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Charity investigated over misuse of Katrina funds

LOUISIANA ATTORNEY General Charles C. Foti, Jr., announced that his office has opened an inquiry into allegations involving funds raised for pets in need and irregularities with pet/owner reunions by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The Attorney General's Office is asking the HSUS for an accounting of all funds HSUS raised for the purpose of pet rescue and reunion with pet owners in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The Attorney General's office has received numerous complaints from pet owners about problems many are having finding their pets following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Through its association with other animal welfare organisations throughout the United States, HSUS has documented and placed animals in shelters around the country, often resulting in the displaced pets' adoption. In some cases, pet owners claim that those who are currently caring for the displaced pets are refusing to reunite the pet with the proper owners.

‘Once again we will be on the lookout to make sure that those who seek to raise money for Hurricane victims in our state, do exactly what they claim to do when soliciting funds,’ stated General Foti, ‘While I commend the work of the many wonderful charitable organisations that have come forward to help us in our time of need, I also want people to know that they cannot take advantage of our situation in any way.’

‘If HSUS, as alleged, did misuse funds received from contributions made by individuals or businesses that thought they were directly helping animal victims of the hurricanes, then the organisation should be held accountable,’' says Kay Johnson, executive vice president for Animal Agriculture Alliance.

Johnson added, ‘This would not be the first time a national animal rights non-profit organisation has misused funds from donations. In 2002, Farm Sanctuary, an animal rights non-profit that often works closely with HSUS on farm animal issues, was charged with misuse of donations raised for a campaign to amend Florida's state constitution. In that case, Farm Sanctuary was fined $50,000 by the Florida Elections Commission.'’

The allegations have also been posted across the Internet by various individuals, many of whom claim to be New Orleans pet owners who have lost pets after the HSUS rehomed them, whilst some others claim to have been involved in the voluntary rescue work and saw at first hand how supplies and animals ‘disappeared’.

One posting which has been sent by e-mail around the world said: ‘For quite some time, there have been rumours that the Louisiana Attorney General had plans to investigate complaints filed against the HSUS for misuse of donated funds in connection with rescue of pets from the Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita ravaged areas of the southern states.

‘It's now official. Complaints and reports have indicated that supplies (beds, blankets, toys, crates, x-pens, etc.) and food were never allowed to be used to help the animals housed in the rescue centres. Although thousands of pounds of top-quality food were donated, many volunteers have complained that they were only allowed to feed the rescued animals the cheapest, poorest quality foods they received.

‘Allegations have been made that purebred rescue groups were turned away by the HSUS and not allowed to pull their own breeds from the rescue centres,

unless they were willing to take ‘X’ number of ‘others’ as well. Additional reports indicate that at least 700 ‘bully’ breed dogs mysteriously disappeared from the HSUS rescue centres, never to be seen again. It has also been widely reported that some pets were sent to far-away locations, quickly adopted out, and that no real efforts were made to reunite these lost pets with their original owners.’

The Humane Society of the United States responded to General Charles Foti's announcement that he has opened an inquiry into the group's efforts to reunite people with their lost pets during Hurricane Katrina.

‘Our first priority was saving animals from certain death. The HSUS and other animal welfare groups worked under the authority of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture to rescue and shelter thousands of animals in need. We made every effort to assist people looking for animals,’ said Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president & CEO.

Pacelle noted that the state of Louisiana originally set October 15 2005 as the deadline for all reunions to occur. The HSUS pushed the state to extend the deadline by 30 days, and then asked shelters across the country that had opened their doors to the animal victims of Katrina to voluntarily agree not to adopt out animals until December 15.

Most local animal shelters, which take in homeless animals from their own communities every day, could not hold Katrina pets indefinitely. Animal sheltering experts recommend against holding animals for months at a time in kennels; their physical and mental conditions can quickly deteriorate in such confined conditions. Many shelters extended their normal holding periods for Katrina animals, but animals whose owners could not be found were adopted into new homes.

Pacelle underscored the strenuous efforts of The HSUS and other groups to continue their rescue, relief and reunion work even after state officials forced the closure of the temporary animal sheltering facility at Lamar Dixon Centre in Gonzales on October 10. A September 19 press release from the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, home to the State Veterinarian's Office, set the terms for closure of the animal shelter and for reunion work.

According to that statement, ‘after October 15, 2005, unclaimed animals will be eligible for adoption.’ Animal organisations were not expected to house unclaimed animals after that date.

‘Government officials set a strict limit on the number of animals that could be housed, and brought the central sheltering operation in Louisiana to an end in October over our objections, since we wanted to continue to operate,’ said Pacelle. ‘Moving animals to shelters across the country made it possible to rescue more animals whose lives were in immediate danger. Working with local animal shelters and humane societies across the country, HSUS and the other groups arranged airlifts for the animals, documented and catalogued those animals as best we could, and worked to secure as many reunions as possible under difficult circumstances.’

According to Pacelle, The HSUS spent or pledged approximately $25 million in the Gulf Coast states. ‘We made a long-term commitment to the protection of animals in the Gulf Coast, and we will see that commitment through,’ said Pacelle.