Alex Pacheco 600 Million Dogs

Alex Pacheco is the president of 600 Million Stray Dogs Need You, an organization dedicated to ending the global overpopulation of stray dogs and cats, and ending the suffering that this problem causes. 600 Million Dogs has a scientific mission to develop an oral, permanent form of birth control for dogs and cats that could be used in areas where surgical spay/neuter is too expensive and difficult. Unlike most animal protection nonprofits, 600 not a rescue group or an advocacy group. It’s something new and unusual and unexpected, but then, back in 1980, so was PETA, the group Pacheco cofounded with Ingrid Newkirk. He served as its chairman from 1980-2000. Its positive impact for animals was worldwide.

Back then, when I told my father I had gone vegan and explained why I was volunteering as an animal rights advocate, he said I was on “the lunatic fringe,” though he knew I was a serious person. Mom just hoped it would blow over so she could cook for me again. Decades later, I’m still vegan. I can never repay Alex Pacheco for the groundbreaking work he has already done, but I can certainly support the groundbreaking work he is STILL doing for animals.

Facing Reality vs. Losing Yourself in Fiction

One of the things I appreciate about Pacheco is that he has always seemed to chose harsh reality over the much easier path of escaping into a fictional world. For all except those with the sunniest of dispositions, reality is a sad song for a variety of reasons, and we need to escape from it from time to time—that is healthy and essential. But even as a child, when imagination and play were a big part of our lives, Pacheco was already immersing himself in the sad reality that there was a war in Vietnam, that in some places people were thrown in jail for expressing their opinions, that there were children starving, and that some animals were being horribly abused. He became determined to do something, make the world a better place. He wasn’t interested in selfish or childish concerns. Pretty unusual for a little kid.

Wish I Could Find a Good Book to Live in

Clifford Alex Pacheco 600 Million Dogs

That’s from a different song. I can relate to that. There are others: “Scotty, beam me up. There’s no intelligent life down here” and “Stop the world—I want to get off.” I’ve always loved fiction—books, TV, movies, plays. Originally it wasn’t to “escape” anything. It was just fun. My parents let me buy all the paperbacks I wanted from school book sales, and that’s how I learned almost everything I know about reading and the English language—by choosing books I enjoyed, like “Clifford the Big Red Dog” and “White Ruff” and “Black Beauty.” Also “The Hardy Boys” and “Encyclopedia Brown” and sci-fi stories about kids building their own rocket ships and going on adventures. All fiction. The only part of the newspaper I read was the “funnies” (comics). The nightly news wasn’t nearly as interesting as “Laugh-In.”

Blending in

My own reality wasn’t bad as a kid, but I have to say, in a country that supposedly prizes “rugged individualism” and the idea that everyone can achieve success if they only try hard enough, it seemed like the exact opposite of that was, and still is, going on in our schools. Not so much from the teachers, who are hopefully busy teaching, but from the other kids. From them, you learn CONFORMITY. I have a book that I’ve saved from childhood because the title is so funny and true: “How to Be a Nonconformist.” It seems like anyone who is different is subject to a whole range of insults, from being teased or mocked to being considered weird or not cool, all the way up to major bullying and physical attacks. I don’t know if that’s an instinctive thing, that humans are just herd animals and attack anything different, or whether it’s passed down by obnoxious parents, but here’s a short list of traits that often make kids the target of bullies: being considered too smart or not smart enough, too tall, too short, too skinny, too fat, having an unusual name, wearing unusual clothes, being “ugly,” having weird hair, having a different skin color, religion, race, sexual orientation (in my school, there was no such thing as “gay”), country of origin, having any physical disability, being too poor, too rich, too quiet, too loud, stuttering, speaking with an accent, being too individualistic, developing too early or too late, being bad at sports, not having enough friends, not drinking or taking drugs. What’s sadder is that this never really stops. Adults just behave cruelly toward their targets in other ways, from trolling on the Web to racism, even killing people of different races and religions. In school I avoided teasing the easy way: I conformed. My goal was modest: to be inconspicuous. I was successful at that. Mostly.

