Spring 2014 small hero

Building a More Humane Society

Paul Shapiro, BA '01, at the Humane Society of the United States, with Neil
Paul Shapiro, BA '01, at the Humane Society of the United States, with Neil (Photo: Jessica McConnell Burt)
March 26, 2014

by J. Ford Huffman 

He stopped eating meat at age 13 and founded a nonprofit animal-advocacy organization while in high school.

Now Paul Shapiro, BA ’01, is operating on a national scale, as vice president for farm animal protection at the national nonprofit Humane Society of the United States.

“This is my life’s work,” he says.

And unlike the challenges for him as a teenage vegetarian in the early 1990s—when meatless diets were a “foreign concept” in the United States, he says—Mr. Shapiro now has prominent company at the table. Rapper Jay-Z made news in December, when he and his wife, Beyoncé, announced a trial vegan diet.

“And people like Al Gore and Bill Clinton are nearly vegan and are talking about the benefits of plant-based eating,” Mr. Shapiro says. (Vegans typically avoid using products derived from animals.)

“Meat consumption has declined 10 percent in just six years, since 2007,” he says, “and because of that, the number of animals being raised for food is hundreds of millions fewer than just six years ago.”

From his time at GW, where he majored in peace studies and minored in religion, Mr. Shapiro says he remains inspired by the work of professors David DeGrazia and the late Harry Yeide. Dr. DeGrazia is professor of philosophy and a senior research fellow in bioethics at the National Institutes of Health, and Dr. Yeide was a professor of religion.

Each “had a pretty substantial influence on my views, even outside animal issues,” especially Dr. Yeide and his knowledge of “traditional religious advocacy.”

Mr. Shapiro learned that “many of the abolitionists were religious. In the 19th century, advocates were cognizant about slavery—and about poverty, women’s equality, prison reform, and animal cruelty.

“A lot of abolitionists started animal protection groups,” he says. Likewise, Mr. Shapiro had wanted “to bear witness to how we treat our fellow animals, to transform our relationship with other animals.”

Referring to “other animals” denotes his vision of a planet on which “animals are no longer [seen] as a commodity to be exploited but as individuals who are to be respected, and to avoid suffering.”

In January 2005 he joined the Humane Society of the United States, billed as the nation’s largest animal protection group, which is headquartered just off GW’s Foggy Bottom Campus. (The HSUS is a national organization, and not affiliated with local humane societies.)

“Without a doubt we’re making progress,” he says, but “not enough.”

“When I graduated there were zero states that had passed laws [about farm animal protection]. Now there are nine states.”

And, he says, “we’ve persuaded many of the biggest food retailers, who are now mandating animal-welfare improvements to their suppliers.”

That makes some meat producers unhappy, according to a December article in Rolling Stone that reports “Big Meat” producers have “declared jihad on the Humane Society.”

Despite detractors, though, Mr. Shapiro remains vocal.

“My voice is basically trying to halt the war we wage on animals. Most farm animals are tormented their entire lives,” he says. “Many are locked in cages so small they can hardly move.”

In Mr. Shapiro’s own home, not surprisingly, the conditions for cats Calvin, Emma, and Sam are much more comfortable, for the cats and for others.

“I built them a ‘catio’—a screened-in enclosure outside my bedroom window— where they can enjoy watching the birds without attacking them.”