Editorial: The sounds of silence
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1995:
At least a third of the ANIMAL PEOPLE readership is actively involved in animal
protection law enforcement, as animal control officers, conservation officers, humane
society legal counsels, cruelty investigators, and so forth––and we’d bet at least a third of
them are at this very moment frustrated by an animal abuse or neglect case, or a poaching
case, or some other investigation that could result in a successful prosecution or civil suit if
known witnesses would just step forward.
Journalists work to a similar standard. We’re not actually prosecuting cases or filing
lawsuits seeking enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act or Endangered Species Act,
but we do have to consider courtroom rules of evidence in connection with everything we
print. Contrary to the common misassumptions of nonsubscribing callers, who often expect
us to publish their side of an issue and no other, based on hearsay, and keep their own
names out of it, we don’t publish unverified allegation; we always try to get every side of
controversial stories; we work hard to be fair, as a matter of personal and occupational
pride; and we must at all times be cognisant of the consequences of libel, not just as a matter
of law but out of our own sense of responsibility.
From this perspective, we share the frustration of our law enforcement colleagues,
several of whom call each week to see if we might be able to help them get a piece of information,
make an introduction, or open closed doors somewhere, so that longstanding complaints
can be resolved short of bringing the full force of the law to bear. Sometimes a
media inquiry can encourage a laboratory animal facility or a zoo or a rodeo or even a
humane society to straighten out a situation causing concern, before it gets past the point of
being rectifiable without legal action. Other times, unfortunately, the institution occasioning
concern is intransigent, or inscrutable, or as indifferent toward us as to friendly warnings
by legal authorities. Most often, there really is no substitute for a person of good character
and direct knowledge of a problematic situation stepping forward with a documented
statement and signing his or her John Hancock as a critic and whistleblower. Such an action
often brings forward a congress of other witnesses who were only waiting for someone else
to testify first.
Certainly there can be consequences: firings, lawsuits, even worse. The editor,
responding to a tip, seven years ago exposed the hideous deaths of 31 veal calves who suffocated
in pools of their own diarrhea. Enraged, the vealer shotgunned the presumed
source––and killed the wrong man.
Yet few bad situations are ever rectified without the intervention of people of the
courage to observe them, record the details, go to the persons responsible seeking redress,
and then, if redress is not forthcoming, go public, prepared to face down attempted intimidation.
Law enforcement agents can rarely make a case without witnesses, even with the
best forensic evidence. Journalists have no basis from which to ask questions without
sources willing to stand behind whatever they say. Institutional authorities, for that matter,
have little reason to believe there are problems in their own operations if everything seems
to be functioning, when no one presents first-hand testimony that not everything is working
as it really should. It is not uncommon that the boss is the last one in a building to know
what goes on in the basement––or even the next suite––when no one has the guts to bear
Because people who should have spoken out long ago didn’t, two investigative
articles in this edition address problems within national humane advocacy groups which
apparently could have been cleared up quickly, with minimal embarrassment to anyone, if
only some of the people who spoke to us had spoken either on the record or with source
protection to either appropriate authorities or other media, many years ago. In consequence,
it may be that millions of dollars have been diverted out of humane work to purposes
unclear. It may be that dozens of animals have endured avoidable suffering. It may
be that many people have suffered preventable anguish as well, including some who were
caught up and compromised in affairs of which they are now ashamed, because they went
into potentially compromising situations unaware.
Every citizen of a free society has a moral obligation to speak out, on the record,
in good faith, whenever he or she sees something that maybe isn’t right. Humane activists
assume this obligation to a further extent: when questions need to be asked, animals aren’t
in a position to ask them, whether the question is “What are you doing to that dog?” or
“What are you doing with that money you collected to help dogs?”
When complaints need to be made, in writing, animals can’t make them. Nor can
animals give their own testimony in court. Hedge if you must, if you have reasonable
doubt: “I could be wrong, but it appears to me as if….”
But whatever you do, don’t be silent. Ask questions. Share what you know––and
what you reasonably suspect. Once an issue is on record, it must be addressed somehow.
