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April 22, 2009

Dogs Get Only a Bone from Helmsley Trustees

We’ve said from the beginning that the grants from the trust established by Leona Helmsley should honor her expressed desire that "special emphasis" be given to the care of dogs in the distribution of its proceeds.

Naturally, then, we at The HSUS were upset when the news came yesterday that the trustees of the Harry and Leona Helmsley Charitable Foundation had allocated $136 million of grants, with just $1 million (or less than 1 percent) going to dog-related organizations.

Thwarting the intentions of those who leave their estates to benefit animal protection has a sad and deplorable history, including in the cases of Helen V. Brach, Geraldine R. Dodge, and Doris Duke, who like Mrs. Helmsley bequeathed their great wealth for the benefit of animals. The foundations these women left behind may be operating in their names, but their wishes are not being honored.

There is a larger principle at stake in this situation, one of protecting the decisions of people who leave their money for the care of animals, a wholly legitimate philanthropic purpose. We have been in touch with interested parties and hope for a constructive resolution.

Brown dog
© iStockphoto

The Helmsley funds could support a myriad of tremendous valuable and life-saving programs for dogs. The needs are so urgent, and humane societies so worthy of support. Think about it. Canine shelter medicine programs staffed by well-trained veterinarians and technicians. Dog behaviorists to maximize animals’ chances at adoption. Improved housing for dogs waiting for forever homes. Public education programs to boost spaying and neutering, and to improve canine veterinary health. Enhanced data collection systems to track and advance the goals of reducing euthanasia of unhomed healthy animals. Humane instruction for children so that they will know how to relate to and care for dogs. Then of course, there are the problems of puppy mills and dogfighting.

And that’s just on the domestic front. Once we look abroad, there’s even more work to do. There are hundreds of millions of street dogs worldwide. In most nations, these and other dogs don’t die a humane death, but are killed by the worst of means. Moreover, SPCAs operating in nations outside of the developed world are poor and without infrastructure, training, and management. A little funding would go a long way in these places. There’s even a major intersection of dog welfare and public health, given that thousands of people die every year from rabies caused by dog bites.

A few thousand years ago, dogs came into our lives and into our hearts—and they’ve been there ever since. They give us so very much in the way of companionship and love. In turn, they depend on us for food, for shelter, for veterinary care, and we as a species too often fail them. That’s why dog protection charities exist. It is therefore a needed and noble idea for a person to consider the welfare of dogs both during her life and after she has gone. More importantly in this case, that’s what Leona Helmsley wanted with her estate.

It is wrong to disregard the wishes of anyone who leaves money for a legitimate cause. Every charity in America, regardless of mission, should be frightened by the prospect of a wholesale diversion of resources. You can read more about yesterday’s news from The New York Times. The stakes just happen to be higher in this case because of the vast sums left for dog welfare by Mrs. Helmsley.


Today is Earth Day, which, nearly 40 years after it was first celebrated, continues to inspire Americans. At The HSUS, every day is Earth Day, because without a healthy planet, animals would have no place to live. We have a great stake in protecting this fragile, thin zone of life on our green-and-blue planet. Please see our special Earth Day content, including a review of the feature length film "Earth," which I had the pleasure of screening last week. It’s a remarkable and jaw-dropping film, and one I wish every American would see, in order to remind them about our awesome responsibilities to protect other creatures and our one, unique Earth.

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