Getting a news story noticed in spring 2020 wasn’t easy. Even a contentious presidential election was overwhelmed by coverage of COVID-19. But for a nonprofit like the Humane Society of the United States, which has worked to end suffering for animals since the 1950s, campaigns to end trophy hunting and stop captive big cat breeding don’t pause for a pandemic.
“When breaking news is rolling out and the world is focused on a deadly virus, we cannot just carry on business as usual and pitch unrelated animal issues,” says Rodi Rosensweig, senior principal media relations strategist for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). “But some of our issues are directly related to COVID-19—so we had to be nimble and shift gears, focusing on helping animals and their families impacted by the virus.”
Rodi Rosensweig (’87), senior principal media relations strategist for the Humane Society of the United States. Photo courtesy of Rosensweig
Then something surprising happened: tens of millions of people, stuck at home because of social distancing policies, binged on the Netflix documentary series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. The series tells the sordid tale of an eccentric Oklahoma zoo owner named Joe Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic. Animal welfare was having a moment—and Rosensweig and her colleagues were ready with years of research and undercover investigations into the conditions at roadside zoos, including the zoo featured in the series.
Rosensweig (’87) took a roundabout path to this job. She spent nearly a decade in entertainment, first at Showtime, then ABC, and another two decades running her own PR agency before, in 2017, joining the HSUS. Now, instead of representing television stars, she considers her clients to be the menagerie of creatures big and small that her organization fights to protect, including dogs, pigs and tigers. Rosensweig helps the HSUS hone its messages to the media, working closely with teams of undercover investigators, animal rescuers, researchers and policy experts to publicize animal abuses—which range from puppy breeding mills to trophy hunting—and work with the media to pressure legislators to curtail those acts. Recent priorities have included a push for Congress to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act and an undercover investigation of wildlife killing contests in multiple states. “And I have a meeting about elephants later today,” she says.
From Soaps to Saving the World
Rosensweig was born in the Bronx and grew up in Westchester County. She read Cat Fancy and Dog Fancy magazines and, she says, wanted to rescue every stray she saw. Today, she and her family share their Newtown, Conn., home with Stella, Jack Sparrow and Ranger, two rescued cats and a rescue dog, respectively. “It’s cliché to say that I have loved animals my entire life, but it is the absolute truth,” she says.
She identifies with the uncomfortable relationship between loving animals and the desire to see them, even in captivity—an allure that keeps zoos like those featured in Tiger King alive. “When I was a little girl and we went to the circus, I wanted a pet tiger,” she recalls. “I have a memory of the tiger at the circus jumping through a hoop that was on fire. I remember being full of mixed emotions, knowing it was wrong.”
“Tiger King has given us an opportunity and platform to be heard now,” Rosensweig says. [And] the show’s popularity has raised animal welfare awareness and reinvigorated the call for Congress to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act.
A childhood interest in becoming a veterinarian came to a quick end on the day that worm dissection began in high school biology. “I’m better off saving them in a different way than physically,” she says. In college, her career veered toward another interest: entertainment. At the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, Rosensweig promoted the school’s theater productions. For her master’s thesis at COM, she studied how publicity impacted the careers of female stars, from Marilyn Monroe to Madonna. An internship with Paramount Pictures, helping to publicize Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Footloose, cemented her interest in working with stars and building relationships with critics.
During two years at Showtime and six years at ABC, Rosensweig worked as a publicist for television shows, charity concerts and soap operas like General Hospital and All My Children. “During their golden age, soap operas often touched on real issues,” she says. Abortion, AIDS, alcoholism—the writers dedicated storylines to each. Rosensweig and her colleagues would collaborate with foundations dedicated to those issues. “There were all sorts of organic connections to nonprofits,” she says.
In 1995, she started her own agency, The Rodi Company, and represented some of the stars she’d met at ABC. Many of them did charity work, and some of those nonprofits hired Rosensweig as well. “My client roster started to shift,” she says. That change came as she was looking to move beyond entertainment. “I just wasn’t feeling it anymore. I needed to do something more fulfilling.” In a fortuitous sequence of events, a client, the Fund for Animals, merged with the HSUS, which then hired Rosensweig to do some freelance work. “I was working on a couple of campaigns for the HSUS and I realized, ‘This is all I want to do.’” In 2017, she joined them full time.
Cutting Through the Noise
A decade before the release of Tiger King, the HSUS had investigated Maldonado-Passage and published video footage depicting animal abuse at his zoo. “Tiger King has given us an opportunity and platform to be heard now,” Rosensweig says. “But it isn’t easy to get through the pop culture muck.” Many viewers, for instance, are most interested in who will play Joe Exotic in the inevitable Hollywood adaptation (Nicolas Cage, reportedly). But the show’s popularity has raised animal welfare awareness and reinvigorated the call for Congress to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act. That legislation would restrict the possession and exhibition of large cats and ban the practice of breeding tiger cubs for pay-to-pet exhibits, then discarding them when they grow too big.
Graphic undercover videos can be an element of campaigns the HSUS develops for priority issues, like ending hunting contests. Video by HSUS
A convergence of Rosensweig’s entertainment past with her animal welfare present isn’t unique to Tiger King. Photos of famous hunters with prized kills—big cats, elephants, rare wild sheep—can go viral, exciting those on both sides of the trophy hunting debate. Rosensweig recalls an image of a hunter with a giraffe that reemerged online recently. “Media started calling me,” she says. “It was another wave of attention to something that is just inhumane, cruel, heartbreaking and destructive to our environment. So it was a new news wave to ride on and educate the public and lawmakers.”
One of the biggest campaigns Rosensweig has publicized came out of a multiyear undercover investigation of the Safari Club International annual convention. HSUS investigators captured hidden-camera footage of vendors at the event selling an array of illegal items, from stingray belts to elephant hide boots. They also recorded evidence of safari operators offering hunts for captive lions and other elusive wildlife. The 2020 edition drew media attention because Donald Trump, Jr., well known for his own trophy hunting exploits, delivered the keynote and auctioned two spots on an Alaskan deer hunt with him and his son.
Trophy hunting, another practice that the HSUS opposes, received a wave of media attention following the killing of the famed lion Cecil in 2015. Video by HSUS
Rosensweig works closely with HSUS campaigners and investigators to promote their work and with the communications and marketing teams to share that material. “I identify the most newsworthy, strongest stories to help create awareness for our issues to the media, then I do a great deal of good old-fashioned pitching,” she says. She says it’s not unlike the work she did in the for-profit world. “Instead of entertaining viewers, we’re working to create a more humane society,” she says. “It is all about influencing public opinion and creating action, either way.”
In addition to cutting through the noise of everything else going on in the world, from a pandemic to presidential politics, one of Rosensweig’s biggest challenges is getting people to pay attention to unpleasant stories.
Animals are a pretty popular topic—but people usually don’t want to see them getting hurt. “We were just in a meeting and they showed us something awful that we’re going to be releasing soon—and I closed my eyes the whole time,” she says of the undercover footage HSUS investigators capture. “Some news outlets won’t tell that story because of the visuals being so disturbing.”
Even watered-down versions of these stories can help the HSUS’ cause, though. “We can chip away at this massive iceberg of global animal mistreatment and cruelty, story by story,” Rosensweig says. “It’s pretty hard stuff. But maybe we can stop it.”
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