The elephant researcher stood in the living room of the sleekly modern Pacific Palisades home perched high on a hill. Slides of an African preserve flashed by on a screen.
Elephants “are so social, so communicative, so intelligent,” said Joyce Poole, who has dedicated her life to documenting and protecting pachyderms.
It is a task that takes money, and the admiring audience was ready to help.
“I’d like to put up $25,000,” businessman Gil Michaels said. His condition: The rest of the room had to match that amount in total donations.
There were a few small offers, then a long pause. The hostess, standing in the back of her living room, filled the void.
“I’ll match the rest of his donation,” Patty Shenker said.
The living room erupted in applause. The elephant researcher burst into tears.
“You don’t know how hard it is to raise money,” she said.
Poole had tapped into a cadre of Los Angeles residents with deep pockets and an equally deep, unabashed concern for animals. Across the area, in hilltop homes and elegant hotels, people open their checkbooks to protect a vast array of creatures -- cows and chickens, elephants and marine mammals, feral cats and pit bulls.
It is difficult to quantify the amount of money given in Los Angeles -- or nationwide -- to the myriad animal welfare and conservation causes. Philanthropy watchers said Americans gave $295 billion in cash donations to U.S. charities last year. About 2% of all giving goes to animal causes, estimates Merritt Clifton, editor of the Animal People newspaper and the annual Watchdog Report on Animal Protection Charities.
In the last 12 months, well-moneyed Angelenos have raised millions for animals at a series of parties and dinners where fine wine, vegan nibbles and, sometimes, cocktail attire are the order of the day.
Michaels spent more than $50,000 in September at a gala for Farm Sanctuary, which investigates and works to stop cruelty toward animals in factory farms and runs two sanctuaries.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” he said. “I’ve been fighting animal cruelty in all its disgusting forms.”
Michaels estimates that he has donated more than $30 million to animal-related causes over the years.
“Animals have no voice,” said Michaels, who lives in the Hollywood Hills with two dogs and stables horses in Ventura County. “They are helpless.”
Just a year ago, Shenker pledged $100,000 toward a retirement fund for Ruby, a female African elephant that the Los Angeles Zoo was considering retiring to PAWS, a nonprofit animal sanctuary in San Andreas, Calif. (Ruby was moved there this past spring.)
Shenker put up the money after retired game show host Bob Barker -- the dean of West Coast animal benefactors -- announced that he would match donations for Ruby’s costly care, dollar for dollar, up to $350,000.
Some donors are so immersed in the cause that they maintain a vegetarian or vegan diet. They generally have a gaggle of their own pets, proudly immortalized in digital photos on their Blackberries and I-phones and almost always rescued from shelters. In this community, it would be sinful to buy a designer dog from a breeder when municipal shelters nationwide euthanize 2 million to 3 million unwanted dogs and cats each year.
Few of those donors are part of the outspoken ranks of the animal welfare activists and advocates who attend zoo commission meetings, confront politicians and trade impassioned missives on the Internet. Most activists don’t have the money.
There are exceptions. In addition to her financial support, Shenker goes to Los Angeles City Council meetings and protests, as well as firing off letters.
Cheri Shankar estimates that she and her husband, Naren Shankar, an executive producer of the original “CSI” TV show, gave $75,000 last year to animal causes. Meanwhile, she lobbies for changes in the city’s shelter system, goes to meetings -- and persuaded her husband to do an episode this season involving the evils of dog fighting. (It recently aired.)
Paul Watson, the charismatic founder of the ocean and marine wildlife protection group known as Sea Shepherd, has captivated Hollywood celebrities, animal welfare activists and ocean conservationists with his aggressive tactics aimed at, among other things, halting illegal whaling ships and fur seal hunters.
It seemed natural, when the group held its first $500-a-plate vegan fundraiser in October, that the venue would be an elegantly appointed tent near the Santa Monica Pier. Producer Bob Yari’s company, which hopes to do a film on Watson, donated $150,000 to underwrite the event.
“Probably 25% of our contributions are from Los Angeles,” Watson said. “The only other place that even approaches it is all of Australia.”
At the Farm Sanctuary gala this fall, men in tuxedos and women in slinky dresses sipped cocktails in the buttery light of the Beverly Hills Hotel as they perused items up for silent auction -- a week at an Aruba resort, a two-week gym membership and paintings of farm animals, including one of a Madonna cradling two piglets.
In the ballroom where guests dined, giant screens on either side of the stage flashed photos of the farm animals that reside at the group’s sanctuaries. The hotel’s chefs consulted with a gourmet vegan restaurant in New York to create the menu.
James Costa, a Boston philanthropist who helped underwrite the event, could have been at Oprah Winfrey’s fundraiser in Montecito for presidential candidate Barack Obama the same day. He chose the Farm Sanctuary event.
“Come on, you people with money,” Costa said, as if addressing the skeptics he knows exist. “You don’t have to be ashamed. We’re a good organization. We’re not crazies. We want animals to have a better life.”
The gala raised $250,000, said Gene Baur, who heads the group.
Spending on animal rights issues still invites criticism from those who believe that charity dollars should go to humans, not critters.
“Sometimes you feel like you have to defend yourself,” Cheri Shankar said. “I’m not a misanthrope. There’s just a deficiency when it comes to dealing with all the animal abuse and killing. And it may be easier to solve this problem than to solve world hunger.”
Sam Simon, one of the creators of “The Simpsons” TV show, says he gives millions each year to his own eponymous foundation that offers spay/neuter services to low-income pet owners in Los Angeles and trains rescue dogs to help the hearing-impaired.
“Our mission statement is to improve the lives of people by saving the lives of animals,” Simon said. “If your dog needs an operation and you can’t afford it, I feel I’m helping you both.”
Simon was host of a fund-raiser at his Pacific Palisades home several months ago for PETA’s public awareness campaign against the breeding of dogs and cats. He contributed $150,000 -- matching $150,000 raised at the fundraiser. (Michaels gave an additional $100,000.)
Increasingly though, funding animal groups is seen as a mainstream undertaking.
“Our entire estate is going to three animal charities,” said stockbroker David Selig, 43, as he and his wife, Molly Ballentine, who works in advertising and is 44, attended a party in November for entertainment industry folks to mingle with Wayne Pacelle, the head of the Humane Society of the United States. The couple said they decided not to have children.
“Quite frankly I’d rather be on the couch with Molly and my six dogs than people,” Selig said.
Barker estimates that he has given between $40 million and $50 million to animal welfare causes over the 30 years he has been involved.
In addition to funding his own foundation, which facilitates spay/neuter clinics and services, he also has set up $1-million endowments in seven law schools for the study of animal law. UCLA, Stanford, and Harvard are among them.
“It’s a rare person who becomes aware of animal cruelty who doesn’t want to help on some level,” said Barker, who just turned 84 and now has one dog and two rabbits.
Few donors are more well known for their prolific giving than Shenker.
“She’s the foundation of all animal welfare groups,” said Judie Mancuso, the activist force behind the spay/neuter bill campaign to which Shenker has contributed.
In addition to cash -- she estimates she may have contributed $250,000 to various causes this year -- Shenker, who owns commercial real estate, lends land to two shelter groups for almost nothing.
Her own house is populated with numerous rescue cats and dogs.
At 56, she has been a vegan for more than three decades -- and won’t allow a burger joint in any of her buildings.
“When I hear people say, ‘How could you help animals when so many people need help?’ that just spurs me on to do more,” Shenker said, “because it just shows they’re so off the radar.”