Once you are on record, any retaliation can be on record, as well. If you testify in good
faith to what you believe to be true, and find out later that it isn’t true, you can always correct
yourself––we publish corrections of our own errors as a regular feature, and also make
a point of publishing letters which assert we’ve made errors even when the facts as we know
them are exactly as reported. You may be embarrassed in such a situation, as we are, and
it certainly isn’t fun to apologize, but when in doubt, better to initiate investigation than to
kick yourself afterward, looking at whatever happened because you didn’t dare try.
“Money don’t talk; it swears.”
This brings us to a few more words about money. As frustrating to us as sources
and witnesses who have plenty to say until they realize they might be quoted are people who
continue to route donations to organizations which they know have accountability problems,
in the naive belief that even if X-amount of dollars are being siphoned off or wasted,
“They’re still doing something to help animals.” Well, what if they are? Will your $10 do
more good going to a big national organization that spends half on fundraising and infrastructure,
or to a small local organization, staffed mostly by volunteers, that can barely
keep bills paid?
Somehow donor generosity seems to be greatest toward those who can afford to
send the most appeals, making the most exaggerated claims, even if they lso have the most
resources already, accomplishing the least for animals per dollar spent. Over time, the
effect of millions of people richly rewarding organizations for grandstanding, credit-stealing,
overcompensating executives, and doing little of verifiable utility to actually help animals
has severely eroded the financial base of the humane movement. Only six years ago,
when at another publication we produced the first of our annual “Who Gets The Money?”
tables, detailing the budgets, assets, and salaries paid by leading humane groups, the economic
structure of the cause was markedly broader, with a much narrower gap between the
earnings of the biggest and smallest national organizations, more local advocacy organizations
with working budgets, and many fewer six-figure salaries.
By coincidence, we began tracking the financial activity of humane groups just as
a handful of them discovered they could write off direct mail campaigns as “public education,”
and thereby spend ever escalating amounts on fundraising guised as program
expense. The first handful were closely associated with one another, but the tactic spread.
Last year, about a third of all humane groups doing national direct mail solicitation called
some of it “public education,” and the program expense figures they provided to donors
were correspondingly bogus. As more groups get away with such tactics, the pressure on
others to do likewise––to stay competitive––becomes more intense. The volume of funding
going to humane causes increases, in small increments, year after year, but the share going
to the direct mail mills grows faster, leaving less to the groups which instead of focusing on
fundraising get on about their work.
That’s not all. Several years ago we discovered that some “letter shops,” as direct
mail production firms are called, pay kickbacks to the decision-makers in nonprofit organizations
to secure their business. Typically, the decision-makers are paid as part-time “consultants.”
The more direct mail their charities do, the more money they personally
make––off the books of the charities, beyond reach of disclosure requirements. Some nonprofit
executives who ostensibly pay themselves nothing are in fact pulling down six-figure
consulting incomes. Of course the fees charged by letter shops that pay kickbacks are a bit
higher than those of the shops that don’t. Whether or not the money shows up on a charity’s
IRS Form 990 as executive compensation, it is coming out of the donations intended to
accomplish charitable work.
Lately we’ve discovered yet another modus operandi for self-aggrandizement
unrecorded on a Form 990: secret banking. We can’t prove anyone is doing it because private
banks are not accountable in any way to the general public, but a well-placed investment
advisor did explain how it’s done. The officers of a major charity and perhaps a few
of their friends incorporate their own financial institution, through which flow the revenues
of the charity, which in turn become the capital for making loans and collecting
interest––sometimes to and from the charity itself. The officers-turned-bankers gain a considerable
incentive for maintaining huge reserves while spending relatively little on programs,
especially programs that don’t bring a prompt cash return.
There are undoubtedly a thousand-and-one other off-the-books tactics for getting
rich quick in the name of charity––and there’s nothing going on in animal-related charities,
which raise just .09% of all the funds donated to charity each year in the U.S., that isn’t
going on elsewhere throughout the nonprofit sector.
It’s easy enough to blame executives and board members who allow greed to interfere
with their sense of charitable mission, but there’s someone else to blame, too. That’s
the person who writes checks based on name recognition, or a tear-jerking but fraudulent
appeal letter, or an unverified claim of urgency or accomplishment.
By all means, support legitimate animal charities. Support them generously. But
use your head to insure your hard-earned funds accomplish what your heart intends.