Remember the “comfort dogs” – those furry, four-legged therapists who offered victims in Newtown and Boston a welcome respite from the cruel realities of domestic terrorism? Well, who are the comfort dogs for the comfort dogs?
It’s a question that certainly bears asking because while dogs may be man’s best friend, we don’t always reciprocate the sentiment. In fact, from Michael Vick and his Bad Newz Kennels to the misguided, reactionary targeting of pit bulls and the proliferation of puppy mills, we can be downright cruel to our animal pals.
If you’ve ever met me (hell, if you’ve seen my Twitter page), you know how important this issue is to me. I love dogs, having grown up with a few always running around the house, and I simply detest those who would ever do them harm. It runs in the family, I suppose. My grandfather, Dr. Paul Kiernan – a noted Washington, D.C. surgeon and founder of the since-closed Washington Clinic – trained Labrador Retrievers for field trials in his spare time. His wife, Elizabeth Simpson Kiernan, was also president of the Washington Animal Rescue League for more than 20 years. While both have since passed, their legacies live on, and my family has adopted a number of dogs from WARL over the years (shout out Scooter, Georgia, and Charlie!).
So, while sensational stories about animal cruelty might get a lot of initial publicity, it is those who keep fighting the good fight long after the headlines fade that are truly deserving of our attention and support. To return to the original question, they are the comfort dogs for our best friends, so why not lend them a helping hand?
Putting Our Money Where Our Hearts Are?
WalletHub has explored the spending habits of and savings opportunities for the 72.9 million U.S. households that own pets. But the green we feed our four-legged friends isn’t limited to the $50 billion we spend each year on our own animals.
Americans also gave $8.34 billion to charities focused on animals and/or the environment in 2012, according to the most recent Giving USA annual report. Mirroring the economic recovery, that figure has increased 6.8% from 2011 and 11.6% since 2010. Even so, charitable contributions in this category represent only a very small portion of the total $316.23 billion given to charity last year.
Nevertheless, many folks might consider $8-plus billion to be too much, given the myriad hardships facing people across the globe. But charity is a highly personal thing and everyone has their own issues that they prioritize. Besides, the thing about domesticated animals like dogs is that they can’t really speak up for themselves and are really at the mercy of man, if for no other reason than fierce (often misguided) loyalty.
But regardless of how you feel about this particular issue, I think we can all agree on the importance of saving in the current economic climate. We’ve racked up $82 billion in credit card debt in the last two years alone and are on pace to add an addition $47 billion in 2013.
That doesn’t mean you should balk at getting a pet or stop giving to your favorite charities. Rather, it simply means that we should be smarter about how we do so.
The Best Animal Charities (How to Support Them & Your Budget)
Charity Navigator tracks more than 400 animal-oriented charitable organizations, including 262 groups focused on “animal rights, welfare, and services.” The charity-comparison website gives 65 of them a 4-star rating (the highest available), based on their financial practices and transparency. We will only highlight those with the highest overall scores here, but you can check out the rest over at Charity Navigator.
- PAWS Chicago: The Windy City’s largest “no-kill” animal shelter, PAWS (which stands for “Pets Are Worth Saving”) is dedicated to fostering communities that value the life of every cat and dog, fighting overpopulation, and developing a sustainable, solutions-based model for animal welfare. With an overall score of 69.46 / 70 from Charity Navigator and program funding that is more than 34 times what is attributed to administrative expenses, PAWS appears to be a well-run organization with solid priorities.
- American Veterinary Medical Foundation: Coming in with an overall financial performance and transparency score of 68.96, the AVMF – whose tag line is “Every animal needs a strong Foundation” – works to improve veterinary care through community outreach and scientific research. It is also based in Chicago.
- Southeastern Guide Dogs: As you might expect, Southeastern Guide Dogs – which uses the tag line “Forward Together” and boasts an overall score of 68.85 from Charity Navigator – trains future guide dogs as well as their human partners at locations in Sarasota and Palmetto, Fla. In operation since 1982, Southeastern Guide Dogs has trained nearly 3,000 guide dog teams for purposes ranging from everyday aid for the visually impaired to services for combat veterans and police work.
- Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA): Perhaps contrary to popular belief, the hundreds of local charities across the country that use “SPCA” in their names are not directly affiliated with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) – the ”first humane organization in the Western Hemisphere,” having been founded in 1866. However, 10 different SPCA-branded charities in six different states have been awarded 4 stars for financial performance and transparency, including the SPCA of Central Florida, the San Francisco SPCA, and Roseville, CA's Placer SPCA, just to name a few. While these organizations are also independent from one another, they do share common values, including: the preservation of animal life whenever possible, the importance of animal adoption, and the enforcement of anti-abuse laws.
- Humane Societies: Much like there is no formal relationship between the ASPCA and SPCA-branded local charities, The Humane Society of the United States is not affiliated with the many animal charities across the country that include “humane society” in their names. Nevertheless, the national body – which bills itself as the “nation’s largest and most effective animal protection organization” as well as 23 homophonic local charities in 20 states have received 4-star ratings. Among these highly-performing charitable organizations are the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, the Humane Society of Huron Valley, and the Oregon Humane Society. They all adhere to similar core principles as well, working to raise awareness for animal issues, promote animal-friendly legislation, and provide much-needed healthcare and adoption services.
