It Doesn’t Have to be Like This
Reflections on the Defeat of Bowie’s Law
What would you do if you ran an animal protection organization with $776 million in annual revenue and $1.2 billion in assets? How much could you accomplish? How would the landscape of animal protection in the U.S. be different than it is today?
Would you provide free spay/neuter to everyone in America who could not afford it?
Would you have adoption centers all over the country?
Would you transport all animals facing death in shelters to your nationwide network of shelters that do high-volume adoptions?
Would you provide an ambulance service in cities nationwide for sick and injured animals?
Would you create a nationwide network of neonatal nurseries for 24/7 bottle-feeding?
Would you seek and pass legislation mandating No Kill policies?
Would you create universal veterinary care for homeless animals and the pets of people experiencing poverty?
What else might you accomplish if money was no object? And what might you achieve for other animals in other exploitative contexts? Wildlife corridors and overpasses across roads? Bird-friendly building designs? The hypothetical is not far-fetched.
Indeed, that amount of money is what only three organizations in the U.S. take in and have in bank accounts: the ASPCA, the Humane Society of the United States, and Best Friends Animal Society.
The Humane Society of the United is not far behind. It receives $260 million in annual revenue and has $454 million in assets, including $370 million in investments and $31 million in savings.
Best Friends Animal Society has $126 million in annual revenue and $153 million in assets.
The nearly $1 billion in annual revenue and additional $1.2 billion in combined assets controlled by these three groups don’t include the other groups taking in large sums of money promising to help animals, such as PETA, which takes in $82 million annually and has $29 million in assets. It doesn’t include the thousands of SPCAs and humane societies nationwide. It doesn’t include all the other organizations that promise to help animals with emotional appeals that tug at the heartstrings and open American wallets.
Americans have a soft spot for animals, especially dogs, cats, and other companions. That has made animal protection groups like Best Friends, the ASPCA, HSUS, and PETA that claim to speak for them some of the wealthiest charities in the world.
And given the sheer wealth at their disposal, the hearts and minds of the American voter they command, and the bipartisan nature of that support, why aren’t things better than they are?
Because despite its wealth, the ASPCA spends only about 2% on animals in shelters. Most donations go to fundraising and salaries. ASPCA CEO Matt Berkshadker, for example, makes nearly $1 million annually, and 259 ASPCA employees make six figures.
The amount HSUS spends to help these animals is even less than that, about 1%. HSUS CEO Kitty Block makes roughly half a million annually, with 93 other employees likewise taking home six figures.
Similarly, Best Friends spends an inordinate amount (over $55 million) on salaries, uses donor funds to purchase for-profit businesses such as a hotel and gym, and spends millions enriching the founders who own the logo and license it back to the organization. The proceeds from that Best Friends sweatshirt you bought? It mostly went to the founders, not the organization’s programs.
But even the paltry amount they spend on shelter animal programs isn’t necessarily being used to help. These groups are lobbyists for “shelters” that kill animals, not the animals in those shelters. Among other things, the ASPCA killed 20 dogs in transport, allowed dogs to starve, killed abused dogs despite rescue groups willing to save them, killed a young woman’s dog and tormented her, fought legislation to save lives, putting hundreds of thousands of animals into an early grave, refused to treat animals, dropping them off at a notorious pound knowing the city pound would likely kill them, and covered up abuse by its employees.
The Humane Society of the United States is little better. HSUS calls on shelters to partner with breeders or breed puppies themselves while they kill rescued dogs.
Best Friends, meanwhile, tells shelters to close their doors to adopters without an appointment, turn animals away, and prevent volunteers from demanding more humane practices. It also fights laws requiring shelters to notify rescuers before killing animals.
As to PETA, they round up to kill healthy cats, kittens, dogs, and puppies, defend abusive pounds, and have called for killing every dog identified as a “pit bull” in every “shelter” in America. They fight legislation to reform pounds and thus save more lives, demonize cats to encourage their killing, have a history of stealing and killing animals, as well as lying to people to acquire and kill their animals, and, according to a former employee, lie about the amount of barbiturates used to kill more animals “off book.” All told, PETA kills or causes to be killed upwards of 99% of animals rounded up while only adopting out 1%.
