MONTH: November/December 2007
SPCA International debut raises questions
MONTREAL--Complaints about SPCA International promotional tactics began to reach ANIMAL PEOPLE almost as soon as the SPCA International web site went up on January 5, 2007.
Proclaimed a media release from Bold New World, the self-described "Los Angeles-based interactive agency" that produced the web site, "The mission of SPCA International is to raise the awareness of the abuse of animals to a global level, and to mount efforts to enhance animal welfare throughout the world. SPCA International accomplishes this mission by working both independently and as an umbrella organization for local SPCA organizations in all countries."
More than 11,000 animal charities working in more than 140 nations might have thought they had already raised "awareness of the abuse of animals to a global level," but no one objected to further "efforts to enhance animal welfare throughout the world."
What raised eyebrows and questions was that SPCA International had existed even on paper for less than a year. Incorporated in Delaware in 2006 by Montreal SPCA executive director Pierre Barnoti, SPCA International had yet to accomplish much visible mission activity, had yet to complete a fiscal year or file an IRS Form 990 financial accountability statement, and was not yet an umbrella organization for any local SPCAs, as Barnoti acknowledged to ANIMAL PEOPLE more than a month later.
"Bold New World developed a site that leveraged the SPCA's rightful position as the premier authority on pet care and no-kill shelters by offering a free repository of pet care information," the media release added.
The SPCA International web site has incorporated links to various other online information providers, mostly long established. Original content, as of late November 2007, is still sparse. Rather than describing SPCA International achievements, the "success stories" section allows visitors to post stories about their own rescued pets--few if any of whom appear to have been helped by SPCA International.
ANIMAL PEOPLE received a second SPCA International mission statement on February 7, 2007. "SPCA International, Inc.," it said, "was created to prevent cruelty to and the abuse of animals, educate the public about animal welfare, encourage spaying and neutering, and promote awareness of problems of animal cruelty. SPCA Inter-national also plans to organize a volunteer program," the statement added, "composed of veterinarians and veterinary students traveling to Third World countries to help implement sterilization as a method of animal control."
Barnoti told ANIMAL PEOPLE that he had already led several expeditions to do veterinary outreach in various parts of Latin America.
Reported Rene Bruemmer of the Montreal Gazette on February 8, 2007, "Barnoti is seen by some as a savior who turned around an organization [the Montreal SPCA] once known for mismanagement and regular flirtations with bankruptcy. Since he took the helm 12 years ago, the association has paid off its debt of $1.25 million, and for the last three years has generated a modest profit. Its donor list has swelled from 700 in 1994 to more than 127,000, Barnoti says."
But as ANIMAL PEOPLE reported in December 2006, Barnoti's aggressive mailings have also drawn public warnings to donors from the Edmonton SPCA, the Moose Jaw Humane Society, and the Nova Scotia SPCA. Originally incorporated in 1869 as the Canadian SPCA, the first humane society in Canada, but operating a shelter only in Montreal, the Montreal SPCA solicits funds throughout Canada as the Canadian SPCA, using post office boxes in other provinces to receive donations.
"Type in 'SPCA' into Google," Bruemmer continued, "and the top hit is SPCA International, a new venture started by the Montreal SPCA seeking donations from abroad, with a New Hampshire address."
Barnoti said donations would "go toward international efforts, as well as the Montreal SPCA," Bruemmer wrote, noting that "The SPCA International web site mentions the Canadian SPCA in its history, but doesn't include any mention of its Montreal shelters."
After several quiet months, SPCA International generated a second flurry of inquiries to ANIMAL PEOPLE in connection with a "shelter of the month" program run by a short-term executive director named Michael Zambotti; claims about involvement in disaster relief and in helping U.S. personnel stationed in Iraq to bring pets home; and aggressive attempts to absorb other humane organizations through merger.
The disaster relief activities, the "Baghdad Buddies" program, and--since Zambotti's departure--the "shelter of the month" program are all coordinated by Terri Crisp, identified as "SPCA International's Animal Resource and Rescue Consultant."
Crisp was disaster relief coordinator for United Animal Nations from 1991 to 2001. She left to form her own organization, Noah's Wish, after controversies surfaced about her work during Hurricane Floyd and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Reportedly receiving $8.4 million in donations after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Noah's Wish came under investigation by the California Attorney General over how the funds were allocated. Crisp resigned in March 2007, but soon formed a new organization with parallel programs called Animal Resources.
"Baghdad Buddies," as described on the SPCA International web site, closely resembles the five-year-old Military Mascots project, coordinated by Bonnie Buckley of Merrimac, Massachusetts--apparently not just coincidentally.
"Terri Crisp contacted me via e-mail and by telephone about two weeks ago," Buckley told ANIMAL PEOPLE on November 13, 2007, "and I was more than shocked to see this site go up. They are basically just attempting a spin-off of my already successful program. I don't understand why the SPCA International site was put into action," Buckley continued. "My small and loyal mascot program has been active for four years, and has done very well to help those who needed the assistance."
