In Focus: Many people have seen the ads on TV full of abandoned and abused cats and dogs in need of a forever home. They’re hard to watch, and it’s hard to believe that animal neglect exists. For those who can bear to watch them to the end, th

July 3, 2014 

Many people have seen the ads on TV full of abandoned and abused cats and dogs in need of a forever home. They’re hard to watch, and it’s hard to believe that animal neglect exists. For those who can bear to watch them to the end, the group running the ads promises to save animals for just $19 a month. With 70 million households in America having pets, who could say no? But the money’s largely not going to provide shelter for cats and dogs. More often, the money is diverted to paying massive overheard costs. And lately, it’s been going to pay the settlement of a federal bribery lawsuit fingering several national animal groups. Last month, several organizations including the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) — the purveyor of those tear-jerking ads — settled a lawsuit alleging bribery, illegal payments to a witness, fraud, obstruction of justice and other wrongdoings. The settlement, totaling nearly $16 million, comes after the ASPCA — another national group with strikingly similar TV ads — paid $9.3 million in 2012 to settle the same litigation. All in all, that’s $25 million to settle bribery and fraud claims. That’s a kennel-full of dollars. But when people consider what went on, their fur should really stand on end. National animal activists sued the owner of the Ringling Bros. circus over a decade ago, alleging animal abuse. Their lawsuit dragged through the court for years and was eventually dismissed by a federal judge. The judge ruled that the activists’ key witness was essentially a “paid plaintiff.” Not only had this witness lied to the court, but the activists had covertly paid him almost $200,000, including a check signed by HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle. Because of its involvement in this settlement, the third-party charity rating service Charity Navigator issued an official donor advisory against HSUS. All that money could have gone to help needy pets but didn’t. But the bigger waste than even $25 million in settlement money is the amount that groups regularly spend on salaries, pension plans and overhead. According to CharityWatch, another third-party charity watchdog, the ASPCA spends up to 35 percent of its budget on overhead costs. HSUS spends up to 45 percent, which translates to about $50 million a year. I’m a 30-year veteran of the animal welfare community and have worked most of my time with animal control and local humane groups. I also worked for three years at HSUS. The difference is stark. At HSUS, the emphasis was on fundraising and publicity. At local groups, the emphasis was on getting things done and hands-on care. Despite its name, HSUS is not affiliated with local humane societies, and the ASPCA is separate from local SPCAs — facts that most of the public isn’t aware of, according to public polling. National advocacy groups aren’t all bad. But too oftenm far-flung “education” campaigns are merely cover for an organization to run another direct mail campaign to raise even more money. It quickly becomes a cycle of factory fundraising that can corrupt the focus of the group and mainly benefits the fundraisers. What’s a person who’s concerned about animals to do? If you want to best help care for pets, give to a local shelter directly. That’s something those TV ads ought to make clear, though they never will. But it’s a message that any person can spread to their friends and community members. w Diana Culp is a former director of education for the Humane Society of the United States.

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