Rush Limbaugh's new pet project -- fighting animal cruelty for the Humane Society of the United States -- is riling sportsmen from coast to coast, prompting fears that the talkster typically supportive of gun rights is aiding a group they say has a secret agenda to end all hunting in America.
Twenty-eight groups representing millions of hunters and sportsmen are demanding that the conservative radio commentator end his collaboration with the HSUS and stop "helping them to mainstream their image in the minds of reasonable people."
"Despite a few programs designed to attract support from the general public, HSUS is in fact an organization that opposes hunting, fishing, and trapping," the groups, including Ducks Unlimited and the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, wrote in a letter last week to Mr. Limbaugh.
"Its leadership has a long and established history of promoting legislation, litigation, and referenda to restrict the rights of American sportsmen and women."
The public-service radio spots cut by Mr. Limbaugh began airing in mid-April. In one, the self-dubbed "Doctor of Democracy" expresses support for the HSUS effort to crack down on organized dogfighting and other animal-cruelty crimes.
In the second, "America's Truth Detector" talks about, as the Humane Society says, "our outreach to communities of faith, and the moral obligation that we have to be good stewards of God's creatures."
Mr. Limbaugh did not answer requests for comment and has had little to say about his tacit endorsement of the HSUS. In an interview by Greta Van Susteren on Fox News last week, he was asked by the host, "Who do you admire and why?" As Mr. Limbaugh paused, citing "brain freeze," this exchange occurred:
"You like the Humane Society," Mrs. Van Susteren said.
"Who?" Mr. Limbaugh asked.
"The Humane Society."
Laughing, the radio host, who spends three hours a day talking politics, said, "Well, now, you're getting into politics," and quickly moved off the topic.
The Humane Society's president and chief executive, Wayne Pacelle, said the issue shouldn't be political.
"I'm embarrassed for them that they would criticize Rush for amplifying our message that dogfighting and other malicious forms of animal cruelty are unacceptable in society," he said.
Countering that his group absolutely does not oppose all hunting, Mr. Pacelle said he reached out to Mr. Limbaugh and was not surprised that he accepted the invitation to join the cause.
"I think the folks that are criticizing it are unbelievably knee-jerk -- I guess they want to provide comfort to dogfighters? It just doesn't make any sense. . . . There are certain things that civil society should agree on."
As for having the nation's top conservative commentator aboard, he said: "I hope this shows a side of Rush to the American people that they may not have contemplated."
But the 28 wildlife-conservation organizations that represent hunters, anglers and trappers say the Humane Society has a nefarious agenda.
"The Humane Society of the United States is public enemy number one for sportsmen. We believe firmly that they're against all forms of hunting. We actually battle them in state after state, and they back all types of different legislation, ballot issues, that seek to restrict the rights of hunters," said Greg R. Lawson, a spokesman for the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, which has about 3 million members.
"The concern we have with what Rush did is not so much the actual content of the new public-service announcements. . . . It's the very fact that he recorded anything for that group because of their agenda against the sportsmen community."
The letter says Mr. Pacelle once said to the Associated Press: "If we could shut down all sport hunting in a moment, we would."
He told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, "Our goal is to get sport hunting in the same category as cock fighting and dog fighting. Our opponents say hunting is a tradition. We say traditions can change," according to the letter.
Scott Sutherland, director of governmental affairs for Ducks Unlimited, which has 630,000 members, said, "Supporting HSUS implies an endorsement of an anti-sportsman agenda."
In their letter, the groups say that Mr. Limbaugh's collaboration amounts to "implied endorsements" for the Humane Society that are "a real coup for their cause."
"With America's most prominent conservative spokesman on board, they have the opportunity to make inroads into a new cross section of our country. You are helping them to mainstream their image in the minds of reasonable people. Your collaboration furthers the anti-hunting and anti-fishing agenda of HSUS, which will undermine the great success of conservation and threatens the economies of small towns and rural states across our nation."
Mr. Lawson said many Americans have little real understanding of the Humane Society of the United States -- which has about 11 million "supporters" -- and don't know it is not affiliated with local humane societies, animal shelters or animal care and control agencies.
"When people think of the Human Society of the United States, they a lot of times are thinking of the guys who are taking care of dogs and cats and stray animals and doing the work at the local humane society. That's not what this national group is. They don't work with the local humane societies -- they're a national lobbying group.
"And that's a very big distinction that I dont think has really gotten out into the general public," he said.