At 55, Adele Douglass had done public policy work around the welfare of children and animals for decades, including serving as the director the American Humane Association’s Washington D.C. office for 13 years. For many people in her position, the obvious next move would have been more of the same.
Origins of Humane Farm Animal Care
But Douglass did something seriously different. Increasingly concerned about the treatment of farm animals and cynical about the time and energy needed to pass and enforce new legislation, she decided to create a new, voluntary labeling system to identify humanely raised animal products. So she quit her job, cashed out her $80,000 401k account, and founded Humane Farm Animal Care.
“At first I worked from home, and I worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said.
Ten years later, Douglass said, she still works so much that her social life—aside from visits with her grandchildren—is nonexistent. But her hard work has paid off. Last year almost 33 million animals were raised under her organization’s Certified Humane label.
Douglass said building a new nonprofit required all sorts of skills that she didn’t have at first. “It was a huge learning curve,” she said. Huge, huge, huge. Part of that was fun because I like challenges and I like learning. That’s part of my personality.”
Douglass said she called on just about everyone she knew for help, starting with several animal scientist friends who became the first inspectors for the program. Her daughter worked alongside her, and other friends and supporters offered help with legal advice and public relations work.
“My poor friends couldn’t escape me,” she said. “I would grab them and say ‘I need you to do this.’… My daughter’s roommate is an artist, and she designed stuff for us. You sit there and think of everyone you know who could help us with this.”
Humane animal care standards and certification
The standards set by Humane Farm Animal Care are the product of a scientific board made up of animal scientists, including well-known animal welfare advocate Temple Grandin. They include giving laying hens places to perch and the chance to dust-bathe and allowing calves being raised for beef to nurse until they’re six months old. The organization also monitors how animals are slaughtered and checks what products are being sold under its certification to make sure nothing from an uninspected farm is included.
Farms that choose to pursue certification under the program receive annual inspections by scientists who are experts in the kinds of animals they raise. Douglass said the inspectors’ expertise has been an important part of getting buy-in from farmers.
“The farmers got that it wasn’t some little old lady in tennis shoes or some animal rights activist with a camera trying to put them out of business,” she said. “As the program has grown, they can call other producers on the program and ask them.”
Douglass said living up to the certification standards does add a bit of extra expense for farmers. “You have to understand the behavior of the animal, why they do certain things,” she said. “So there’s a little more intensity in terms of labor.”
But she said some changes—like not using antibiotics routinely to prevent disease outbreaks in overcrowded barns—can actually save farms money. And certification allows producers to charge 10 to 25 percent more for their product because customers are willing to pay a bit more to know they’re buying from humane sources. Plus, Douglass said, many farmers really do want their animals to be as healthy and happy as possible.
Backlash from industry opponents
Douglass has also received plenty of backlash from industry sources that don’t want to provide better conditions for their animals. But she said she’s also gotten flack from more radical animal rights groups that believe the only ethical course is to avoid animal products altogether. Douglass isn’t a vegetarian herself, and she thinks it’s unrealistic to expect most people to give up meat, dairy and eggs. With almost 10 billion animals killed a year, she said, her goal is to make life more bearable for those creatures.
Years before starting the organization, she said, she heard about the torturous lives of farm animals when and felt both guilty and helpless. “I remember thinking ‘My family is not going to become vegetarians or vegans. What can I do about this?’” she said. “And the answer was ‘Nothing.’”
When she launched the certification program, she said, many people doubted that consumers would buy into it. But she said her group has almost become a movement, with shoppers printing out comment cards and demanding that grocery stores carry Certified Humane products. The certification still applies to less than 1 percent of animal products, but the share grows significantly each year.
Still, Humane Farm Animal Care remains a small organization. Aside from Douglass, it has two full-time and two part-time employees and a budget of less than $500,000 a year. It runs on donations and grants from the ASPCA and other groups. As part of its effort to appeal to farmers, it subsidizes inspections to keep the cost of participation low, so only a third of its income comes from fees paid by the farms.
For Douglass, the financial side of entrepreneurship hasn’t been an obvious home run. At 65, she said she’s now selling her house and finding a place she can pay for if she eventually has to live on Social Security alone. Still, she said, she doesn’t regret cashing in her 401k 10 years ago.
“I’m not sorry,” she said. “I feel like there’s been a lot of change, and I really feel good about that.”
Loving what you do and doing what you love
Douglass clearly still relishes her work, even as it keeps her from having the kind of relaxed life some people might hope for in their 60s. To her, risking everything and starting a new endeavor in the second half of her life turns out to have been excellent timing.
“I could never have done this if my kids were younger, if they were in school,” she said. “If I were responsible for anyone other than myself and my two cats I could never have done this.”
Written by: Livia Gershon