Every industry worth mentioning these days has its lobbying infrastructure cemented in place in Washington, D.C. And for virtually every such lobbying group, there is an opposition "watchdog" group funded by a rival lobbying organization that tries to undercut its credibility and publicize even the slightest of detours form the NGO"s stated mission.
It"s all part of the modern political edifice that has been constructed over the past several decades.
In the case of animal welfare issues, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is a well-oiled, well-funded lobbying presence with a finely tuned message machine that targets production agriculture, along with what often seem to be sideshows that occasionally surface when state laws impact dog breeders or when marginal issues like cockfighting offer HSUS the opportunity to generate millions in fund-raising.
Which they then earmark for future lobbying efforts aimed at restricting producers or passing state-by-state referenda aimed at doing the same. Meanwhile, HSUS spends a big piece of its nine-figure annual budget cranking up its lobbying efforts, while basking in the glow of public perceptions that the organization is the force behind hundreds of local pet shelters bearing the "Humane Society" branding.
Nothing could be further from the truth, as HSUS nemesis the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) gleefully likes to regularly announce. As an offshoot of the 1990s foodservice industry-funded campaign to blunt the then-emerging momentum of state and local no-smoking laws, the Center isn"t exactly clothed in righteousness itself, although its attacks on HSUS are tough to refute.
For example: The Center"s HumaneWatch.org website was quick to report that the non-partisan Charity Watch gave HSUS a "D" grade for its efforts earlier this year, noting that HSUS spends only about 50% of its budget on actual programs, while spending up to 48 cents for every dollar the group raises in contributions.
Charity Watch suggests that only 10% to 15% of a non-profit"s funds should be devoted to administrative and fund-raising costs.
Ice packs and portable fans
The latest flap in the ongoing skirmish between HSUS and CCF is a news release touting the Humane Society"s donation of $3,000 that helped a New Jersey animal shelter rent air conditioning equipment during this summer"s heat wave.
Here"s how local media covered the incident last week, as East Coast temperatures soared into the high 90s and the local shelter"s volunteers were reduced to running fans 24 hours a day and putting ice packs into the cat cages:
"The Humane Society of the United States has donated money for two air conditioning units to ease conditions for hundreds of dogs and cats at the Montclair (New Jersey) Township Animal Shelter," an article on the local news hub Montclair.patch.com reported. "The shelter has an antiquated air conditioning system that does not work at full capacity, making it uncomfortable and possibly dangerous for the pets being housed at the shelter.
"The HSUS donation will allow the shelter to rent two air conditioning units for the next six weeks until a permanent unit can be installed.
"The Humane Society of the United States is thankful we were able to help," said Kathleen Schatzmann, New Jersey state director for the organization. "Some animals are at particular risk for heat stroke if they are very old, very young, overweight, not conditioned to prolonged exercise, or have heart or respiratory disease."
The Center"s website quickly noted the irony in the HSUS contribution.
"This one particular grant and the typical self-aggrandizing HSUS press release accompanying it speaks volumes about what HSUS doesn"t do," the Center"s post stated. "HSUS . . . could help hundreds of shelters in this same way every year. Heck, if HSUS made 1,000 such grants that would only take up about 2% of its budget. Its deceptive advertising would certainly have you believe that"s what it does, but that"s far from how HSUS spends donor dollars. HSUS puts up a good façade, but it seems there"s not much behind the curtain when it comes to giving support to shelters."
No question, HSUS benefits from an ill-deserved reputation as a supporter of all the hundreds of local, unaffiliated and financially struggling animal shelters in towns just like Montclair all over America. I"m not sure why a legal remedy isn"t available to force HSUS to publicly disconnect its "Humane Society" brand from the unrelated network of shelters, but even in the absence of such a mandate, its conduct is reprehensible. Raising hundreds of millions in donations, then occasionally forking over a couple thou accompanied by glowing publicity to some local shelter doing the heavy lifting of actually caring for neglected pets is as cynical and self-serving as it gets.
It"s a shame that so much of the publicity that swirls around HSUS centers on its controversial campaigns to ban gestation stalls and mandate layer hen cage sizes, rather than shining a light on how the group raises its multi-millions and where all the largesse actually gets spent.
Meanwhile, the livestock producers who spend millions to provide shade, water and ventilation for their animals are under siege by HSUS"s well-heeled functionaries, while the hundreds of pet shelters who struggle to scrape together enough nickels and dimes to buy portable fans and ice packs get lip service from the organization so obviously positioned to help.
That ought to give any right-thinking donor the moral equivalent of a heat stroke.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.