If not for these groups, we would be a No Kill nation today. Beyond a No Kill nation, we could be much further along in creating the kind of society that values animals and builds the institutions to effectively protect them and help them thrive. But we’re not. And we are not because when it comes to animals, the public is not very discerning regarding which animal groups to support.
According to a recent study, most people falsely equate having heard of a group with it being effective. In other words, because most Americans have heard of the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States, they (wrongly) believe those groups are leading positive change for animals. Specifically, “the average person does not know the actual impact these two organizations have on helping pet populations” but (mistakenly) assumes that they have a positive impact simply because they are the most high-profile voices, likely stemming from relentless direct mail efforts and highly lucrative commercials.
But those on the front lines — rescuers, volunteers, community cat caretakers, and shelter reformers — know that despite the public’s misconception, the size of an organization’s public profile is not proportional to its effectiveness. In fact, the groups blocking No Kill success — the ASPCA, HSUS, Best Friends, Maddie’s Fund, PETA, and even Austin Pets Alive — have the most money. And it isn’t just that they are squandering the vast potential to help animals Americans have given them by virtue of a blank check, they are squandering our potential.
In addition to imagining what we could accomplish if we had the millions — and combined billions — of dollars they are wasting, imagine, too, what we could achieve if we could focus on saving and helping animals without the roadblocks they put in our way and without having to fight off their attempts to undo the gains we have already made.
Instead, we are forced, by sheer necessity, to fight off the deadly dogma they champion that enables shelter killing, overcome their continued resistance to shelter reform, and stave off efforts to drag us backward, which they do when they encourage breeding, encourage closing shelter doors to adopters and animals in need, undermine the enforcement of animal protection legislation, and seek to disempower volunteers and rescuers.
The biggest impediment to a No Kill nation is not public irresponsibility; it is the irresponsibility of groups like the ASPCA, HSUS, Best Friends, PETA, and Austin Pets Alive. The trail of dead bodies, of mangled corpses, of animals turned to ash rather than into beloved and pampered family members, leads straight to their doors.
Normally, I would close an article like this by striking an optimistic tone; reminding people that there’s been a 95% drop in the pound killing of U.S. dogs and cats because of the No Kill movement. I would remind people that this success was achieved despite opposition from many of these groups.
I would also remind people that we appear poised likewise to end wide-scale animal harm and exploitation on farms, laboratories, and elsewhere despite opposition from wealthy, powerful, and deeply entrenched interests.
I would remind people that we have a humane vision that inspires people in a way their dystopian one does not, and to achieve it, we need only do what we have always done — to neither accept nor emulate the voices of defeatism, of corruption, of those who believe in their own celebrity and put themselves and the fundraising prerogatives of their organizations above the needs and lives of animals.
I would remind people that no matter how difficult it may seem or what setbacks we suffer, we must maintain the moral courage to proclaim that a naked emperor has no clothes. And we must continue to believe that tomorrow can always — and must always — be better than today.
Deep down, I still believe this to be true, both in my heart (by gut feeling and a belief in the moral arc of history) and in my head (by experience and evidence). But these groups and their friends defeated Bowie’s Law today. And I am weary.
Bowie, a shy 15-week-old puppy, was killed by the Los Angeles County pound, despite a rescue group willing to save him. AB 595, Bowie’s Law, was introduced to ensure that animals like him, who have a place to go, would be spared by requiring California shelters to notify rescuers 72 hours before killing an animal. And given that such notifications are possible through shelter software already used by these facilities or available for free, complying would have required nothing more than a stroke on a keyboard: one click to notify rescuers that a life needed saving.
AB 595 was such a simple, commonsense law it is astonishing that anyone opposed it. But it was opposed by the National Animal Control Association, the ASPCA, Best Friends, and others. (A complete list of opponents is here.) And because of that opposition, it died in the California Assembly. Which means animals will continue to die needlessly along with it.
Tonight, I will have a drink and mourn their deaths.
But then there is tomorrow.
Tomorrow, I will pick up the proverbial sword again and fight for the life-affirming future the animals deserve. And tomorrow, I will remind people that when we are knocked down, we will prevail if we get back up, dust ourselves off, and continue moving forward — forward, to that humane future we dream of, of which we have already come so far.
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