Alex Pacheco is often described as the “Father of the Modern Day Animal Rights Movement” in the United States.
As co-founder of both the world’s largest animal rights organization (PETA) and the world’s largest non-profit animal adoption service (Adopt-A-Pet), his 30-year track record of victories for animals is arguably unequaled.
He has received many awards, ranging from induction into the Animal Rights Hall of Fame to The Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award, though his favorite is being voted Crew Member of the Year by the Sea Shepherd.
Socially-minded from an early age, Pacheco grew up in the Midwest watching the Vietnam War on television, becoming passionate about defending democracy against communism.
Too young to enlist and in high school, he wrote to the CIA asking if he could become an agent; they wrote back saying he was too young and “don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
He then applied to the FBI and was accepted to work at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. Just days before leaving for Washington, he was talked out of it by his two mentors, Father Thomas and martial arts expert Steve Adams. It was the year of The Concert for Bangladesh and they convinced him to instead pursue his other passion: helping impoverished children. Accordingly, he enrolled in the Scholastic Program for Ecclesiastical Students and, for the next year, studied to become a priest, while living with three priests and seven brothers.
After one year in the Ecclesiastical Program, he took a behind-the-scenes tour of a large slaughterhouse, where his passion for defending animals was unleashed. Witnessing the brutality first-hand, he dedicated himself to defending the most helpless of all, and within days he founded the activist organization The Ohio Animal Rights Committee, at Ohio State University, and in the first month, he received his first three death threats from trappers and hunters.
Since then, his commitment to defending animals has incited violent opposition, from a man waving a loaded gun in the PETA office to anonymous packages arriving on his doorstep containing the blood-soaked body parts of animals. Over the years, he has received so many death threats in the line of duty that he lost count long ago.
In 1979, Pacheco left college to work as a crew member aboard the Sea Shepherd under Captain Paul Watson, on the Sea Shepherd’s first whale protection campaign.
Sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, their mission was to ram the world’s most notorious, pirate, whale-killing ship, the Sierra. Before embarking on the voyage and in anticipation of the ramming, the bow of the Sea Shepherd was fortified with tons of concrete. In the end, both ships were sunk in Portuguese waters, and Portuguese authorities immediately confiscated the passports of Watson, Pacheco and others to prevent them from leaving the country, pending possible prosecution. To avoid capture by the Portuguese Border Patrol, under the cover of night, Pacheco swam across the border into Spain, hitchhiked to Madrid and spent three days in an airport waiting for a passport and a ticket to London, where he then worked with Ronnie Lee, the founder of the underground Animal Liberation Front. Pacheco was later named Sea Shepherd’s Crew Member of the Year.
While in England, Pacheco also worked with the British Hunt Saboteurs Association, disrupting hunts and physically clashing with up to 40 hunters at a time, who hunted from horseback and used whips to strike the saboteurs; some saboteurs were scarred for life with whip scars across their entire face.
When Pacheco’s visa expired, he returned to the U.S. and moved to Washington, D.C. to become a lobbyist for animals, where he also organized the first animal rights civil disobedience training sessions in the U.S.
In 1980, he co-founded PETA and for 20 years served as Chairman of the Board, specializing in undercover investigations, litigation and lobbying, before leaving in 2000.
During his tenure, the New York Times described PETA as the “mover and shaker” of the Animal Rights Movement, and the organization became a household name to the point where an envelope with nothing more than “PETA” written on it can be dropped into a mailbox and it will still be successfully delivered by the U.S. Post Office. The legacy of his leadership has contributed to the continuing success of the organization which currently has over 3 million members and annual revenues exceeding $35 million.
Within months of founding PETA, Pacheco began working undercover in a federally funded animal research facility in Silver Spring, Maryland, less than 10 miles from the White House. For four months, he gathered evidence of cruelty to animals and compelled the Montgomery County, Maryland Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office to take legal action, with Pacheco leading law enforcement agents into the laboratory, carrying out the world’s first, and to this day only, police raid on an animal laboratory.
Unprecedented, the raid was covered on the front page of the Washington Post and broadcast nationwide on ABC World News. It was soon covered on the front pages of every major newspaper in the U.S., often several times, from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times to the Soviet Union’s largest newspaper, Tass, including coverage by every U.S. television network. Broadcasting photographs taken by Pacheco, showing severely mutilated laboratory primates, the case sent shock waves through the biomedical community worldwide.
Known as The Silver Spring Monkeys Case, it generated a political and social battle that was fought in Congress, in the courts, in the national media and in the streets, with Pacheco spearheading a 15-year campaign against the laboratory’s funding agency, the National Institutes of Health, over the fate of the laboratory primates.
