Writing a book about dogs, starting a dog blog, becoming involved in an online dog community… It’s been a year of continuing education and revelation,  including the realization of just how useful an online community can be. The flip side: As a result of connecting with other pet advocates, I learned some things I (almost) wish I didn’t know.

Yes, Nathan Winograd, I’m talking about you. The driving force behind the No-Kill shelter movement, Winograd also writes blistering exposes of abuses at the top of many major animal welfare organizations.

While they are essential reading for anyone interested in the truth and passionate about animal rights, Winograd’s reporting often leaves me upset. In particular, it’s led me to question national organizations I’d always admired, especially the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Winograd also reveals problems with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals but I never respected PETA so I was almost glad to learn there was a solid basis for my longstanding sense that they’re a bunch of hypocritical publicity whores who do the cause of animal rights more harm than good.

Do Winograd’s revelations mean that the HSUS and ASPCA are not worthy of scarce charity dollars? My personal conclusions:

  • The ASPCA does more good than harm in its capacity as an educational organization, its primary function. What happens at the only shelter it runs, in NYC — the one where the problem with dogs named Oreo and Max that Winograd discusses occurred  — may be high-profile but it’s also local and not a deal breaker for me. The ASPCA’s website and the many events they sponsor are extremely useful, and I would bet that the Meet Your Match programs they’ve helped create and promote have prevented many pets from being returned to shelters around the country.
  • HSUS — thumbs down. Yes, they’ve done a great deal of good, especially when it comes to changing laws. But allowing Michael Vick to serve as a spokesperson sends a terrible message, that you can abuse dogs and, after a bout of faux contrition — and anyone who saw Vick on 60 Minutes can’t doubt his contrition was false — be allowed to be the face of an animal rights group. It’s bad enough that Vick was allowed to play football again. He has no place representing a group that represents animals. My other criterion for deciding that HSUS doesn’t deserve my contributions: In spite of the fact that I never joined, they send me stuff in the mail that I never asked for and don’t need.* That, to me, is a sign of waste, suggesting a large percentage of the money I send would not be spent wisely.

But there’s some good news, whatever you think of HSUS and the ASPCA.  Other organizations with terms like “Humane Society” and “SPCA” in their names bear no relationship to the national HSUS or ASPCA. This is worth repeating, and loudly: The ASPCA has a single shelter in NYC, but aside from that NO OTHER SHELTERS, SANCTUARIES, OR POUNDS ARE AFFILIATED WITH THE ASPCA OR HSUS. NONE. They are all independent of each other. That’s why it’s so difficult to gather reliable statistics about how many pets are sent to shelters and killed there each year.

This means that other animal assistance organizations can be judged individually. And I urge you to do just that. Go visit the shelters and sanctuaries in your city or state. Read local reporting.  Volunteer if you don’t have money.

And one thing you can do that’s extremely easy — and free: Click on The Animal Rescue Site every day. It’s a great way to support not only animals but also the worthy organizations that help them.

*Full disclosure: Right after I wrote this indictment of the HSUS, I went for a walk with Frankie wearing the fleecy gloves that I got from them in the mail.They were wonderfully comfy and people in Tucson don’t think to get out of their cars to buy gloves even though sooner or later it’s going to be chilly enough to wear them. So I feel a little guilty — but not guilty enough to send money because my emotions have been successfully manipulated.

15 thoughts on “Pet charities: Some year-end musings”

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Eric. I agree about the “fair and balanced” press given to people like the one in the article you link to, but that’s apple and oranges, i.e., they’re not a high-profile charity and thus expected to be held to a higher standard of behavior, just a sleazy business.

      I gather you’re not a Winograd fan. I’m ambivalent, as this post suggests, but also think the no-kill movement is important and that once you start looking into the underside of shelters it’s hard to stop reporting on what you turn up.

  1. I know there’s a lot of very horrible things going on in shelters, and they do deserve to be reported on. Likewise for puppy mills. Maybe if someday that stuff draws as much attention as criticizing Ed Sayres and Wayne Pacelle (and I am no fan of Pacelle) does, and of course flogging the Oreo story for all that’s worth does, Winograd will get back to them.

    For now, I know what I think he looks like, and I removed his blog from my feed.

  2. I hear you on this–in fact, it was something I was planning on writing about. ASPCA, while their choice on Oreo may have been wrong it also may have been right–we don’t know (I did not hear that Best Friends was willing to forego ASPCA’s vet behaviorists assessment…unlike the local group), it goes to the ease and frequency with which the national groups are bashed. They are easy targets and it gets the writer a rush of readers.

    I tend to look for solutions to these entanglements, especially given the “sovereignty” any group has over its own organization. I really don’t think the over the top postings about “Emperor” Pacelle are useful and in my opinion seem designed to sell books. We all have our boiling points, but if we don’t keep it accessible what’s the point?

