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New Center for Consumer Freedom website targets Humane Society of the United States

February 23, 2010 |  6:37 pm

Animal shelter

Anyone who's ever glanced at the website PETAKillsAnimals.com is familiar, whether they know it or not, with a group that calls itself the Center for Consumer Freedom.

The Center for Consumer Freedom -- headed up by a lobbyist for the food, alcoholic beverage and tobacco industries named Richard Berman -- has long been at odds with groups like PETA and the Humane Society of the United States. (For the record, though, it has also worked to discredit non-animal-related advocacy groups including Mothers Against Drunk Driving through its ActivistCash.com website. Another of its websites, ObesityMyths.com, attempts to debunk what it describes as "myths" about human health. Among those "myths": "Obesity will shorten life expectancy" and "Obesity has made diabetes epidemic.")

Now, though, the CCF has ratcheted up the rhetoric against the Humane Society by launching a new website devoted to discrediting the group: HumaneWatch.org. As part of HumaneWatch's kickoff, the Center purchased a full-page ad in the New York Times that argues that the Humane Society "gives less than one-half of 1% of its $100-million budget to hands-on pet shelters."

We've heard this criticism all too often, and it's an argument we find supremely disingenuous. One can certainly care about animals and not support the Humane Society -- many of our animal-loving readers have written passionate comments that explain their rationales for not supporting the group. But those readers explain that they fundamentally disagree with the Humane Society's aims and tactics -- and their arguments are reasonable and sound.

What's not reasonable or sound is vilifying the group for its failure to be something it never claimed to be: an animal shelter. Arguing that the Humane Society is failing by not donating enough to local shelters is like arguing that the president is failing to stand up for the poor because he hasn't volunteered at your local soup kitchen.

Our colleague, agribusiness reporter P.J. Huffstutter, explains the rationale for the CCF's latest attack in The Times' business blog, Money & Co.:

So, why target [the Humane Society]? Well, for one thing, [the Humane Society] has become increasingly involved in pushing through legislation that alters how animals are treated in the food-production system. The organization was a key voice in the successful campaign last year to get California voters to pass Proposition 2, which was aimed at preventing "cruel confinement" of farm animals (like smaller cages for egg-laying chickens or gestation crates for pregnant sows).

That, of course, grabbed the attention of CCF. ...

According to CCF, the public doesn't realize that most of their donations aren’t going to help lost cats and dogs, or help out underfunded animal shelters. Instead, the majority of the money allegedly is being used to "bankroll anti-meat campaigns and PETA-style propaganda," said David Martosko, CCF's director of research.

In his short biography on the HumaneWatch website, Martosko describes himself as someone who "[loves] animals. But not obsessively so. And I'm not a big fan of people who put the life of a lab rat above the life of a cancer patient."

He speaks of a distinction between animal welfare and animal rights: "Animal 'rights' philosophy says that even if you gave your dairy cows three meals a day, evening rubdowns, waterbeds to sleep on, iPods, and Nintendo Wii privileges, it would still wrong to milk them." (Full disclosure: We're vegan, and our issue with milk isn't that it's fundamentally "wrong" to milk cows -- how silly. Instead, we take issue with the inextricable link between the dairy industry and the veal industry. Since dairy cows must be kept pregnant in order to continue to produce milk, the industry produces an excess of calves. Female calves, of course, can go on to become dairy cows themselves. Since male calves will never give milk, a large percentage of them will spend their short lives confined to veal crates before  ending up as someone's veal dinner.)

If the CCF wants to discredit the Humane Society, it'll find plenty of animal advocates -- including a number of Unleashed readers -- who share its core belief that the Humane Society's tactics are misguided, wrongheaded or don't go far enough toward protecting animals. It could make a number of well-reasoned arguments, but instead its New York Times ad rests on a straw-man argument, refuting a "claim" that the Humane Society doesn't make.

The Humane Society is, according to its mission statement, "the nation's largest and most effective animal protection organization" -- an organization that works to help animals through legislative efforts and large-scale investigations into alleged instances of animal cruelty. Donating to your local animal shelter or rescue group is admirable; donating to a legislative advocacy group, one could argue, is also admirable. But these groups have fundamentally different ways of achieving their aims, and arguing that a legislative group is wrong for not operating an animal shelter is as misguided as arguing that an animal shelter is wrong for not lobbying on a national scale for animal-friendly reforms.

Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society's president and chief executive, took to his blog Tuesday about the CCF's New York Times ad. "The ad ... says many things. But one thing it doesn't say is the following: Why would a corporate front group take after a venerable organization like the Humane Society of the United States," Pacelle wrote. "Here's the answer: They are bothering us because, by threatening animal abuse, we are threatening their bottom line."

Martosko was quick to respond to Pacelle in his own blog post Tuesday: "Our HumaneWatch project is just getting started. What you've seen so far is just the first trickle out of a very, very backed-up faucet. So perhaps we can count on Whiny Wayne having tantrum after tantrum this year. Fine with us. We’ll just keep speaking up for the shelter animals."

Speaking up for the shelter animals? Somehow, coming from the group that rails against Mothers Against Drunk Driving's "fanatical conviction that no one should be allowed to drink anything before driving," we doubt that concern for shelter animals is really at the heart of its latest campaign.

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: A dog at the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services' North Central shelter. Is the Humane Society failing in its mission to help animals by not donating enough to shelters like North Central? The Center for Consumer Freedom says yes. Credit: Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times

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