The Humane Society of the United States is accustomed to criticism. As the country's largest, richest and most powerful animal welfare organization, it is a big target. Its successful 2008 campaign in California to pass Proposition 2, which outlawed battery cages for egg-laying hens, was fought hard by the egg industry, which protested that the new law would cripple egg farmers throughout the state.
But a series of public attacks by a group called HumaneWatch.org, which have appeared on the group's website and in the media over the last year and a half, takes the debate to a troubling place. The ads have run in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, USA Today and other newspapers, as well as on a billboard in Times Square.
One of the current ads features a photo of dogs looking wide-eyed in shock under the caption "SURPRISED to hear the Humane Society of the United States shares only 1 percent of your donations with local pet shelters?" The ad goes on to state that the Humane Society "is NOT your local animal shelter."
The ad is true on both counts. But it's also misleading. The Humane Society has never claimed that its mission is to fund local animal shelters. Among the projects it does fund are legislative campaigns to pass animal protection laws in various states, investigations into animal cruelty (including dogfighting, puppy mills and factory farms), three wildlife rehabilitation centers and two horse sanctuaries, emergency shelter operations in areas hit by disasters and veterinary services in rural areas. In some communities it also has supported low-cost spay and neuter facilities. While some people may mistakenly believe that the Humane Society of the United States does the same job local humane societies do, it should not surprise anyone who has looked at the organization's website that only a small percentage of its money goes to local shelters.
HumaneWatch.org is a project of the nonprofit Center for Consumer Freedom, a feisty and unapologetic warrior against what it sees as over-regulation of consumers' habits. In the decade and a half since the organization was founded by Rick Berman — who also runs a for-profit communications company — it has criticized health advocates for calling obesity an epidemic and has gone after Mothers Against Drunk Driving for its support of "needlessly" low drunk-driving thresholds.
In defense of his ads, Berman said in a statement: "The Humane Society of the United States is intentionally duping the public into thinking that it is an umbrella group for pet shelters. Our ads are designed to correct this misperception."
There are plenty of legitimate arguments against over-regulation. And it is smart to keep watch on huge and wealthy nonprofits, including the Humane Society, which should be held accountable for fulfilling its mission. Conscientious watchdog organizations can be helpful guides for overwhelmed citizens picking their way through annual reports and pleas for funds.
But it's also worth noting that concern for animal welfare may not be the main reason that HumaneWatch.org and the Center for Consumer Freedom have taken out ads across the country. Berman openly states that the center is funded by restaurants and food companies, among others — industries that may feel threatened by some Humane Society-backed legislation that could prove costly to them.
Fine. If they don't like the Humane Society's positions, they are entitled, of course, to make their case. But don't drag shelter pets into the fight.