She has animals in the lobby
Her inner alarm chimes before dawn, long before her dog Yoda emerges from his nightly nest amid the bed covers, before the proverbial rooster crows and the day begins for 19 million or so egg-laying chickens whose lives she worked to change.
It’s 5 a.m., and Jennifer Fearing is beginning another day as the rising star of California’s animal protection movement.
The statehouse point person for the Humane Society of the United States plucks her iPhone from a bedside table and launches the first of hundreds of e-mails she’ll send today. Fearing, raised an Air Force brat, calls her schedule “a wartime blessing and a peacetime curse.”
But it is routine for the 37-year-old, whose career took off with the landmark ballot measure California voters passed last fall easing the confinement of hens and other factory farm animals. Fresh from her victory as manager of that campaign, with its 19-hour days, she set up shop as the Humane Society’s lobbyist in the Golden State.
She flips through blogs and news websites and e-mail, prepping for the long day ahead. It will be paced like the marathons she somehow finds time to run.
“Jennifer has an extra motor in there,” says her boss, the society’s chief executive, Wayne Pacelle, who often arrives at his Washington headquarters to find a flock of Fearing’s early e-mails.
Fearing stands out in the Capitol’s animal rights corps -- a passionate but sometimes scruffy lot -- with her stylish blond hair, high heels and a resume jammed with achievement. She has a Harvard graduate degree, a highly paid past with a Los Angeles consulting firm and service at all ranks of the animal-protection movement.
She was reared a Midwest Republican and a Presbyterian. As a teenager, she was president of Christian singer Amy Grant’s fan club. She interned for the first Bush administration and voted once for the second. Among the liberal-leaning true believers at the Humane Society, Fearing is still considered the token Republican, though she grew disillusioned with the GOP several years ago and registered independent.
Chums once jokingly presented the former sorority girl with a plastic doll of Elle Woods, the Chihuahua-toting dynamo who triumphs over stereotype in the movie “Legally Blonde.”
Fearing nonetheless remains a rookie in the house of mirrors that is the state Capitol. She has her worries.
“I’m probably going to get eaten alive,” she says.
For now, Fearing and her cohorts have foes worried.
The landslide passage of Proposition 2 left California’s egg farmers decidedly anxious about their future. They cite bare-knuckle tactics that Fearing helped shape, including litigation to tie up $3 million of their money and a lawsuit against two industry-backing researchers from UC Davis -- Fearing’s undergraduate alma mater.
Leaders of the state’s agriculture industry aren’t accustomed to losing. But Proposition 2 proponents “beat the tar out of us,” said Arnold Riebli, a fourth-generation Sonoma County egg producer.
Fearing and her troops -- she built a campaign army of 4,000 California volunteers -- “have the zeal of missionaries,” Riebli said, “and in some cases that’s what they are: zealots for what they call animal welfare.”
Today, that campaign is in Fearing’s rear-view mirror. Soy-chai latte in hand, she’s driving to her first appointment. Her Prius bears a bumper sticker: “Wag More, Bark Less.”
At the wheel, Fearing holds forth on the evils of Internet dog sales and the perils of puppy mills: “Those animals are treated like nothing more than a cash crop.”
And she talks about herself.
“I’m kind of a mess to manage,” Fearing allows. “I’m a little bit of a whirling dervish.”
Her first meeting is at her unofficial office: a corner table in a bohemian coffee hangout not far from the Capitol.
She sits over tea with two representatives of the California Council of Churches, talking of the moral link between animal protection and Christianity.
Fearing tells them of the push to persuade consumers to buy cage-free eggs. She voices hope that the churches will support a bill to ban the amputation of dairy cows’ tails. Such treatment hardly seems what God intended, Fearing says as her listeners nod in agreement.
Her own bible on animal protection is “Dominion,” a book by Matthew Scully, a speechwriter for former President George W. Bush, who argues that Christians and conservatives should join to shepherd the best interests of creatures great and small.
Fearing glances at her watch -- five minutes until a meeting at the Capitol, four blocks away. She’s out the door, dodging puddles from a recent storm. She catches her breath before marching into the office of state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), a member of the Food and Agriculture Committee.
They shake hands, and Fearing recites her resume.
“Oh, you ran Proposition 2,” Pavley says, nodding in appreciation.
Animal protection is big this year in Sacramento, where more than three dozen bills on the subject are moving through the Legislature.
