MINNEAPOLIS — The Humane Society of the United States says it's under attack by a new group that's trying to starve it of funding by urging donors to send money to local animal shelters instead.
The society has long been a thorn in the side of some in agriculture with its undercover investigations and campaigns against animal cruelty. It claims the new group is the brainchild of conservative public relations executive Rick Berman, who spearheaded an earlier campaign against it, and that it's supported by big agricultural interests.
Berman won't say who's funding the Humane Society for Shelter Pets.
The new group announced itself two weeks ago with full-page ads in USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and New York Times. They show a sad-eyed dog and ask, "Please help shelter pets by donating locally, not to HSUS," and direct people to HumaneForPets.com, where they can find links to local shelters and more information.
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the HSUS, said he's certain that agribusiness concerns are behind the campaign because he's heard that Berman made the rounds of major trade groups seeking support for it.
"We consider it the highest compliment because it demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that we're the most effective organization in the field of animal protection, and one that industries that have something to hide are most worried about," Pacelle said.
The HSUS has long campaigned for more humane conditions for farm animals, opposing the use of cramped cages for pregnant sows and egg-laying hens and the slaughter of horses for food. It lobbies Congress and state legislatures and frequently launches ballot initiatives to achieve its goals.
Jeff Douglas, co-director of the Humane Society for Shelter Pets, said his organization was formed simply to educate people who want to donate money to shelters. He said about 650 shelters have expressed support for his group.
"People think that when they give to national organizations like the Humane Society of the United States that the money is being returned to localities, but the reality is only about a penny of every dollar raised by the Humane Society of the United States is returned (to local shelters)," Douglas said.
Pacelle said that's misleading because shelters aren't his group's main mission – it's an animal welfare advocacy group. But he also said the society has given $43 million in grants to other animal welfare groups over the past four years alone, helps rescue thousands of animals every year and provides training and services to local shelters and rescue groups. HSUS donors understand its role, he said.
It's easy to confuse animal protection groups and shelters because their names often contain the terms "humane society" or "society for the prevention of cruelty." Usually, they're independent.
Although Douglas said his group only wants to help shelters, the dispute highlights the deep rift between HSUS and those who contend its long-term goal is to reduce meat consumption.
Pacelle denies his group is anti-meat, saying it includes everyone from livestock producers to vegetarians. He said HSUS has a history of working with industry, pointing to its efforts leading to last week's announcement by Smithfield Foods Inc., the world's largest pork producer, that it will stop confining pregnant sows in small metal crates by 2017.
Kay Johnson Smith, CEO of the Animal Agriculture Alliance, a nonprofit backed by livestock, poultry and other industry groups, said HSUS has "the same radical agenda" as groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which opposes eating animals. The difference, she said, is that HSUS wants to work incrementally to reach its goal of raising the prices of meat, milk and eggs so they're out of reach to most Americans.
Berman owns the Washington-based public relations firm Berman and Co., which runs the Center for Consumer Freedom. That group operates HumaneWatch, which has kept up a steady stream of attacks on HSUS since it launched early in 2010.
Berman insists the idea for the new effort came from others but said his firm has donated more than 1,000 hours of work to help it get off the ground and is providing free public relations and other services.
Pacelle, however, contends the Human Society for Shelter Pets has been Berman's idea from the start. He provided The Associated Press with a memo he said was leaked by "a source in an animal-use industry" he declined to name. In the memo to big donors, Berman lamented the difficulties he was having in recruiting a suitable leader for a project then called the Humane Society for America's Pets.
But Berman also told them HumaneWatch had been "far more successful than I anticipated in re-branding and re-positioning HSUS among a wide variety of Americans. ... HumaneWatch is having the intended effect of chilling some of the donation stream that HSUS would have expected prior to our campaign."
Berman confirmed he wrote the memo but said Humane Society for America's Pets was a different project that never got off the ground. He said that idea came from supporters of HumaneWatch's message, while HSSP was a later initiative by different people, though he used the same corporate shell.
He also said he refunded donations for the first project to contributors who wanted them back, but others agreed to let their money be used for similar purposes.
Neither Berman nor Douglas would disclose who's funding HSSP. Its IRS filing for 2010, prepared by a Berman accountant, lists donations of more than $1.2 million, including 11 of $50,000, one of $100,000 and one of $300,000. Berman said he wasn't one of them. Douglas said the money came from "foundations and organizations that are involved in the pet industry." He said he didn't know if any were involved in agriculture.
"We never tell anyone who contributes to any of the organizations that I'm connected with," Berman said. "Just as the Humane Society does not disclose its donors."
Pacelle said Berman's efforts are backfiring.
"I'm happy to say that our budget has grown substantially during the period of Berman's campaign," he said.
Humane Society for Shelter Pets: http://www.humaneforpets.com
Humane Society of the United States: http://www.humanesociety.org
Berman Exposed: http://www.bermanexposed.org