HSUS Investigated by Louisiana AG's Office

The NonProfit Times - Weekly

Monday, April 17, 2006

News Updates

Louisiana Opens More Katrina Investigations

By Mark Hrywna

The American Red Cross isn’t the only charity being scrutinized about its efforts after last summer’s Gulf Coast hurricanes. The Louisiana Attorney General’s Office is looking to The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) after complaints about pet/owner reunions.

The office asked HSUS for an accounting of all money raised for pet rescue and reunion with pet owners in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last summer. The office received complaints from pet owners about problems finding their pets following the hurricanes. In some cases, pet owners claim that those currently caring for the displaced pets are refusing to reunite the pets with proper owners.

Kris Wartelle, a spokeswoman for Louisiana Attorney General Charles C. Foti Jr., said an official Civil Investigative Demand letter was sent to the Humane Society, which is issued on information and the belief that some act of consumer law has been violated.

Asked how many complaints the attorney general’s office received, Wartelle replied, “Dozens, not hundreds,” including a couple from other agencies.
Wayne Pacelle, president of The Humane Society of the United States, said a response to the inquiry was sent within days of the letter.

“The reality was, we were working under the incident command structure of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry,” he said, which had originally set an Oct. 15 date to begin allowing adoptions of rescued pets. “As things were unfolding, we realized there would be many successful reunions post-October 15,” he said. The HSUS then lobbied the state to extend that date another month before getting local shelters to voluntarily agree to not adopt out animals until December.

“We were really boxed in in a lot of ways,” Pacelle said. A temporary shelter in Gonzalez, La., about an hour from New Orleans, served as a staging area and emergency shelter for 1,300 animals. But those had to be moved to make room for the 300 animals rescued per day, he said, adding that the property owner was “quite hostile” and charged the HSUS $6,000 a day. On top of that, animals had to be evacuated again once Hurricane Rita was found to be heading for the area.

“Frankly, I think this is the attorney general not understanding the degree of difficulty facilitating reunions,” he said. “It involves a lot of logistics.”
The bulk of animals rescued were not spayed or neutered, and lacked proper identification, he said, and in some cases, animals were left to fend for themselves. “There were a lot of problems.”

About $5 million in contributions were specifically earmarked for Gulf Coast disasters, according to Pacelle, with about a half-million coming from Louisiana specifically. The society has spent nearly all of the money it raised during the last six months on the Gulf Coast, he said, but also about $500,000 on other disasters, including Hurricane Wilma in Florida, the Pakistan earthquake and a cyclone in India.

Pacelle said the reunion rate during disasters is usually 10 to 15 percent, but in the Gulf Coast hurricanes it was 23 percent. More than 10,000 animals were rescued and about 2,300 pets were reunited, with the humane society picking up the tab for transportation in most cases.

Pacelle said it comes down to how one measures success.
“For us, it was a very clear issue,” he said. “Local shelters played indispensable roles in taking in animals that were rescued…and they could not indefinitely hold these animals.”

If a large facility has a capacity for 300 or 400 animals, it cannot hold 75 Katrina animals for six or seven months, he said. “That would be inhumane to be in a kennel that long. Fortunately, there were thousands of people across the country willing to adopt these animals.”

“It’s a little bit galling” that the attorney general’s office is examining the Humane Society, Pacelle said. There were dozens of animal groups aiding in the Gulf Coast disaster and participating in getting animals’ photos onto www.petfinder.com. “We just happened to the most effective.

“We have not misused any funds. We are beyond scrupulous in allocating these resources,” he said. The HSUS has spent or pledged more than $25 million to the Gulf Coast region. “We’re going to spend all of it on all these programs and activities. We’re very confident once (the attorney general’s) office looks at this, they’ll understand we’re doing precisely what donors asked.
“We’ve been transparent throughout the process. Our response to the crisis has been very focused and thorough. It’s not just doing pet reunions; that wasn’t the entire purpose of the exercise,” Pacelle said.
In addition to pet reunions, the agency has made commitments to reconstructing shelters, conducting spay and neuter programs, ongoing field projects and aiding other agencies.

Copyright © 2005 The NonProfit Times.

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