- Animal Welfare Institute: Based in Washington, D.C., the Animal Welfare Institute is “dedicated to alleviating suffering inflicted on animals by humans.” More specifically, it works to combat the use of animals for laboratory testing, promote more humane hunting and meat production practices, and protect endangered species. Legislative lobbying, an index that ranks politicians’ compassion for animals in terms of their voting history, and other awareness campaigns are among the initiatives the AWI funds with its $4.5 million in annual program expenditures. It received a score of 67.12 / 70 from Charity Navigator.
- Animal Welfare League of Alexandria: Adding to Alexandria, Va.’s charitable reputation, the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria boasts an overall score of 66.23 from Charity Navigator and attributed 84.1% of its $2.59 million budget in 2011 (the most recent year for which data is available) to program expenses. In addition to offering adoption services and promoting animal welfare awareness, the AWL of Alexandria also provides behavioral training for dogs and even conducts catch-and-release neutering for the local feral cat population.
- MaxFund: A self-proclaimed “true no-kill shelter,” Denver-based MaxFund offers adoption, foster care, and veterinary services for animals in need of medical care and/or a loving home. Founded in 1989 by veterinarian Dr. Bill Suro and his wife Nanci and named for the German Shepard-mix they adopted and loved for 13 years after it was found on the side of the road with life-threatening injuries, MaxFund has a backstory that’s even better than its stellar 65.06 / 70 overall score from Charity Navigator.
- Society for the Improvement of Conditions for Stray Animals: True to its name, SICSA works to “promote the welfare of companion animals and to nurture loving, lifelong relationships between animals and people,” through rescue/adoption services and veterinary care. While its efforts are focused on the Miami Valley (Ohio) area, local residents considering a donation to an animal-oriented charity can rest assured knowing that SISCA attributes 86.4% of its expenditures to program expenses and has a 65.04 overall score from Charity Navigator.
- Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities: While “educated canines” sounds almost like a disparaging nickname for fraternity members, this organization’s efforts to train dogs to assist the disabled in completing everyday tasks are nothing but positive. Depending on the needs of its clients, ECAD prepares puppies for everything from opening doors and flipping light switches to pulling wheelchairs and other highly specialized tasks. ECAD has a 64.91 / 70 score from Charity Navigator and attributes 87.4% of its annual expenditures to accomplishing its core goals.
The Worst Animal Charities & How to Avoid Them
At the opposite end of the spectrum from the 4-star animal charities in Charity Navigator’s database are 25 organizations with the unfortunate distinction of having 1 star, no stars, or important donor advisories next to their names. We’ll highlight a few of them below.
- Macomb County Humane Society: This Michigan-based organization dedicated to “providing care and shelter for homeless and abused animals” received ZERO stars as the result of a 21.39 / 70 overall score and even worse marks in terms of transparency. MCHC only attributes just over 50% of its annual expenses to its charitable programs, spending the rest on administration and fundraising.
- Home for Life: While this Minnesota-based long-term animal sanctuary’s 32.30 overall score is more the result of poor transparency than flawed financial management, non-profits that aren’t open about their operations tend to unnerve consumers given infamous cases of fraud from the past. Hopefully, the fact that it lacks independently audited financials and publically available information about its executives is just a byproduct of this relatively new charity’s inexperience, rather than something perhaps more worrisome.
There are also red flags about the Charleston Animal Shelter (alleged embezzlement), the Oshkosh Area Humane Society (curious lack of fundraising expenses), SPCA International (numerous issues related to allocation of money and executive impropriety), the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (allegations of animal negligence and financial impropriety), and the Westside German Shepherd Rescue of LA (allegations of misused donations).
Organizations that Test Products on Animals:
The Council on Humane Giving – a subsidiary of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) – maintains a database of charitable organizations around the world that do and do not fund animal testing. According to its records, there are 413 charities in the United States alone that do so, including big names like The Jimmy V Foundation, UNICEF, and the National Breast Cancer Foundation.
The extent to which these charities fund animal testing and the types of testing involved obviously varies by organization. Likewise, there is sure to be a wide divide in people’s minds in terms of the cost-benefit tradeoff involved with these practices, especially depending on the particular cause being addressed in each instance.
Nevertheless, charitable-minded animal lovers might feel more comfortable donating to a charity with the PCRM Charity Seal of Approval. You can find a list of such charities on The Council on Humane Giving’s website.
Each year, 5-7 million animals wind up in shelters across the country and 3-4 million are ultimately euthanized (70% of cats and 60% of dogs), according to the ASPCA. What’s more, only about 10% of the cats and dogs who come to shelters are spayed or neutered. The awareness campaigns and adoption services being undertaken by well-meaning charity organizations across the country are therefore clearly very important and deserving of our support.
So, now that we have a better idea of which animal charities will use our hard-earned money for the greatest good, what say we break out the checkbooks (oops, I mean cellphones)?