Film director Oliver Stone wrote a forward to the book “Monkey Business, the Disturbing Case that Launched the Animal Rights Movement,” in which Stone wrote “The political campaign to save the Silver Spring Monkeys gave birth to the Animal Rights Movement in the United States.”
The campaign brought to an end the era of “little old ladies in tennis shoes,” transforming animal lovers into activists and producing an explosion in the birth of animal rights’ organizations.
The case also spawned the birth of anti-animal-protection organizations such as the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR). Charging annual membership fees of $100,000, NABR is comprised of drug companies, federal agencies and universities.
The campaign also led to the American Medical Association commissioning a 1982 study by a Harvard University team, which described Pacheco as “a national folk hero to the animal rights movement.” In 1989, a secret AMA Animal Research Action Plan called for divide-and-conquer tactics to counter PETA and other animal groups. After the paper was leaked, the AMA publicly acknowledged their plan and budgeted $21 million to carry it out.
The Silver Spring Monkey campaign fueled an unprecedented amount of activism and a flood of national media, with activities ranging from illegal break-ins into animal laboratories, to peaceful protests and civil disobedience, which continued to rise for almost two decades.
In the process, Pacheco was arrested over 60 times, while the front page of the Wall Street Journal reported, “The White House released their weekly list of the top three topics they received the most letters and calls on, and this week’s top three are: the war, unemployment and the Silver Spring Monkeys.”
Spearheaded by Pacheco, the campaign produced numerous precedents, including:
- The first and only laboratory animal case to reach the United States Supreme Court.
- The first and only arrest of an animal experimenter for cruelty to animals.
- The first and only criminal prosecution and conviction of an animal experimenter on charges of cruelty.
- The first laboratory closed down because of cruelty.
- The first termination of a federal research grant because of cruelty.
- The first and only confiscation of animals from a laboratory.
- Introduction of federal legislation, signed by over 100 members of Congress, to force the federal government to terminate funding for the laboratory and to release the Silver Spring Monkeys. In addition, fifty-five U.S. senators, ranging from Senator Jesse Helms to Senator Ted Kennedy, signed a joint statement calling on the government to terminate funding for the laboratory, end the experiments and free the Silver Spring Monkeys.
Pacheco was called to testify as the lead witness before Congressional Hearings by the U.S. House Subcommittee on Science, Research and Technology. He was also called to testify as the star witness for the State of Maryland in the criminal trial and prosecution of animal experimenter Dr. Taub, in State of Maryland vs. Dr. Edward Taub.
The campaign then paved the way for the passage of federal animal protection legislation – the 1985 Amendments to the Federal Animal Welfare Act. In 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Silver Spring Monkeys, and in defiance of Congress, the NIH immediately killed half of the surviving monkeys, and the conflict continued.
Apart from the Silver Spring Monkey case, while Chairman of PETA, some of Pacheco’s most significant accomplishments came from the wide range of roles he played in helping convince many of the world’s largest corporations to dramatically improve their policies concerning animals. From leading a high profile, three-year, successful campaign against the world’s largest corporation at the time, General Motors, in which he destroyed his own GM car by setting it afire in public during a press conference, to his undercover work in the Texas oilfields owned by Exxon — his track record of victories for animals is remarkable.
Successfully targeted companies include multi-billion-dollar companies such as Phillips Petroleum, Shell Oil, Gillette, L’Oreal , Revlon and Avon, to smaller companies such as Benetton, Tonka, Mattel, Hasbro, Amway, Kenner, Mary Kay and others.
In 1983, Pacheco went to work armed and undercover in Waco, Texas, closing down the largest horse slaughter operation in the world, where over 30,000 horses suffered. Working under dangerous conditions, he was repeatedly threatened and shot at by horse ranchers and publicly pursued by the County Sheriff and Sheriff’s Deputies, who attempted to arrest Pacheco on numerous occasions. The threats against him by armed ranchers reached the point where Pacheco’s supporters hired bodyguards for him, with the first two sets of bodyguards quitting, saying it wasn’t worth the risk.
A special prosecutor was appointed, who convened a grand jury, which in turn subpoenaed Pacheco, and the sheriff eventually arrested Pacheco, charging him with felonies ranging from horse-theft to impersonating a federal officer. Legendary criminal defense attorney Richard “Racehorse” Haynes came to Pacheco’s aid, representing Pacheco before the grand jury and defending him against the criminal charges. In the end, the world’s largest horse-slaughter company was permanently closed.
Pacheco then began undercover work in a Defense Department research facility, which resulted in a direct order by U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, covered on the front page of the Washington Post, permanently closing down the Pentagon’s Wound Laboratory, where dogs and other animals were being shot in underground firing ranges to test new weapons and bullets.
