The full-page ads started appearing in major newspapers several months ago. "Shouldn't we expect better from the 'Humane Society?'"
The ads go on to report that only a fraction of the nearly $100 million budget of the Humane Society of the United States funds local animal shelters, and urges readers to check out a new website, Humanewatch.org.
Janelle Dixon is watching -- but not for the reasons the ad promoters want. Dixon, president of the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley, is also the president of the Federation of Humane Societies across the country. And she's upset.
The media campaign comes from the Center for Consumer Freedom, a Washington-based nonprofit representing the food and beverage industries. It charges that donors to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) deserve to know that little of their money helps pets back home.
But Dixon said the group's campaign is trying to undermine the Humane Society's work to outlaw cruel treatment of animals, especially farm animals.
The high-profile conflict -- which includes a billboard in Times Square in New York City -- points to the increasingly high stakes behind animal welfare efforts and public confusion over the nation's many humane society organizations.
"Our concern is that the center is trying to drive a wedge between the local animal welfare groups and HSUS," said Dixon. "Each humane society is an independent nonprofit, and there's already public confusion about who is doing what."
Dixon is president of the 60-member National Federation of Humane Societies, an umbrella group for the individual shelters. Last month, the federation sent a letter to the Center for Consumer Freedom urging it to cease its "smear campaign."
The campaign distracts from the real work of humane societies across the country, Dixon said, and casts doubt about everyone's work.
"When people hear that 'the humane society' isn't spending enough money on animals, they start believing the same with local shelters," she said. "It undermines the credibility of all animal welfare organizations."
Confusion over 'societies'
Most Americans don't know the difference between the various humane societies that solicit funds, said Dixon. The Center for Consumer Freedom touts its recent poll indicating that 59 percent of respondents thought HSUS gave most of its money to local pet organizations.
But HSUS is distinct from local groups, Dixon said. It was created in 1954 to tackle animal welfare problems at a national level. According to its website, it provides direct care to animals during national emergencies and at its five state sanctuaries. It also has major campaigns to target dogfighting and cockfighting, puppy mills, cruel hunting practices, factory farms and the fur trade.
It does this through lobbying, public education, as well as its own undercover investigative teams, said president Wayne Pacelle. They've been successful. The society has helped pass 500 state laws in the past decade, its website said.
Its growing success apparently captured the attention of the Center for Consumer Freedom. David Martosko, its research director, charges that HSUS's efforts to improve the confinement and treatment of farm animals will drive up the cost of agricultural productions, which ultimately hurts consumers. The center doesn't mention it could also lower profit margins of their supporters.
In February, the center began putting ads in major newspapers, saying HSUS "gives less than one-half of one percent of its $100 million budget to hands-on pet shelters." Recently, it e-mailed media alerts across the country, offering state-by-state listings of HSUS donations.
Minnesota received just $4,200 from 2006 to 2008, the press release said. That includes a $2,000 grant to the Minnesota Valley Humane Society in Burnsville and $1,000 for the Animal Sanctuary Foundation in Minneapolis.
Pacelle adds that the society has a Minnesota state director, working on legislation and campaigns.
But the focus on how HSUS spends its money struck a chord with many local shelters struggling with tight budgets.
"We often hear, 'We gave to the national organization,'" said Lynae Gieseke, executive director of the Minnesota Valley Humane Society. "It's frustrating. I'd appreciate it if they didn't do direct-mail [fundraising] pieces here."
A powerful foe
The Center for Consumer Freedom is headed by Richard Berman, a Washington lobbyist who was once the subject of a profile on CBS' "60 Minutes" titled "Dr. Evil."
His nonprofit center operates a dozen websites that attack other nonprofits, ranging from Mothers Against Drunk Driving to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Tax experts have raised questions about the center's status as a nonprofit, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Its 2008 tax forms show it received about $1.5 million in contributions, but it paid more than $1 million to Berman's public relations firm for management fees.
Martosko, the center's research director, charges that Dixon's federation is not a neutral party because its executive director is a former HSUS employee and Pacelle is a current board member.
Dixon said the executive director was hired precisely because of his experience and networks, including HSUS. She said Pacelle is on the board because he's a major player in the animal welfare field. Pacelle played no role in the discussion or vote to condemn the center's campaign, she said.
The many tentacles to the story can be confounding, said Deb Balzer, a spokeswoman for Dixon's Humane Society.
"It's like peeling an onion," she said.
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511