4 min read

Of all the charitable groups out there, I confess the ones that most irritate me are animal rights organizations. Of course helping animals is a worthy goal for charity. Animals are our friends![1]

But far too many animal rights groups aren’t helping animals. Like the environmentalists who are spending their days lobbying regulators and who never spend time in parks, too many animal rights activists are spending their time looking for things to ban and loudly signaling how virtuous they are. They scored a big victory when the Ringling Brothers circus folded, and the only reason they weren’t quoted in articles gloating about the circus’s demise is that journalists didn’t ask them. I suspect there are more than a few people in the animal rights movement who would be happy if circuses were banned, zoos were closed, and the only way we view animals is via carefully-vetted videos we stare at on our smartphones.

As Charlotte Allen observes in this smart op-ed from the Baltimore Sun on People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, PETA is part of a movement that doesn’t simply have animal welfare as its goal; it has an ideological component: "the idea that human beings have no special standing in the universe and cannot claim dominion over living creatures, no matter how well they treat them.”

But all this posturing glosses over the fact that there are animals that are abandoned, old, or sick and need our help. Karin Bruillard, a Washington Post reporter, writes about one such group in her profile of Rescue Express, which tries to find homes for animals who would be killed if they were left in shelters.

Rescue Express and groups like it take pets out of shelters in the southern part of the country and take them to northern shelters where they can be adopted. It’s a long-standing fact that shelters in the southern part of the US are more likely to have pets that will be killed because they aren’t adopted. There are lots of theories about why this happens and no good explanations, in part because there aren’t reliable national statistics about the number of animals in shelters. One theory is that dogs and cats in southern states spend more time outside than in the colder north and are more likely to breed. Another is that cats are in heat longer in the south. A third theory is that a lot of the dogs in southern shelters are pit bulls or pit bull mixes, which are less popular to adopt than other breeds.

The American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) reports that the number of cats and dogs left in shelters and subsequently killed fell from 20 million in the 1970s to 2.6 million in 2011 and 1.5 million today. That’s still a lot of animals.

Bruillard reports that the issue of animals being abandoned in the southern half of the country became a national issue in 2005. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2007, based on statistics from the Louisiana chapter of the ASPCA, that 104,000 of the 259,000 pets in the New Orleans area were abandoned when Katrina hit, and that over 88,000 of these pets did not have homes two years later.

Another area where far too many animals are euthanized is Los Angeles. Bruillard’s story begins in San Fernando with May, a pit bull mix. May passed one “temperament test” but flunked a second one, which "essentially put her on death row at the facility” where she was living.

Rescue Express decided to give her a second chance. The organization was founded by Mike McCarthy, a software entrepreneur who offers to take pets that need help. He doesn’t charge animal shelters for his services. McCarthy decided to retrofit school buses, and currently has three of them that make regular routes between California and Oregon. He’s about to start one between California and Utah. Bruillard traveled with one bus that made five stops in California and headed for Oregon with 84 dogs and 22 cats.

Eventually the bus stops outside Eugene, Oregon after making a few other stops in Oregon. May finds a temporary home at the Northwest Dog Project, a 22-acre farm which includes a “doggy swimming pool” and hiking trails and where stressed-out city dogs relax and work on their “leash manners.”

A group similar to Rescue Express is Wings of Rescue, which flies animals using airplanes volunteers have lent to the group. Wings of Rescue earlier this year made its first trip to Puerto Rico, where the group says that 92 percent of pets in shelters are euthanized. Ric Browde, a board member of Wings of Rescue, told Bruillard that “we’re the Band-Aid…I can take dogs out of a shelter every day, but if it fills back up, have I done anything?”

But surely helping dogs and cats that otherwise would be euthanized is better than doing nothing. This is why Rescue Express and Wings of Rescue are admirable operations.

In giving to organizations that help animals, donors’ money is best used when giving to groups that actually help animals, either by running shelters or helping troubled pets find homes. Local donations to local shelters are better than national ones.

By contrast, groups whose members have little or no contact with animals as part of their jobs, but instead spend donations on demonstrations, political posturing, lobbying politicians, and engaging in stunts involving fur, blood, and screaming deserve no support at all.

[1] Well, dogs are our friends. Cats are a mystery.

11 thoughts on “Animal welfare nonprofits: the good, the bad, and the ugly”

  1. Annoula Wylderich says:

    I have to agree with some of the other comments. While hands-on assistance is critical, necessary and admirable, it by no means helps the majority of animals – some of who will never see the inside of a shelter. The factory farm livestock, fur trade and exotic skin victims, research animals, and so many others suffering in roadside zoo’s, dog fighting rings, hoarding situations, and those used in crush videos all need help, too. Animal cruelty and suffering is so rampant that every method of advocacy is important in raising awareness and bringing about change. Having said that, however, it’s also important that donors conduct their due diligence before supporting an organization. There are those that exist to provide little more than well-compensated jobs and do very little to help animals. It’s not difficult to do a little research into each of them before deciding which ones deserve our support.