Unsatisfied, Pacheco led continued protests against the D.O.D. until the Secretary of Defense issued a second order, ordering that no dogs or cats are to ever be used again, in any military ballistics training or research, by the U.S. Defense Department. The Wound Laboratory was the second animal laboratory closed in the U.S.
Soon afterwards, the underground Animal Liberation Front raided the Head Injury Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, removing 60 hours of videotape recordings of brain damage experiments being performed on baboons, recorded by the experimenters themselves.
A copy of the videos ended up in Pacheco’s possession, from which Pacheco made the 30-minute documentary “Unnecessary Fuss,” showing university doctors committing violations of federal law while violently scrambling the brains of live baboons. A grand jury was convened to investigate the theft of federal property (the videotapes), and while Pacheco was holding a news conference to call attention to violations at the university, he was subpoenaed by undercover agents.
In return, Pacheco led over 100 activists in an orchestrated occupation and surprise takeover of 15 federal offices at the headquarters of the National Institutes of Health, the federal agency funding the university experiments.
The occupation lasted four days, generating national media and substantial involvement by members of Congress. On the fourth day of the occupation, Pacheco met privately in a stairwell of the occupied offices with the Chief of Staff for the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Margaret Heckler, to broker a deal, in which Secretary Heckler capitulated by publicly announcing the termination of the $14 million Head Injury Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania.
This was the third animal laboratory closed in the U.S.
As usual there was retaliation, and for closing the laboratory, Secretary Heckler paid the price with her job. Angered, leaders of the biomedical community pressured President Reagan, who in turn unceremoniously removed Secretary Heckler from her position as head of the agency with the third largest budget on earth and sent her to Ireland, demoting and appointing her as the new U.S. Ambassador to Ireland.
In 2002, Pacheco continued to revolutionize the world of animal rights by co-founding Adopt-A-Pet. Free to over 13,000 humane societies, animal rescue organizations and the public, its website hosts over 100,000 adoptable animals nationwide that are viewable and searchable online, with over 25 million website visitors annually. It is likely that Adopt-A-Pet is responsible for the adoption of more animals than any other non-profit in the world.
In 2010, Pacheco founded 600 Million Stray Dogs Need You – The Cure for Animal Overpopulation. The mission is develop safe and effective veterinary formulas to permanently end the number one cause of suffering and death for dogs and cats worldwide — overpopulation.
The first formula, Spay and Neuter Cookies, are being designed to safely sterilize strays — without surgery. The objective is to end the cycle of suffering for the tens of millions of stray cats in the U.S. and end the cycle of suffering for the 600 million stray dogs worldwide, who give birth to over one billion stray pups each year.
The organization is also dedicated to alleviating the plight of the 15 million people who are treated for rabies each year, and preventing the deaths of the 59,000 people who die from rabies each year.
The World Health Organization reports that over 95% of all people who die from rabies receive their fatal infections from one source: stray dogs.
Though he co-founded PETA at the age of 21 with no money, no staff, no training, no college degree and no business experience, he nonetheless played a central role in raising more than $128 million in donations for animal protection, while living a near possession-less life.
From the first five years of PETA when he worked without pay, often sleeping under his desk in a sleeping bag, Pacheco’s commitment has not wavered. His work has often been dangerous; he has come to live with threats against his life by the abusers he exposes, and he has been shot at many times and arrested over sixty times.
He has been subpoenaed many times by the FBI and federal grand juries, while animal experimenters have put warning posters on their walls with his photograph saying “Warning – If you see this man, call security.”
Described by those close to him as a modern day Spartan because of his Franciscan, non-materialistic philosophy, Pacheco remains an entrepreneur, innovator and, above all, perhaps the world’s preeminent defender of animal rights.
* Much was written regarding the Silver Spring Monkey campaign: “Pacheco shocked the nation into awareness of animal abuse in the realm of science … with the first laboratory animal case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court” – Publishers Weekly.
“The modern antivivisection movement began in 1980 with the Silver Spring Monkey case.” – Dr. Murray Cohen.
“Pacheco is widely considered the founder of the modern Animal Rights Movement.” – Dr. Andrew Kirschner.
“This landmark case … filled a newly discovered void in the American conscience.“ – Booklist.
“The most famous laboratory animals in history.” – author Kathleen Guillermo.
“The ensuing battle over the monkeys’ custody saw celebrities
and politicians campaign for the monkeys’ release, an amendment
in 1985 to the Animal Welfare Act, the transformation of PETA
from a group of friends into a national movement, the creation
of the first North American Animal Liberation Front cell
and the first animal research case to reach the United States Supreme Court.” – Wikipedia.