Fairness, not snuggy-wuggums

Golden pup Alex Pacheco 600 Million Dogs

As a kid, Pacheco seems to have been able to brush off any efforts at forced conformity. His father was a Mexican doctor and his mother an American nurse, which in many places would have made him a target of bullying, but his parents made a special effort to live in places where prejudice was at a minimum, and this caused them to move several times. For many kids, it’s difficult when they move to new places because they have to make new friends and fit in to a new school. Some find that animals make good friends, because, as we all know so well, domesticated animals like dogs often love everybody at first sight! But when asked about this by an interviewer, Pacheco said no, he didn’t have problems fitting in at the new schools, and he didn’t turn to animals for emotional support. He didn’t “love” animals, even, in the way many of us do. He just saw that they were being treated unfairly, cruelly, and he felt that was wrong. He had empathy, he saw that they were suffering, and he wanted to help. Among my animal-rights acquaintances, I usually hear this sentiment expressed by men. They’re not so much into the “aw, look at the cute little cuddle bunny–let me kiss and pet and hug her” kind of thing that women more commonly do. The men are more like, “Hey, cut that out, stop picking on the little guy, that is not right!” I know, sweeping generalization. Men, if you like to cuddle with animals, I’m fine with that, and women, if you’re freedom fighters for animals, more power to you. Anyhow, for Pacheco, caring about animals was just another part of caring about suffering in the real world and wanting to change that.

What a disappointment

For many years, most of us were lied to about the reality of how animals were treated, and when we found out, it was an “aha” moment that changed our lives forever. This was one of the many things we learn along the way to adulthood that made reality such a DISAPPOINTMENT. You couldn’t just go on pursuing happiness in your own life. You felt like you had to do something, and each person chose what they wanted to do, such as from going vegan to become an animal rights activist.

But it was and still is depressing, and it’s no wonder that so many animal activists burn out or try to escape in so many ways, whether through food or fiction or music or drugs or alcohol or any distraction from this sad reality. My choice after college was to get a job that was as much fun as possible, so I got one related to the entertainment industry. It was a nice, steady 8-hour-a-day job where I could go to an office, sit in my cubicle, and not have to deal with a lot of people. That worked out pretty well for me. I didn’t dread going to work, the way I had dreaded college classes, tests, and most forms of animal activism, which consisted of tabling, leafletting, and protesting. Undercover work, getting arrested—not for me. Things Pacheco did for two decades, I couldn’t do for two weeks. I participated in mild forms of activism on the side, in my spare time, when I could muster up the energy to deal with masses of indifferent people, and there were always a few memorable hostile people who didn’t appreciate me telling them what to do, however nicely I tried to tell them about animal abuse that they might unknowingly be supporting.

Choosing a life of sacrifice

Steve Jobs Alex Pacheco 600 Million Dogs
Steve Jobs

Obviously, Alex Pacheco chose a much riskier and much less selfish path. First of all, though he was extremely bright, he dropped out of college to cofound a nonprofit organization, PETA. Most people drop out of college for financial reasons or because they can’t do the coursework, not because they have something better to do. Walter Cronkite made a similar choice to drop out of college. In his case, it was because he was pursuing a career in journalism. Bill Gates also dropped out of college to start Microsoft, and Steve Jobs dropped out of college to start Apple. But dropping out of college to start a nonprofit animal rights group is not a financially beneficial thing to do. It’s asking for a life of personal sacrifice, and that’s what Pacheco got. That kind of dedication is rare and underappreciated.  

Bill Gates Alex Pacheco 600 Million Dogs
Bill Gates

I’m inspired by Pacheco’s example to try to spend more of my time in the real world, helping animals, instead of spending quite so much in the world of make-believe. Plus, spending less time on entertainment saves me money that I can donate to help animals. Maybe I’m just at the age where I’ve become not only my mother, but my penny-pinching grandmother, who was generous only with her family but cheap with everything else. I’ve never been willing to pay for TV, though even my frugal parents were willing to get cable. I don’t have Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime. I’ve never seen an episode of “Breaking Bad” or “The Sopranos” or “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” or “Game of Thrones.” I’m sure they’re good. I won’t say that I’ve “put away childish things.” I still love escaping into fiction. I just figure I’ve spent plenty of time doing that already, and now I’m giving reality a try. When I’m old, I may not be able to do anything BUT watch TV. Maybe the more disappointed I am with reality–especially the painful reality that animals are enduring, with so few people helping them–the more important it is to try to live in the real world and make it better.

stray sleeping Alex Pacheco 600 Million Dogs

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