Adele Douglass gave up her life savings to bring humane treatment practices to farm animals through her humane certification organization.
By Katherine Reynolds Lewis • Photography By Robert Merhaut
Adele Douglass is searching for piglets, bouncing over sun-drenched, grassy hills in the back of a black Range Rover. The 67-year old founder of Humane Farm Animal Care warns that once we dismount and approach the pig hut to be careful of their nipping teeth. “The baby piglets are very curious and want to come up to you. And they bite you,” Douglass explains.
It’s the third stop in our porcine quest. The 260-plus pigs raised on Ayrshire Farm in Upperville roam through 110 acres of woods as they please, seeking shade on this clear summer day. The previous two huts were empty, sending us back into the truck piloted fearlessly by Ayrshire’s owner Sandy Lerner. A co-founder of Cisco Systems in the 1980s, Lerner now devotes herself to running the humane and organic farm, as well as the associated restaurant and butcher/grocery store in Middleburg.
At the next hut, we hit paydirt. One sow, brown aside from the pink sides of her snout, is rooting in the underbrush beside the round-roofed metal hut, her belly coated with fresh mud and her back and face caked with dried mud. Peeking inside, we see a cleaner looking mama pig flopped on her side, with a half-dozen babies nursing, playing and snoozing in the hay. The piglets are white with black spots.
Lerner tromps into the fray, eager to get her hands on baby pigs, while Douglass stays on the far side of a low wire fence. She’s been bitten before. “That’s their natural behavior. That’s what they do,” explains Douglass, a short, rounded woman with neatly cropped black hair and rimless glasses.
Explaining and defending the natural behavior of farm animals has become a life’s work and passion for Douglass, who moved from California to Northern Virginia in 1977 with her three young children. Born and raised in New York City, she held an idealized, “Old McDonald’s Farm” view of farm animals until her eyes were opened in her work for New York Rep. Bill Green in the 1980s. As Green’s personal secretary, office manager and legislative assistant, she took ownership of animal right’s issues. “They figured since I had kids, I was capable of dealing with the most difficult animal rights constituents,” she recalls.
Gradually, an activist was born. The more Douglass learned about standard farming practices, the angrier she became. She grew more outraged with each story of hens, cattle and pigs confined so tightly that they turned on each other or became sick, sometimes left to die. “If people knew how their animals were raised, they would be appalled,” she says. “I saw there were alternative methods that weren’t outrageous, that farmers could adapt, that farmers could change with a little encouragement.”
In 1987, the American Humane Association hired her to open its Washington D.C. office, where she could make a real difference on issues as varied as animal testing in cosmetics, pets in public housing and pet theft—which often leads to cruel treatment or painful deaths. But she grew increasingly convinced that an independent organization devoted solely to the humane treatment of farm animals would win broad support from the general public and be able to make a meaningful difference. In 2003, she emptied her 401(k) of the $80,000 she’d saved; accepted a $10,000 gift from her daughter Holly; and launched Humane Farm Animal Care as a nonprofit. Her goal was to create, and convince farmers to follow, scientifically backed standards focused on the welfare of the 10 billion farm animals raised each year in the U.S.
After all, consumers outraged by books such as Matthew Scully’s “Dominion,” Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemna” and documentaries like “Food Inc.” often turn to organic food as the answer. But while organic standards keep antibiotics and pesticides out of the food system and environment, they govern nothing about the way that animals are treated in the production of eggs, milk, meat and other food products. Enter the humane certification. Douglass assembled a few brave scientists to begin writing research-based standards for the humane treatment of farm animals. The standards specify things such as the animals’ access to food and water, living conditions, weaning, health care, handling and even the slaughter process. The overarching goal is to prevent cruelty and to allow animals to engage in their normal behavior as much as possible. Of the four scientists who assisted her, only one, Joy Mench, of the University of California, Davis, came to Humane Farm’s launch announcement with the media—the one with tenure, who wasn’t afraid of losing her job in the face of criticism from agribusiness.
As the pigs oink and wander among the trees, Douglass bemoans the use of farrowing crates in many farms, which put bars between mothers and their babies. The sows have just enough room to lie down to nurse. Lerner chimes in that the commercial pigs that are raised for sale at market have it even worse because they don’t even have room to move in order to lie down. Indeed, many have been bred to be so fat—to provide more bacon—that their backs can’t even support their weight.