    And to Eric’s last comment, it’s exactly what I’ve said…if all the flaming heat that goes into Pacelle and, yes, even Vick (albeit richly deserved) were turned now, full force, to unearthing and cutting out the heart of the cultural problems that make dog fighting and puppy mills perfectly acceptable in many areas of the country, That would be something!

    1. Mary, I appreciate your perspective. What you and Eric say makes a lot of sense. That’s why I value the community I’ve connected with on my blog, on Twitter, etc. I get fresh ways of viewing issues that I’ve been mulling over, including this one.

      Yes, Winograd is hyperbolic and a zealot. I can’t agree that his polemics are geared towards selling books, at least not for personal gain. His books help further his cause, no-kill shelters. And that’s worth being zealous about.

      Puppy mills are certainly worth addressing too. Are the two causes mutually exclusive?

  3. This is such a timely post! I was just talking with my mother about the two shelters here in Mount Vernon, Ohio. One, named the Knox County Humane Society, is self-funded and no-kill — a truly loving and delightful place, but always desperate for funds and supplies. The other, named the Knox County Animal Shelter, is funded by the county, has impressive new digs — and doesn’t just euthanize animals — it gases them in large groups. Animals who die there die painfully. And they’re government funded! Also, please note how confusing the entities’ names are. Take home lesson: Ask questions, and find out all you can about a shelter’s policies.

    1. Mary-Alice, I could write a whole other post about the confusion in terminology — including the fact that not all no-kill shelters are great places for dogs to stay — funding etc. Good for you for taking the time to investigate. Which leads me to my answer to Eric and the point of the post: I don’t think people who care about dogs are going to be put off by the national politics from donating to other organizations, and especially local ones that they can investigate personally — or working for animal causes that are important to them. But that’s just my feeling; there’s no evidence either way, I suspect.

  4. Mutually exclusive? Not necessarily, unless bashing national organizations leads to money staying in pockets rather than being contributed to any cause at all, which I suspect is often the case.

  5. Not mutually exclusive at all, rather puppy mills end up filling shelters, and many have medical issues that make them hard to adopt. In open adoption shelters, that means a death sentence.

    People need to stop buying from shops and puppy mill kennels per that article Eric provided above. But we also need a better set of defining attributes for what is a “good breeder” and how are they distinguished from the bad guys. It’s all too confusing to the general public. Small family breeders who hand raise to improve the breed, not for the money, need to step up and get rid of the puppy mills. The politics of this gets in everybody’s way and does not one bit of service to anyone but the puppy mills. Oh, and the AKC since they give “papers” to puppy mill dogs now in exchange for fees.

    Shelter change issues are of dire import–and that’s where Winograd can shine. I recommended him to the RSPCA in NSW Australia last year in email exchanges. They had remarked on a blog I wrote regarding kill rates and Chicago’s relative success, albeit over five years, of cutting numbers in half, and wanted to know more about how that was achieved. While Chicago Animal Shelter Alliance worked with Maddie’s fund using the Asilomar accords to get everyone ranking animal condition in an easily, mutually understood way, we had no formally written plan, so Winograd’s blueprint was what they needed.

    Loved your view on PeTA. “Publicity whores” they are! Any group that kills more than 95% of the dogs and cats they “rescue” needs to be starved out of donations for that purpose.

    1. Mary, you definitely need to write about this topic; clearly you have far more first hand experience than I do with the inner workings of shelters — including knowledge of such things as the Asilomar accord, which I had never heard of until you mentioned it here (for others in the same position, here’s a link with some additional information: http://www.guardiancampaign.com/maddies_fund.html)

      And don’t even get me started on PETA…

  6. My BS meter goes on overload every time I see an HSUS TV commercial (on Animal Cops, yet), saying your contributions will save the lives of animals (which we have just viewed cowering in shelter cages). No, they won’t, except in the most indirect and attenuated fashion. Alas, giving to animal welfare, like so many worthwhile pursuits, requires a bit of work. Check out your local HSUS or other animal welfare shelter. You can’t figure out their finances at a glance, but you can sure tell easily enough if they run a clean and caring facility, have creative adoption and education programs, or just run doggie (and kitty) death row. Contributing to the confusion is the unfortunate fact that many humane organizations have long provided local dog pound –animal control– services for local governments. Such shelters may be the province of caring, knowledgeable animal lovers — or of people whose main interest is in getting their contract renewed. In either case, chances are they will be killing dogs and cats — and not just for humane (i.e. terminal illness) purposes.

