ASPCA Meets in Burbank, 1st Time Outside New York : Protest: Animal-rights activists say group uses pets as a front for its fund-raising activities in Manhattan.

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The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the country's largest animal welfare group, Tuesday held its annual meeting outside New York for the first time in 128 years, which protesters contended was an attempt to escape controversy there.

But a half-dozen or so animal-rights activists showed up anyway to conduct a brief protest, calling the ASPCA "a fund-raising organization that uses animals as a front."

The protesters who lined up outside the Burbank Airport Hilton hotel were forced to leave by the hotel's management after about 20 minutes of handing out literature and waving placards.

Still, Felicia Sukur, an organizer of the protest, said she believes the group sent a message to ASPCA officials that "they can't run from the truth just by running away from New York," where the organization has its headquarters.

"They've been looked into by both the state attorney general and the Manhattan district attorney's office," Sukur said. "People in New York are starting to become very disgusted with this organization and its problems, and I think they felt there would be a lot of protest if they met there, but we followed them."

About 100 people attended the ASPCA meeting at the hotel to hear reports on the workings of the nonprofit organization, which has a $22 million budget, employs about 225 people and has more than 300,000 contributing members nationwide.

Officials conceded that, since its founding 128 years ago, the organization had always met in New York, but said it met in Burbank this year because the organization is expanding its operations in the Los Angeles area and because it is in the process of pulling out of the New York City animal shelter system, which it has managed under contract for 100 years.

The ASPCA's $4.5-million annual contract with New York City will not be renewed, and the shelters will be managed by a new not-for-profit organization created by the city, officials said.

"We are in a state of transition," said John Foran, executive vice president and chief administrative officer. "We're getting out of the business of running shelters and moving toward attacking the problem of massive dog and cat overpopulation throughout the country."

In New York, the ASPCA has been the target of intensive press scrutiny. Earlier this year, the New York Post published a series of articles on what the Post called the "Puppy-Gate" scandal, saying ASPCA workers were padding their salaries, some making twice their annual base pay in overtime.

The protesters outside Tuesday's meeting were members of the Harry Bergh Coalition, named for the ASPCA's founder. They said that they are convinced the organization is rife with financial misconduct, and that they believe probes by the New York state attorney general into allegations of charity fraud, and by the Manhattan district attorney into charges of health violations at a shelter, failed to clear the society.

"This is a city of 8 million people, with only two animal shelters. One of them is in the city's most crime-infested neighborhood and the other one has been cited because the animals were living in such poor conditions," said Livi French, founder of the Bergh coalition, in a telephone interview from New York.

"They are a nationwide organization whose purpose is to raise money. They do not care about New York's animal overpopulation problem."

Foran conceded that the ASPCA has had its share of problems in recent years. He said he joined the organization about one year ago, at a time when about 20 high-ranking officials were discharged by the board of directors after questions about the society's finances.

But he said charges that the ASPCA is more concerned with cash than animal welfare are "ludicrous," and that the society was given "a clean bill of health" after the probes by both the state attorney general and the city district attorney.

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