This week, Nashville is host to a large animal-care expo for shelter professionals. It seems like a noble cause. But who's behind it — and what their goals are — might surprise you.

You're probably familiar with the slick infomercials from the Humane Society of the United States. The TV ads are everywhere, asking for monthly pledges while taking you on a tour through tear-jerking pictures of homeless cats and dogs. Just give $19 a month, the ads suggest, and your money will be used to help these poor puppies and kittens.

But what if it's all smoke and mirrors? Most Americans — 71 percent, according to a recent Opinion Research Corp. poll — think the Humane Society of the United States is an umbrella group for pet shelters.

It isn't. It is not affiliated with any local humane societies.

That poll also shows that 59 percent believe the group gives "most of its money" to local pet shelters. That's false, too. In fact, hands-on dog and cat shelters at the local level received less than 1 percent of the $86 million HSUS raised in 2008.

So, if you pledge $19 a month to Humane Society of the United States, $228 a year, barely $1 will trickle down to pet shelters. What's going on? What else would an "animal welfare" group do with $86 million in donations and $150 million-plus in the bank?

The answer isn't very cuddly.

You can see the group's money — your money, really — at work in statehouses, courtrooms and ballot boxes. That's where the organization pushes for animal rights, not to be confused with animal welfare. HSUS is driven by the belief that animals deserve legal rights, including the right to not be eaten as food and the right to sue people in court.

So while HSUS does precious little for the dogs and cats in its TV ads, it does work overtime to drive a wedge between animals and people. The group works to reduce everyone's consumption of meat, eggs and dairy, for instance. It does this by filing lawsuits, lobbying for new laws and pushing for ever-tighter regulations — driving up the cost of being an egg producer or a cattle rancher.

If these farmers won't give cows, pigs, and chickens their "rights," the group will just drive them out of business.

The Humane Society of the United States plasters its ads with images of pets. The warm-and-fuzzy approach is clearly fundraising gold. But is the animal-rights industry's agenda really what well-meaning Americans want to support with their $19 monthly donations? I doubt it.

It's getting so that there's only one way animal lovers can be sure their donations actually go to help pet shelters and animal welfare programs: Give locally. Help the shelters in your community, not the big-bucks animal-rights lobby in Washington.