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Humane societies vie for scarce dollars

Mass. and N.Y. groups at loggerheads

The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals accuses the NewYork-based American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of deceptive advertising. The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals accuses the NewYork-based American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of deceptive advertising.
By David Abel
Globe Staff / May 22, 2011

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A few months ago, Shirley Eastman was looking over her credit card statement when she noticed a curious charge for a donation she thought she had made to the local humane society.

It turned out she was being billed for a contribution to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which is based in New York City and has no affiliation with the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The 80-year-old said she had been confused by ads she saw on television and in mailings sent to her home in Cotuit.

“I just felt like it wasn’t honest,’’ she said of the advertisements she had seen. “We were giving to an organization that we had no interest in. We want to help the animals here.’’

The confusion is a growing problem and an increasing source of resentment for officials at the Massachusetts humane society, who say the New York-based organization has taken advantage of its name to mislead potential donors into thinking they are giving to a parent outfit.

They say the New York organization’s ads, heart-tugging portraits of abandoned dogs, have cost them millions of dollars as they are struggling to fill their coffers.

“If they wish to do national ads, they should say where they do their work,’’ said Carter Luke, president of the the MSPCA-Angell Animal Medical Center, which has headquarters in Jamaica Plain. “We have no problem with someone taking ads out. We just think they should say where the money is being used and that it doesn’t go to help animals in Massachusetts.’’

The 143-year-old MSPCA, which last year treated more than 50,000 pets just in Boston, is increasingly concerned about its budget, 40 percent of which comes from contributions. Last year, their revenue from donations and fees charged at their hospitals was about $43 million, 17 percent less than received before the recession started in 2007.

By contrast, the 145-year-old ASPCA, in its last annual report in 2009, listed revenue of nearly $117 million.

MSPCA officials also said state records show that between 2007 and 2009 the New York humane society raised $10.6 million in Massachusetts.

“What we’re trying to say is that the ASPCA does some nice things in Manhattan, but we want everyone to know that they are not our parent organization,’’ Luke said. “We just want to make sure they are not leading people to believe that they are the place to go to prevent cruelty to animals in New England.’’

ASPCA officials said they do not want to squabble with other humane societies.

“How the problem [of animal cruelty] is dealt with is not a local-versus-national issue; it is about effectiveness,’’ said Alison Jimenez, a spokeswoman for the New York organization. “We wholeheartedly disagree with our colleagues if they feel our ads are misleading. We stand behind the effectiveness of our work and the impact it is having on rescuing animals from cruelty.’’

She said the ASPCA plays “a national role in improving the animal welfare landscape and making sure at-risk animals all across the country are protected.’’

“Our strength as a national organization is that we are able to offer essential grant funding, manpower, training, and other resources to animal welfare organizations and agencies when we are called upon for assistance,’’ Jimenez said.

Yet humane society officials in Massachusetts are not the only ones concerned about the ASPCA’s advertising.

The State Humane Association of California filed a complaint this month with their attorney general’s office for what they described in a press release as the New York organization’s “unfair and deceptive fund-raising practices,’’ which “harm local humane societies and SPCAs by capitalizing on and reinforcing the widely held, mistaken belief that the ASPCA is a parent or umbrella organization to the thousands of humane societies and SPCAs across the country.’’

The California organization noted that the ASPCA operates only one animal shelter in New York.

“Ever since the ASPCA began to aggressively fund-raise several years ago, humane societies and SPCAs throughout the country have suffered,’’ Erica Gaudet Hughes, executive director of the State Humane Association of California, said in a statement. “Our member humane societies and SPCAs frequently report hearing from people who gave to the ASPCA believing they were giving to their local shelter. These shelters believe they are missing out on funds that were intended for them.’’

The ASPCA says it provides grants to humane societies around the country and fields national teams to stop dog fighting, close puppy mills, and care for homeless animals after natural disasters.

However, officials in California say organizations that seek to prevent animal cruelty there received only $352,100 last year from the ASPCA, or 0.3 percent of the ASPCA’s revenue.

In Massachusetts, Luke said the MSPCA last received a grant from New York in 2008, and it was just $2,500 to fix some fencing for horses at the society’s farm in Methuen.

In its last annual report, the ASCPA cited $5 million in grants and sponsorships, while it spent more than $26 million in communications.

“The ASPCA is not only providing direct care all across the country, but raising awareness and inspiring people to contribute locally to our shared cause,’’ Jimenez said. “In the world of animal welfare, all of us, whether local or national, are working toward the same goal. The ASPCA encourages any shelters across the country that may be in need of financial or other assistance to apply regularly for grant funding from the ASPCA.’’

Among their communications are national television ads featuring singer Sarah McLachlan, whose sentimental lyrics play over images of abused and neglected cats and dogs. The commercials end with McLachlan petting a dog and appealing for viewers to call a toll-free number or log on to a website.

The site provides no indication where the ASPCA is based, but it suggests its scope is national. “It is only through the collective efforts of compassionate people like you, will we be able to change the future for America’s needy animals,’’ it reads.

Luke said he is concerned about other ads, which he said falsely state that “2 out of 3 animals in shelters are . . . euthanized.’’ He said the ASPCA has since removed most of the ads.

“We don’t want the charitable world to be smudged with impropriety or disrespect,’’ he said, adding that the MSPCA has no plans to file a lawsuit. “We believe strongly in respect, kindness, and integrity.’’