    In the earlier postings, someone touched on the fact that shelters that cater to the general public are going to kill at a much higher rate than private rescues such as those specializing in a single breed. Public shelters protect themselves and the public by only adopting out the “safest” animals — those who can handle the trauma of landing in a shelter without trying to protect themselves by snarling or snapping, those without visible health problems, no pit bulls over the age of four months, etc etc. I once pulled from a public shelter a miniature poodle who had both problems — he was blind and sufficiently terrorized to nip at strangers who grabbed him. At the shelter, either problem doomed him. Instead he is now a happy and cherished family pet who chases toys and dances on his hind legs for treats. I turn green when I see supposed animal temperament tests, where, for example, someone sticks a rubber hand in a starving dog’s food dish and declares the dog who bites the hand that is not feeding it — or tries to play with the hand — unadoptable. By all means, give to the good, clean, local shelters that try to find homes for, not kill off, the animals places in their care. Give to breed-specific rescues, which are always starving for money and foster homes. And because not every dog is going to find a home, give to the sanctuaries that provide loving, lifetime homes for elderly, disabled, or otherwise “unadoptable” pets,

  7. This was interesting for me to read. Full disclosure: I work at the HSUS 🙂
    As someone who also volunteers with a pit bull rescue, I found it really hard to understand when we first started working with Vick. But the conclusion I have reached, is that I don’t have to be friends with Vick to say he’s having a impact on dog fighting. You and I, and everyone reading this blog knows dog fighting is wrong. But though it’s difficult to comprehend, the fact remains that despite all the facts out there, kids are STILL getting involved in dog fighting!

    The pit bull training team in Chicago has former dog fighters talking to at risk youth, and provides training classes for people and their pit bulls, and it’s been great. People are listening, and joining these classes, which has a positive effect on both the 2 and 4 legged participants!

    Since Vick started speaking about dog fighting, we’ve received over 100 calls from communities wanting to start anti-dogfighting programs in their area. This will of course not bring back any of the dogs he killed, but what it will do, is prevent other dogs from meeting the same fate. To me, that makes it pretty effective.

    As for local shelters, no, we do don’t run local shelters – I cannot stress that enough, but that doesn’t mean we don’t do a lot for animals. In 2009 121 animal protection laws were passed, that’s amazing progress! It’s hard not to focus on the present and look at the dog in the shelter and say darn it why can’t that HSUS save THAT dog? But that’s not what HSUS is there for – we’re not a local shelter, but we want to help pass stronger laws so that people committing crimes against the animals are actually prosecuted, and that we can prevent animals from ending up in the shelter in the first place.

    Lastly, I do want to point out while we don’t run your local shelters, we do have 5 animal care facilities that provide direct care. Now none of these are animal shelters like your local one, that are open admission etc, but they provide direct care. We have the wildlife centers on Cape Cod in Massachusetts and San Diego County in California, and in Broward County, Florida, our Duchess Sanctuary in Oregon for horses, and the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, which cares for more than 1,000 large mammals, in east Texas.

    Anyways, I just wanted to post my two cents, feel free to shoot me an email if you have questions!

    PS About those direct mail gloves etc, you can always call our membership department and ask to only receive mail X number of times a year, so do feel free to do that!

    1. Sarah, I’m glad you wrote, and I’m pleased to hear that Michael Vick is having an effect on at-risk youth. I wish that HSUS had limited his role to participating in that program and not given him so much publicity; I would have been more convinced of his contrition.

      I wasn’t suggesting that because you don’t have local shelters you don’t do much for animals; quite the contrary. I simply meant that local shelters should be judged on their own merits.

      As for the gloves, I’m not a member so for me to take that extra step of seeking out the membership department means that I have to put in effort to stop getting something I didn’t ask for.

      But again, I really appreciate your taking the time to present HSUS’s perspective. What you say about Vick’s role made me re-think how I feel about it — and that’s a good thing!

  8. Education, education, education, and enforcement. I wish I could say it’s a spiritual problem, but there’s abuse and neglect of pets at all levels of humanity. Humans need to do better. I put my money towards spay/neuter programs (but not for 8 week old kittens!).

  9. Argh! I can’t believe I referred to a “local HSUS shelter” when part of the point of this discussion is that there is no such critter…….err, thing. To clarify, if you want your pet charity dollars to go directly to housing, caring for, and adopting out, homeless dogs and cats and other pets, give to your local chapter of the Humane Society — in our part of the world, that is the Humane Society of Southern Arizona — or other local chapter of a bigger organization. Chances are, these shelters get zero dollars from the national umbrella group. If you love and want to help out a specific breed of dog, give to the nearest rescue for that breed. (Which can usually be found by navigating AKC chapter websites) — these groups usually house their rescues through a network of foster homes, but they need contributions to cover the costs of veterinary care, long-term meds, transportation, etc. etc. Your local government-run pound may also have a tax-deductible arm for you to improve the living conditions of the jailed — if you can stand to support the pound system in any way!

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