“That’s why (Humane Farm has) space requirements for the market pigs. You can’t just pack them in,” Douglass says. She praises farmers such as Lerner, whose Ayrshire Farm was one of the original farms to support her organization in 2003 by becoming humane certified by Douglass’ organization. “At the beginning the producers were scared. They took risks in doing this,” she says. “They got more and more enthusiastic as they saw we were serious.”
In 2003, just 143,000 animals were raised under Humane Farm’s standards. But last year, 86.7 million farm animals certified as humane. Douglass attributes the growth to the push of consumers and retailers demanding humanely farmed products as well as the pull from farmers themselves seeing that there’s a more sustainable and better way to raise animals. Humane Farm has taken the opportunity to revise its standards when new research or practices emerge that will help both producers and animals. For instance, an alternative anesthesia came into use that didn’t require a veterinarian to travel onto the range to give a shot before, for instance, castrating a bull. Instead, the ibuprofen-like medicine can be given in water up to 48 hours before the procedure. In 2012, Humane Farm revised its standards to allow this treatment and embarked on a campaign to let farmers know about the option.
While the Range Rover carries us from the pig area to where the cattle range across the hillside, Douglass talks about the initial challenges in launching the organization. At first, the U.S. Department of Agriculture wouldn’t allow the “certified humane” label unless it was accredited by the International Organization for Standardization. So Humane Farm Animal Care tackled the process and won ISO certification. Having to navigate the ISO requirements laid an important foundation for the processes and procedures the organization would follow in years to come. “That was actually good for us,” she says.
“The thing that surprised me was how we get attacked by everyone,” she says. “We get attacked by commodity groups. We get attacked by animal rights groups who think the answer is to become a vegan. There are 10 billion animals killed and raised for food and 4 percent vegetarians in the U.S. These animals need relief. Our role is to provide relief for those animals,” Douglass justifies.
The support of the media and like-minded farmers and activists proved to be crucial in the early years of Humane Farm, when Douglass worked seven days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day. Her dedication to the greater good was recognized with a Purpose Prize, awarded by Encore.org in 2007 and her election to the Ashoka Fellowship by the Ashoka organization in 2008, both honors for people who have made a difference through a socially useful venture. Later milestones included successful partnerships with Safeway and Sobey Supermarkets, which took years of work. In 2012, Safeway required all suppliers of store-brand cage-free and organic eggs to be Certified Humane®. In 2013, Sobey limited its “Better Food for All” program to Certified Humane® meat producers. “The producers would call the quality guy, Mike Talbott, at Safeway and complain. Safeway didn’t back down one little bit,” Douglass says, noting that consumers can find Certified Humane® products through an app available for iPhone or Android.
The Range Rover rumbles along a dirt path beside a pond, where five cows are knee-deep in water, happily chewing grass. Among Ayrshire Farm’s 800 head of cattle are several distinct breeding herds, one of which is the rare White Park cattle, only recently back from being endangered for years. The cows low at the passing vehicle, as calves alternately stroll beside the adults or cuddle together at rest.
“Adele was the first person to figure out that calves like to sleep in piles. This is what calves do,” Lerner says. “They’re herd animals and when you put them alone they get neurotic.”
Ayrshire’s White Park cattle boast a 103 percent fertility rate because of the proliferation of twins, she says, noting that factory farms are lucky to see a 70 percent fertility rate. Ayrshire also produces humane-certified young dairy beef, aka veal, as well as turkeys, chickens and eggs.
Douglass recalls the first time she was roasting an Ayrshire Farm chicken, while watching a football game and smelled an aroma that reminded her of something in her childhood. “It took me about a half hour to realize it was the smell of roasting chicken, which you don’t smell any more because the stuff you buy has no taste, no flavor, no nothing. It’s unbelievable the difference,” she says.
Humanely farmed food may cost more at the checkout counter, but the overall cost will be lower when you take into account the impact on the environment and your health, the two women agree. “When you eat my food, the ground is better than before I raised the food. We are actually net-carbon sequesters,” Lerner says. “It’s food for your body. It’s only doing good things. You don’t have a loss of productivity; you’re not getting environmental cancers. The price you pay at the till is actually reasonable.”
Finally, we pull up in front of the slaughterhouse and get out of the vehicle. Lerner leads us into an immaculately clean, grey metal warehouse-like space. She explains that the fat in the meat protects it from bacteria and oxidation, which is what makes the food so juicy. The Certified Humane® standard specifies slaughter practices that keep pain and stress to a minimum. For instance, no animal can witness another animal being killed and poultry can’t be hung for more that 90 seconds. Douglass remembers seeing a large chicken company catch poultry with mechanical devices that slammed the birds into transport cages. The employee giving her a tour explained that the meat was sold in parts, so it “didn’t matter” if the wings broke.
