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CULP: Help a puppy, not a lobby

Needy pets benefit more from local shelters than animal-rights campaigns

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Despite the economic downturn, people are thankfully still giving to charity. Charitable giving rose 2 percent last year. The bad news is that donations to animal charities remained flat. Especially in these difficult times, donors are rightfully concerned about how to get the most bang for their buck. Having worked in the national animal welfare arena for more than 30 years, I've learned the best way to help animals is to avoid the slick national TV appeals for money and to give to local pet shelters.

What I came to realize while working for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a national animal organization, was that a lot of donor money is wasted and that immediate problems are too often neglected. Worse, I came to understand that many Americans are funding animal-rights activism (such as anti-meat, anti-milk propaganda) instead of animal-welfare programs such as pet shelters - without even realizing it. National animal groups employ lobbyists, deploy flashy public relations campaigns and focus enormous resources on raising money - all while providing relatively little actual care to animals.

Local shelters can also provide care more efficiently than national groups. The Washington Humane Society in the District cares for about one-third of the animals that HSUS claims to aid, yet has just 1/20th of the income of the national group.

Despite its name, HSUS isn't affiliated with your local pet shelters or American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals chapters.

HSUS pays mailing houses to send out pleas for donations, print and broadcasting media conglomerates to run advertisements asking for your money, and dozens of attorneys and lobbyists to advocate for legislation to make what is already illegal (i.e. animal cruelty) somehow more illegal. In other cases, it goes toward campaigns against farming or to convince children (and even dogs) to be vegetarians.

Noticeably, the marketing campaigns all feature cats and dogs in distress, not lobbyists. After all, that's what people respond to with open wallets. But it's misleading.

HSUS uses television spots featuring puppies and kittens rescued from horrendous situations. Rescued to go where? They petition local governments to participate in high-profile rescues and, after filming the victims, they drop off the puppies and kittens at poorly funded local shelters.

In 2009, the Humane Society spent more than $40 million on fundraising-related costs alone, or one-third of its budget. Less than 1 percent of that fundraising money went to hands-on care for pet shelters.

Where else does the money go? While national organizations such as HSUS have often not explicitly declared their animal-rights agenda, they lobby for changes in the law that will move us all toward animal-rights goals. These include eliminating the use of animals for any reason, including food, clothing or companionship. Not even guide dogs are acceptable to the animal-rights purist.

Animal welfare is different. Animal welfare ensures that companion, domestic, agricultural, research, entertainment and wild animals are protected from unnecessary killing, torture and neglect. That's what local shelters provide.

Remember, donations are a zero-sum game. A dollar given to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals or HSUS is a dollar that's taken out of your local community and one that likely won't return or be spent on direct care for animals.

We hear about the big, "systematic" national issues that these big groups all want to manage. But dogs and cats that need shelter don't care about "the system." They just want food and comfort. The best place to fund this direct care for animals is a pet shelter or adoption center near you. That's where you'll find salt-of-the-Earth folks who spend their time getting their hands dirty.

Just as many folks buy local, so too, should they give local.

Didi Culp is humane educator for Frederick County, Md., Animal Control.

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