Animal Welfare Nonprofits: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

This article is crossposted from Philanthropy Daily – published June 15, 2017

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 Postreporter, 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.

Martin Morse Wooster

Wooster is senior fellow at the Capital Research Center. He is the author of three books: Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds (Pacific Research Institute, 1994), The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of ‘Donor Intent’ (Capital Research…
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  • ericmills

    Mr. Wooster doth protest too much. After 35 years in the animal rights/welfare movement, I’m unaware of ANY of these groups which are not helping animals in some way or another. Mr. Wooster needs to get out more.

    That said, this country seems on the brink of a sea change insofar as the use/abuse of animals in “entertainment” is concerned. And it ain’t just Ringling Bros. Some 30 countries around the world have outlawed the use of wild animals in circuses: Colombia, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Mexico, The Netherlands, Greece, even Iran. Only last month, New York City did the same. Can the U.S. be far behind?

    In recent months and years we’ve seen the banning of orca shows and breeding at SeaWorld (thanks in large part to the documentary, “Blackfish”); various elephant bullhook bans around the country, 13 states outlawing “horse tripping”….Can all of rodeo be far behind? For most of these animals, rodeo is merely a detour en route to the slaughterhouse. And all in the name of a macho “entertainment,” God forgive us.

    Consider this excerpt from a treasured letter which Cesar Chavez wrote to me back in 1990:

    “Kindness and compassion towards all living things is a mark of a civilized society. Conversely, cruelty, whether it is directed against human beings or against animals, is not the exclusive province of any one culture or community of people. Racism, economic deprival, dog fighting and cock fighting, bullfighting and rodeos are cut from the same fabric: violence. Only when we have become nonviolent towards all life will we have learned to live well ourselves.” Words to live by.

    Eric Mills, coordinator

  • Jennofur OConnor

    Why so negative? There are loads of groups all over the country and world trying everyday to make a difference. Trying to get the public to pay attention to serious and depressing issues takes creativity, imagination and determination. If it was just a matter of finding homeless animals a permanent place, millions still wouldn’t be in shelters waiting. Lobbying and “stunts” are simply tools to get the message out.

  • BoldChapeau

    Yes, organizations like Wings of Rescue and others that move companion animals to areas where they’re more likely to find homes have a very noble purpose and are worthy of our donations. But here’s the thing, Mr. Wooster. The state of animal abuse, neglect, and exploitation is so mind bogglingly vast, no one type of effort in helping one category of animals even begins to make a dent in the overall problem.

    There’s dog fighting, animals enduring torture beyond imagining in useless experiments in laboratories, bull fights, puppy mills, inhumane conditions in slaughter houses, rodeos, circuses, dogs living at the end of chains in backyards, and on and on. All of these animals need help desperately, and no one organization or one approach suffices. There’s desperate need for laws to protect animals. The Humane Society of the United States has that as a primary goal. Sea Shepherd has a small fleet of vessels that work in the Antarctic trying to protect whales from slaughter. There are groups working to end the barbaric killing of dogs in dog meat festivals in Asia. There are efforts underway to establish a national animal abuser database, much like the Megan’s Law database, to protect shelter animals and others. Shall I go on? Surely you get the picture.

    Ignorance is forgivable. Condemning the hard work of good people is not. Please educate yourself before pontificating on this or any other important topic.

  • chickenadvocate

    This writer seems to know nothing about the magnitude of animal abuses or about the huge amount of work being done, day after day, to try to alleviate the misery we inflict on birds, mammals and aquatic animals. If only it were just a matter of rescuing individual dogs and cats – a staggering problem in its own right but add to it the billions of chickens and other sensitive creatures living in human-created filth and unspeakable horror for “food” no one needs to eat. Add to it the countless numbers of animals being tortured in laboratories — well, words can’t begin to encompass the horror and sadness of it all. And that is why some of us choose to dedicate our lives to helping animals as best we can. This writer just doesn’t understand at all and is maybe incapable of caring – if so, shame on him. I suggest he go undercover in a Tyson chicken slaughterhouse or hatchery or get a job in a vivisection laboratory, or go behind the scenes of a circus, zoo, or rodeo. I will assume he is simply ignorant at this stage and not morally defective.

  • erniejay

    Mr Wooster should have done at least a modicum of investigation before making such disparaging remarks about “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.” If he had done any investigative journalism, he would see not only the vast variety of good animal welfare work those groups do but also see that some of the biggest and loudest educate the public as to the horrors perpetrated for profit and give grants to smaller organizations (such as rescuing that apparently he thinks is the only thing that counts) to do their work. His last two paragraphs are absurd, show a complete lack of the real problems, and cast a doubt as to the legitimacy of the rest of his piece.

  • Laurie

    We are vegan (we do not use or consume animals,) we rescue as many animals as our homes will accommodate, and we educate/advocate for the well-being of our fellows. Sometimes we demonstrate to raise awareness, but demonstrations are a small part of what we do – day in, day out – to create a more kind, just and compassionate world. Please join us. When you eschew animals products and choose a whole food plant-based diet, you find yourself blessed with optimal health both physically and spiritually.

  • This writer knows very little about 1) the suffering of animals in rodeos, zoos, circuses, petting zoos, factory farms, slaughter houses, transportation, and biomedical research and 2) the enormity of the problem of animal suffering. If he could follow some of us around for a month, he would begin to understand what we all do to help animals and he would have better knowledge of the conditions of these animals. Poorly written article.

  • Rocky Mountain

    Personally, I wouldn’t mind if we banned circuses, zoos, and cell phones. I don’t think my life would change one bit.

  • Steve

    It’s ironic that an article this shallow and ill-informed is coming out of something called a “think tank.” Wooster’s thesis seems to be that animal groups should not work on education, laws and policies that will help prevent animal abuse and neglect and instead just rescue victims. It doesn’t take much thinking to see that that’s really bad advice.

  • Phil

    No-Kill Movement mentality: Go down south to pick up animals that are being fed, watered, and cared for at the moment, to drive them up north to No-Kill shelters; while animals up north are freezing, starving, and/or being beaten to death and abused on the streets or in dogfight operations. Then, aggressively push those animals on people who are out shopping for clothing or just out for a Saturday morning walk, so that in a few days, weeks, or months, they can end up back on the street. Then, when some true animal lover finds one of them and calls the No-Kill shelters for help, some self-righteous person on the other end can scream at them, “NO ROOM! CAN’T HELP YOU!” I’ve been through it dozens of times in my life, and every dog and cat I’ve ever owned was one I found on the street, discarded like an old couch by someone who probably never really wanted to adopt a pet anyway. The No-Kill movement causes too many dogs and cats to be caught up in a tragic cycle from one uncaring owner to another, many times with a life on the streets in between; and those are luckier than the ones who die on the street. Why not just accept the obvious reality that there are many more animals than there are true animal lovers who are ready, willing, and able to give them the care they require? Of course it would be sad to see more animals being killed at shelters, but I think it’s more sadder to see more animals dying slow painful deaths on the streets as they do now.