“It matters to those birds. There’s no need for it. That bird is going to be transported to slaughter in pain,” she says. “There’s no point of raising them right and then stressing them in transport and then in slaughter.”
Douglass developed her love for animals during her childhood in New York City. She grew up with a warm and close-knit Italian family, with aunts, uncles and cousins always in the mix. “Everyone loved animals. You never hurt animals, you just didn’t,” she says. “I never doubted that animals had feelings.”
The oldest of three girls born to Ruth and Salvatore Perrone, Adele graduated from high school, took an office job and married co-worker Archie Douglass at age 19. “I wanted to travel, get married and have children. That’s what women of my generation did,” she says. They had three children: Holly in 1967, Brian in 1969 and Meredith in 1970, moving to Connecticut, Vermont and finally California for Archie’s work as an engineer. Adele Douglass raised a family and supported local political causes on a volunteer basis, often typing newsletters late at night for the San Fernando Valley political caucus. “I was a voracious reader,” she says, “I was always someone who was into fairness and justice.”
When she moved to Herndon in 1977 and separated from her husband, Douglass needed to earn her own living. She did billing for a laboratory and worked as a legal secretary before landing the position in Green’s office, which led her to her life’s calling. She never felt disadvantaged for not having a college degree, and merely compensated by over-preparing for every hearing or meeting or discussion. “When you’re a woman and you’re working in agriculture, let me assure you, people are prejudiced against you anyway,” she says. “What I would get is not, ‘You don’t have a college degree,’ but ‘You don’t have a Ph.D.?’ ”
When she was on a committee of the Federation of Animal Science Societies to rewrite the Guide for the Care and Use of Agricultural Animals in Research and Teaching, she tried to make the point that if dairy cows couldn’t be confined for more than two weeks, pigs shouldn’t be crated in gestation stalls. “The guy turned to me and said, ‘Adele you’re not an animal scientist, so you might not understand this, but a cow is bigger than a pig.’ I looked at him and said, ‘I realize I’m not an animal scientist but I did study biology and they both are mammals,’” she recalls. “The secret to that is to talk to them like you’re talking to your teenage kids. They all cringe because they have mothers. They revert.”
Out of Douglass’s earshot, Lerner praises her for championing humane farming years before it was on anyone else’s radar screen. “Adele is unique. She was way ahead of the pack,” she says. “She’s one of the few people I’ve dealt with in life that is motivated by all the right reasons. Talk about no personal gain—she’s always hand to mouth.”
We’ve finished the farm tour and are enjoying a humanely farmed meal at Hunter’s Head Tavern, the pub-style restaurant Lerner owns just minutes from the farm in Upperville. The round wooden table is laden: an Iceberg wedge salad topped with bacon and egg; chicken cobb salad; a French dip sandwich with au Jus; and wienerschnitzel with a lemon caper sauce. Douglass orders a roast beef sandwich with house-made beet horseradish—holding the ciabatta bun to avoid the gluten—and insists that everyone at the table share her strawberry spinach salad.
She recalls a debate with a radio journalist who asked for scientific proof that Certified Humane® meat is tastier than conventional. “You don’t need science; you have taste buds,” she told him. At a 2004 taste test held by at Equinox in Washington D.C. by chef Todd Gray, all the humanely farmed meat was chosen. She theorizes that when animals are slaughtered while in pain or fear, the adrenaline flooding their bodies ends up flavoring the meat unpleasantly. Lerner credits the very low temperature at which the meat is processed. “We don’t melt the fat on the bird. The fat is still intact in the meat, so it stays really, really moist when you cook it,” she says.
Douglass first saw a slaughterhouse on a visit with animal scientist and activist Temple Grandin, a member of Humane Farm’s scientific committee. She felt trepidation, not knowing what to expect. It was an especially difficult time for Douglass since her mother was dying of cancer. “Those animals went to their death peacefully. They had no idea. It was calm and peaceful,” she says. “We all die and that’s all we can wish for: to go to our ends peacefully.”
As for Douglass, her plan is to die at her desk. After using her retirement funds for Humane Farm Animal Care, there’s no other choice. In the meantime, she hopes to push the number of humanely farmed animals to 1 percent of the total, which would be 100 million animals a year.
“I am optimistic about the future of farming,” she says. “Farmers work hard and they want the best, and we have to help them succeed.”