Rapid-fire, Fearing asks the senator to help crack down on dogfights, errant pet stores and imported eggs from caged hens. “We need to deal with the bad actors,” she says, hands flapping.
Twenty minutes later, Pavley wears a tight smile, bemused by the onslaught, as Fearing concludes: “There is much more that can be done.”
Whether she can accomplish any of it will become clear in the coming months. The only measure of success in the Capitol is legislation signed into law, said Virginia Handley, a longtime animal rights lobbyist: “The proof is in the passage.”
Fearing once seemed destined for a career as a well-compensated economics wonk. She made $250,000 in her final year with an L.A.-based consulting firm.
Then along came a stray dog.
That was a decade ago, and she had just transferred to the firm’s Sacramento office. Fearing and a friend found the mutt running loose one Sunday afternoon.
The animal shelter was closed, so they coaxed him into the facility’s night drop-off locker. The door clanged shut. Returning to check the canine the next day, she found grimy enclosures and dozens of dogs destined for death.
She began volunteering on weekends. She went from cleaning pens to running fundraising campaigns, mounting an annual spay-day event for low-income pet owners and lobbying city and county officials for better facilities.
In 2003, she dumped the big job for the big cause, going to work at a fifth of her old salary for United Animal Nations, a Sacramento nonprofit that aids animals during disasters. In 2005, she helped manage pet rescues after Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans. She also met her first chicken.
The owners of a Gilroy egg farm had walked away from their failing business. Fearing and two of her staff arrived with a rented truck to find 200,000 hens in rows of cages, each no bigger than a file drawer.
Fearing -- who has an abiding fear of birds and had never touched a chicken -- steeled herself and reached into the first cage. In the safe harbor of her gloved hands, the hen didn’t flinch.
The group loaded chicken after chicken into the truck and sent them to adoptive homes, where many of the birds live to this day.
Her efforts at United Animal Nations caught the attention of Pacelle at the Humane Society. In 2006, he tapped Fearing to be his chief economist.
Sometimes when time allows, Fearing likes to take lunch at a trendy vegetarian eatery south of the Capitol. Like many of her Humane Society peers, she is a vegan. That makes the whole bunch suspect to farmers like Riebli, who believes the group has a hidden agenda to shift the world toward veganism and “discontinue animal agriculture.”
His more immediate worry is Humane Society allegations that the egg industry is engaged in price-fixing. The farmers can blame Fearing.
While preparing for the Proposition 2 campaign, she stumbled onto egg industry documents that she says showed producers were manipulating the market, collectively decreasing supply to boost prices. She alerted the society’s attorneys, who persuaded class-action lawyers to file nearly two dozen lawsuits and prompted state and federal regulators to launch three investigations.
Riebli, whose firm is among those being sued, says the allegations are rubbish. The nation’s egg producers, he said, are protected under the Capper-Volstead Act, a 1922 federal law that allows the industry to operate as an agricultural cooperative to keep afloat.
The society’s lawyers say the egg industry forfeited the act’s protections by building alliances with outside businesses that don’t produce eggs -- for instance, cage manufacturers and bird suppliers -- and it now is in violation of U.S. antitrust laws.
Another recent day finds Fearing at a Sacramento TV station, where she’s holding a one-eyed Chihuahua named Fiona up for adoption and touting her new book, “Dogs at Work.”
“Fiona’s been practicing to be a go-to-office dog,” says Fearing, smiling as she holds the pint-size pooch like a swaddled baby. “You can take Fiona to work with you. But you have to promise to take her home too.”
Later, she explains that the book is a spinoff of a personal triumph: persuading her boss to allow canines in the Humane Society’s Washington headquarters when she moved there in 2006.
To make her case, Fearing presented Pacelle with a 50-page white paper and a PowerPoint presentation highlighting, among other things, the hypocrisy of an animal advocacy group’s excluding its own clients.
“I just overwhelmed him -- shock and awe,” Fearing says with the same sorority-girl grin she flashes in Capitol corridors.
At day’s end, she returns home to Yoda and a romp at a favorite dog park along the American River. Fearing throws a stick into the shallow water and Yoda splashes after it.
“There’s something compelling to me about representing voiceless, vulnerable creatures,” Fearing says, smiling down at her pooch. “To me, they’re the ultimate interest group.”
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