave at Arizona State University, near where she was living. Shapiro made passes at her over the course of a couple of days, Rhinehart told POLITICO, “and filled me in on the fact he’s in an open relationship and that he was free to have sex with other people.”

Two days later, after she happened to see him at another vegan event, Shapiro asked Rhinehart, a 25-year-old registered nurse, to come to his car to examine a bottle of pain pills that had expired. He tried to kiss her, she said, and she turned her cheek. Rhinehart said Shapiro continued to contact her over the next few months when he was in town on layovers, asking her to meet him. She alleges that at one point, he invited her to his parents’ house in Palm Springs, California, which she declined.

A year later, Rhinehart asked Shapiro if he knew any women who were willing to share a hotel room for an animal rights conference in Washington. He offered to let her stay at the house where he lived with his girlfriend and roommates. She agreed. When they were alone in the house the first night, Rhinehart told POLITICO, Shapiro came to her room to remind her again that he was in an “open relationship,” and asked whether she wanted to have sex. She said no. All of these alleged incidents took place before Rhinehart became an HSUS employee.

In 2012, Rhinehart began working at the HSUS headquarters and alleges she had another uncomfortable encounter—this time with Pacelle, the 47-year-old president. Pacelle, a telegenic figure in the movement, had just published his first book—a New York Times best-seller—a year earlier. Late in the office one night, Pacelle, who was engaged at the time, approached Rhinehart at her cubicle and struck up a conversation, asking her to teach him how to salsa dance. (In the course of the conversation, she had mentioned she was taking lessons with a female colleague.) Rhinehart said she gave Pacelle excuses not to, and he eventually backed down. Pacelle, she said, tried several times to coax her into his office—ostensibly to see how “messy” it was—which she also refused. She reported the incident to Shapiro, who was senior to her.

“He tells me, ‘Yeah, Wayne is also someone in an open relationship,’” Rhinehart said. Rhinehart alleges that Shapiro’s attitude was, “basically, it’s the norm and there’s nothing to be done about it. [Shapiro] doesn’t report it to anybody else, he doesn’t tell me to report it to anybody else. It’s just boys will be boys.”

Shapiro has denied that the incidents with Rhinehart occurred as she described. “This is false,” Shapiro said. “I never did this, nor did I ever receive such a complaint, and I have no knowledge of her having filed anything related with anyone else.”

Rhinehart was one of the six women who reported Shapiro to human resources in September 2016, emails show. She said his transfer to a new position in the wake of the allegations was one of the main reasons she decided to leave. She is still looking for work outside the animal rights movement.

Every former employee who spoke with POLITICO said Shapiro had a habit of making sexual jokes in the office, and several remembered how he kept on his bookshelf a book called Sex at Dawn, about the flaws of monogamy. He openly discussed his philosophy of having many sexual partners with colleagues.

Bury, who worked as a fundraiser for the Humane Society, said she was harassed by a donor in 2012 at an event in Denver. The donor had offered to drive Bury to and from the event, which she accepted despite misgivings because she did not want to annoy someone who financially supported the organization. On the drive back to her hotel, where her husband was waiting for her, the donor began rubbing her leg, Bury told POLITICO, and in the parking lot, he grabbed her breasts and forcibly kissed her. When Bury returned to her room, she looked pale and shaken, like she had just stepped off a roller coaster, her husband told POLITICO. Bury also provided email exchanges with her husband from earlier in the day expressing her concern about the donor.

Contacted by POLITICO, the donor, whom POLITICO is not naming, denied Bury’s account of what happened, saying he asked to kiss her and backed off when she said no. “I looked at her and I said, ‘Can I kiss you?’ and she said ‘No,’” he said. “I literally asked her. I’ve never forced myself on a woman at any level.”

Bury said she kept the incident to herself for two years—ashamed and still afraid of alienating a major donor—before finally reporting it to Shapiro in 2014. Expecting sympathy, Bury was shocked by Shapiro’s response.

“You should take one for the team,” she remembers Shapiro said, suggesting she sleep with the donor. “Keep him close.” “He was maybe half joking, but he was definitely not 100 percent joking, because he wanted [the donor] to stay happy and to stay a donor for his work,” Bury said. “That was the second I realized that these men, including Paul, who I thought were my friends, were not.”

“She never told me this, I never said that, nor did I even ever work in the same department with her,” Shapiro said. “I’m unaware of her raising such a complaint with anyone in her department or with anyone else about this elderly donor.”

Bury said her working conditions slowly worsened.

“I felt like I was getting pushed out,” she said. “Wayne wouldn’t speak to me anymore. They demoted me; they didn’t cut my pay, but I had to start reporting to someone else who was much lower level, and I had no contact with leadership anymore. I wasn’t invited to meetings with my own department. They were talking about not funding positions for my team anymore.”

When she quit in 2015, Bury was offered $19,000 in exchange for signing a confidentiality agreement preventing her from disclosing anything that would harm the organization’s image, according to a copy she provided to POLITICO. She refused.

That same year, Shapiro also emailed four male employees from his personal account a pornographic image of a man and woman having sex, according to a copy obtained by POLITICO. In another email, also from his personal account, he sent male employees an article about spider bites being a natural form of Viagra, the erectile dysfunction drug.

By late 2017, tales of Shapiro’s behavior reportedly had spread among women in the animal rights movement. In November, a month after the Harvey Weinstein expose unleashed the #MeToo movement, Rachel Perman, a major donor at the charitable arm of Tofurky, the vegan food company, emailed the Humane Society’s 31 board members, asking them to investigate harassment in the organization, including complaints she had heard about both Pacelle and Shapiro.

“I am concerned about alleged issues of pervasive sexual harassment within HSUS,” Perman wrote. “I respectfully request that, as a member of the HSUS Board of Directors, you ask for a thorough, independent review of sexual harassment complaints/cases within HSUS over the period of the last 15 years.” Her request was ridiculed by at least one board member. And no official action was taken.

“Are you out of your mind?” wrote Erika Brunson, a Hollywood interior designer who serves on the board. “Don’t you have anything better to do in life than air your repressed sexual fantasies in public?”

Asked by POLITICO for comment Tuesday, Brunson did not retreat. “This country is crazy. … It’s like this lynch-burning hysteria.” She suggested that women needed to “get tougher, don’t go around whining, saying you’ve been sexually harassed.”

A month after Perman’s email, in response to a different complaint, the board opened the investigation into Pacelle.


Read the original article at politico.com here.

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