GUEST COLUMNIST

Pundits in India have a saying: “Those who do good in this life will come back in the next one as a dog in America.” They might be on to something. As The New York Times reported this month, the $8 billion estate of the late hotel magnate Leona Helmsley is literally going “to the dogs.”

This ostentatious act of pet philanthropy may seem bizarre. But the prospect of honoring Helmsley’s dying wish shines a bright light on a national animal-welfare problem, and an even brighter one on the roadblocks impeding serious progress.

The “Queen of Mean” has managed to keep us all talking, even from beyond the grave. A judge shrank her dog’s trust fund amid claims that the 85-year old woman must have been crazy, or at least mentally unstable, when she opted to leave the pooch $12 million–and her human relatives practically nothing.

And now we have $8 billion more to bark about.

One Financial Times columnist wrote recently that Helmsley’s massive act of puppy love is the legal manifestation of “the decadence that has lately characterised Americans’ treatment of their pets — dog bakeries, dog restaurants, [and] doggy day-care outlets where dogs can watch dog-themed movies.”

Maybe. But the important question is not whether the “queen” was crazy. It’s how to ensure that a historic opportunity isn’t squandered.
A Donald Trump-sized payday for pups may conjure images of luxury pet beds and doggy couture, but the fact remains that the situation for needy pets in this country is horrendous. Especially for a nation so fascinated with our four-legged best friends.

There is some truth to the Indian snark about American dogs. The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that more than 43 million U.S. households, well over a third, own at least one dog. More than 3 million of us tuned in to the Westminster Kennel Club dog show this year. And Americans spent more than $40 billion on their pets in 2007 alone.

But many mutts are not so lucky. Pet shelters are understaffed and overcrowded. Our few thousand operating shelters simply can’t handle the millions of cats and dogs they see each year. It would certainly help if more of us adopted them. But, to put it in automotive terms, few people want a 10-year old Ford Escort. Most Americans would rather have a shiny new Mustang, BMW, or other “designer dog.”

Shame on us. But the Helmsley billions have the potential to help countless dogs and cats in ways that have always seemed out of reach. More no-kill shelters. More shelter staff. Better spay and neuter programs. Financial aid for low-income Americans who want to foster an animal. And more effective ways to promote the moral imperative of rescuing unwanted dogs from a lonesome existence that is often far too short.

Sadly, the infrastructure needed to make these improvements on a national scale simply isn’t there. America lacks a national umbrella group for humane societies and other pet shelters, a group that could put Leona Helmsley’s money to work.

So far, two familiar national animal rights groups, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States have announced their intentions to claim big slices of the $8 billion bounty. But neither one has the track record to handle such a responsibility.

Look at how PETA has spent the money it already has: The group raised more than $30 million last year, and found adoptive homes for 17 animals. Just 17. Meanwhile, it killed 1,815 dogs and cats — slightly more than the number of naked interns it sent out to “save” cows, chickens, and minks.

And although much of the public (and press) consider HSUS to be an actual “humane society,” its record isn’t any better. The group’s name hides its lack of affiliation with any hands-on pet shelter anywhere in America. Of the $85-plus million HSUS spent in 2006, it gave only 4.2 percent to pet shelters.

Neither of these groups deserves additional millions. We just might need a new national organization to do the heavy lifting.

It’s easy to joke about the extravagant lives some American dogs lead. But Helmsley’s executors shouldn’t let that distract them from this chance to make life better for millions of dogs — dogs who have never had a spa treatment or seen a diamond-studded collar. If they keep their eye on the ball and earmark every last dollar exclusively for the welfare of America’s neglected pets, maybe they’ll spend their next lives as cows in India.

David Martosko is a national expert on the politics of the animal protection movement and serves as research director at the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit activist watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.