Barnoti told ANIMAL PEOPLE that, "The program designed at saving dogs adopted by military personnel in Iraq stems from a request we received at SPCA International regarding a dog called Charlie. Charlie's case has inspired us to do more and to expand this program to save as many animals as possible who had been adopted by U.S. military personnel, who are requested to leave them behind when returning home."
Responded Buckley, "The sergeant [who is bringing Charlie home], Terri Crisp, and at least 10 other folks who have contacted me about helping Charlie have all been told that Military Mascots will cover all expenses to get Charlie to the U.S.--and yet, SPCA International is asking for donations to get him and other pets shipped."
SPCA International also posted details of the arrangements being made on behalf on Charlie, including how he is to be routed through Kuwait. Buckley, though she has readily explained her animal transport arrangements to ANIMAL PEOPLE off the record, has avoided disclosing information which might jeopardize her connections.
"I was appalled," Buckley told ANIMAL PEOPLE. Buckley said she had asked Crisp to remove the potentially compromising details from the SPCA International web site, but two weeks later the information in question appeared to still be there.
"Quite frankly," Buckley said, "there is no doubt in my mind, as well as in the minds of my contacts who assist me for shipping, that this new website will cause issues for my program."
One of the biggest issues is that both keeping pets on military posts in Iraq and bringing them back to the U.S. contradict U.S. military policy. Any U.S. military personnel found to be in violation of policy could be charged with disobedience of orders.
"I think their venture is bad news for my program and the troops," Buckley said.
Repeatedly checking the "Baghdad Buddies" web page, with a variety of common browsers, ANIMAL PEOPLE found that with most browsers, albeit not all, a disclaimer about the use of funds raised for the program flashes only briefly before receding into white text against a camouflage background that makes it virtually invisible:
"Donations received for this program will be used in three ways: 1) To cover the costs associated with bringing companion animals, befriended by United States military while serving in the Middle East, to their new homes in the United States; 2) To cover transportation costs for companion animals belonging to active military personnel who need financial assistance for this purpose when they are transferred to another military base; 3) To further the mission of SPCA International to stop euthanizing adoptable and healthy animals. The outcomes of this program will be maintaining the human/animal bond and a reduction in surrendered animals."
Said Barnoti, "The program is less than a week old, but you have to start somewhere." The nearly invisible mentions that donations might be used for purposes other than bringing animals to the U.S. from Iraq, Barnoti acknowledged, are requested by the law firm that we have retained to advise us on this specific program.
While looking into "Baghdad Buddies," ANIMAL PEOPLE became aware of SPCA International proposals of merger with small but successful existing organizations. The key correspondence was signed by Richard Gordon, of Bold New World.
"Richard Gordon is a vendor who has worked extensively with the Humane Society of the U.S. in creating and organizing their web site," Barnoti told ANIMAL PEOPLE. "I was introduced to him by Paul Irwin, ex-president of HSUS and presently president of the American Bible Society. Gordon is not representing SPCA International," Barnoti said, five days after the date of a letter in which Gordon made a merger proposal to the president of a smaller charity, "but has undertaken contractually the creation and maintenance of SPCA International's website."
Indeed, the Bold New World web site includes mentions of HSUS, the American Bible Society, and SPCA International among a long list of clients.
The Bold New World web site also included an endorsement from Paul Irwin's son, Craig W. Irwin, president of Convergence Direct Marketing.
The SPCA International modus operandi began to look familiar. As vice president of HSUS 1975-1996, and president 1996-2004, Paul Irwin became the highest-paid executive to that point in the history of animal welfare, collecting a peak of $570,325 in 1998, including deferred compensation. Irwin even cofounded a private bank. Irwin postponed his scheduled retirement for two years when the HSUS board repeatedly failed to agree on a successor, but was ushered into retirement after the election of current HSUS president Wayne Pacelle in April 2004.
During the next several months ANIMAL PEOPLE heard from a variety of sources that Irwin appeared to be working on a plan to create a rival organization to HSUS by merging smaller charities whose programs when combined could become magnets for donors who might be alienated if Pacelle took HSUS in a "radical" direction by promoting vegetarianism and pushing animal rights-- exactly as Pacelle has done, with significant fundraising success.
The rumors stopped after Irwin became president of the American Bible Society, a charity with at least five times the assets of HSUS.
Said Barnoti, "I know that Irwin was bitter about the take over of the HSUS by Pacelle, but I believe that the American Bible Society has made him an offer he couldn't refuse! The rest is history.
"Paul Irwin has no role with SPCA International," Barnoti added. "I met with him for advice two years ago. I told him what I wanted to do. He advised me to meet Richard Gordon, who had gotten him a lot of positive results from the HSUS web site. My sole interest in Paul Irwin," Barnoti insisted, "is his vast experience as president of the HSUS."
IRS Form 990 filings don't break out either the cost of web-based fundraising, or the returns from it. But according to figures that HSUS gave to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, their web-based fundraising during the last three years of Irwin's tenure brought in totals of $30,000, $45,000, and $180,000.
"I was under the impression that during Irwin's tenure the web fundraising due to Hurricane Katrina went through the roof," Barnoti responded. But Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans sixteen months after Irwin's departure. In the interim, revamping the HSUS web site and web-related fundraising approach had been among Pacelle's priorities.