"Help me, please!"
"Don't let me die!"
"Isn't there something you can do?"
The letters, with their heart-breaking pictures, arrive almost daily at the homes of animal lovers across the country. They're hard to ignore.
In one, a kitten stares sadly at the reader, a pile of euthanized kittens and cats in the background. In another, a healthy young dog pushes a paw through the bars at a shelter. Some mailers contain envelopes warning readers not to open them unless they are prepared to view photographs of cruelty. Inside may be a picture of the skinned carcass of a baby seal, the end result of a laboratory test on a rabbit, or a dog trussed up and waiting to be turned into dinner in a foreign marketplace.
"Just a few dollars can make a difference," the letters beg. "Won't you please help?"
But money sent to a few of these charitable groups is helping to fund high salaries and executive perks. The fact is that a certain amount of the estimated $1.16 billion raised annually by animal-related charities doesn't always go where contributors think it does. And until Animals' Agenda magazine decided to look at the issue, there wasn't really any way to tell one group from another.
The magazine's April issue offers its second annual survey of national nonprofit animal charities, relying on IRS filings to find overall budgets and overhead costs that include salaries and fund raising. The magazine also offers a rundown of top management salaries and perks, all in a way that doesn't pass judgment.
"We felt it was important to do this because when people are sending in their $10, a lot of them are making a considerable sacrifice," said Merritt Clifton, the magazine's news editor. "They don't know they can be paying for considerable salaries, luxury vehicles, cellular telephones and vacations to Florida."
The groups on the lists are familiar, including some of the largest and most influential organizations, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the National Audubon Society, Friends of Animals, American Humane Association and the Humane Society of the United States. Many do exactly what they claim to, without a lot of overhead.
In some cases, however, the salaries paid by national animal charities could be considered quite high. Within the 53 groups surveyed, 27 top management positions had salaries of more than $100,000; close to 150 salaries of more than $50,000 were also noted. The magazine points out those are all above the average salary for a CEO of a non-profit group ($45,200), above the median salary of a veterinarian ($39,212) and above the median household income in the United States ($35,752).
The Animals' Agenda is published by a non-profit group; the magazine staff put their own salaries on display as well (all were near the bottom of the list).
"We don't begrudge anyone a median salary," said Mr. Clifton. "But if somebody's significantly above the line for what they're doing, [contributors] probably have cause to support another group."
The same issue of the magazine has a noteworthy piece on pet thefts. Of the more than 2 million pets reported missing annually, Animals' Agenda surveys indicate approximately 800,000 are stolen.
The reasons for the thefts vary, according to the magazine. Some animals end up as classroom dissection projects or as laboratory subjects; a few are stolen to be bred. And a significant number are taken to be tortured. (Law enforcement has long recognized a link between cruelty toward animals and humans. Serial killers often "practice" on animals first.)
Animals' Agenda isn't always easy reading, and I don't always agree with its targets or stories. But there's no animal-related subject the magazine's staff won't report on -- and that includes stories on some of the biggest animal groups in the nation. That attitude has drawn heavy criticism from some quarters, but it makes Animals' Agenda a must-read for anyone who cares about animals and who appreciates solid reporting.
Subscriptions are $22 a year from P.O. Box 6809, Syracuse, N.Y. 13217-9953. A single copy of the April issue is available for $2.75 from 456 Monroe Turnpike, Monroe, Conn. 06468.
Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.