  2. Cathy Wallach says:

    I understand your point of view and agree that animal welfare organizations should directly help animals. You can easily see that being done by the “hands-on” organizations. However, many of the organizations that do demonstrate and lobby have helped both educate the public and sway politicians so that things like legislation banning tiny cruel cages is passed and dog fighting becomes a felony. There are many other cases where educating the public and working with politicians has had a direct, positive effect on animals’ lives. So, we desperately need those national groups as much as we need the local shelters.

  3. Wyatt says:

    My Black Lab Sun is positive stat from Katrina
    She was transferred to Mo.after a couple unsuccessful placements
    She is now and will always be my best friend as we age together

    I’m so glad we saved her from being putdown

  4. Mary Sinacore says:

    Thank you fir this article. It seems the bug groups are the ones that get the donations and actually do very little to help save lives Amir change things for animals. I donate to the small groups that save lives. We need spay neuter laws and shelter reform. So glad the one group is going to Utah where they gas animals. Such a horrific death. Hope they can bring some light to this.

  5. Vivian M. Dunbar says:

    How dare this writer suggest that Peta is a ” hands off -political entity”. Peta has tirelessly fought to bring humane treatment to animals worldwide. Peta representatives have bravely taken jobs inside of factory farms and medical research facilities to document abuse. Rather than give an informative review of our nations pet non- profits…and their respective efforts…the writer seems to have used this article to endore just a few favorite groups. Im a veteran of 25 years of pet rescue in Baja Mexico.

  6. Vivin Bar a says:

    They’re all different causes that help animals and in different ways. The Upfront rescues and transports and adoption events are the sexier aspects of helping animals. Trying to influence legislators or ptotesting a cause and come up for plans to ban this or that is the less sexier , less practised, more demanding of skills and brain work that is not seen but is also just as important. If you feel that rescuing is best then please do rescue. There are different facets of everything including how to help animals, but to say that one is betteror more legitimate than the other is incorrect and divisive as out hoals all are the same.
    It took a lot of brain work footwork heartbreak and strategy not to mention loss of 50% of my income to strategize and support the ban of rabbit sales in Pet Shops in New York City and believe me, due to the ban, a lot of rabbits have been saved from idiot Pet Shop sales.
    All About Rabbits Rescue

  7. Cynthia Paschall says:

    I had to put my old girl down. I live on disability, so I can’t pay over a hundred dollars to adopt. I miss my fur baby, want and need a dog to let me know when someone is here. I am almost deaf, don’t feel safe. It hurts me knowing I could love a homeless pet, but can’t pay the fees. God Bless you for your work

  8. Brianna says:

    This article is poorly researched. Animal welfare organizations such as Mercy for Animals and The Humane League are able to significantly improve the lives of over 110 animals per $1 donated (a # given by Mercy for Animals. The Humane League should be higher since it is ranked higher). That is why The Humane League has been named a top charity by Animal Charity Evaluators for every rating period it has been rated. Campaigning to get companies to improve their welfare policies helps billions of animals. Farmed animals make up 99.6% of animals killed in the U.S. while 0.03% are killed in shelters. But 60% of donations to animal charities go to shelters because people are unaware of this.
    If you are unaware of farmed animal conditions, here are some undercover investigations by Mercy for Animals:

  9. Heidi says:

    HI, the article is very interesting and provides insights on how animal welfare and rightist groups are viewed.

    I believe that giving to groups/organizations that actually do the work is best.

    I am involved as program director for animal kingdom foundation inc in the Philippines and we do rescue ( dog meat trade and cruelty cases), rehabilitation and rehoming of dogs. We also do veterinary missions to help provide stray dogs with vet access including spay and neuter. We have a nice rescue center. It has been very hard to get donations towards the Philippines and we are looking forward if you can refer or help find or link us with someone who can be of help to us. Please our facebook is animal kingdoun foundation philippines and you can see what we have been doing to help the Philippine stray dog animals.

    thank you so much!

  10. Debbie Newton says:

    As a local transporter out of the Central Valley of California, I use both of these amazing transports. They have transported thousands of animals to a new life. I’m one grafeful animal networker!
    Lost and Found Pets 209

  11. Carol Owens says:

    Excellent and informative. I only wish this could be read.by well intentioned but ill informed donors to PETA, e.g.
    I am on the Board of Orcas Osland WA.’s Animal Protection Siciety..funded by grants and local philanthropists–but primarily by our annual. Fundraiser wine dinner. Fiscal responsibility, helping critters in many ways–we actually bring dogs and cats from the mainland to our shelter; they are readily adopted ( once we clean, treat and train them) here on Orcas; we saved 2000 dogs and cats last year–it’s well run and the shelter is the most immaculate well designed I’ve ever seen.
    Thanks for your good research and. Good info.

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