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Animal rights group fights with its peers

November 5th, 2003, 01:37 PM
Charity's leader is 'simply not going to stand for' attacks

Tom Blackwell National Post

They landed dramatically in the limelight recently after winning -- then losing -- a surprising contract in Washington, D.C., but the Humane Society of Canada and its CEO have for years found themselves the focus of controversy, criticism and legal conflict.

The society's deal to run Washington's animal shelter was cancelled last month after a local outcry against the agreement.

Such tension, though it has rarely surfaced publicly, has marked the organization's history almost since its birth a decade ago. Founded by the Humane Society of the United States in 1993, the Canadian society broke free three years later in what one judge referred to as a "purported coup d'état" by Michael O'Sullivan, the chief executive. The Americans responded with "egregious" behaviour themselves, the judge noted.

More recently, some Canadian animal-welfare organizations have said the Humane Society of Canada's fundraising efforts -- aided by its highly recognizable name -- have diverted funds away from practical projects elsewhere, while the Society refuses to lay out exactly where its donations are spent. These critics say that the Society has no formal connections with most other humane societies in the country and that, while its Revenue Canada filings indicate it works solely in Canada, it seems to do much of its work overseas.

"The name [Humane Society of Canada] would lead the public to believe that he represents humane societies and that he is the national body, speaking on behalf of animal welfare, and yet he's not," complained Bob Van Tongerloo of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, an umbrella group.

"It's our organization that works with science, with research, with the livestock industry, with the federal government, and he's taking in funds that we cannot tell are being spent appropriately."

Mr. O'Sullivan protests that criticism of his group is unfounded and often libelous. The Humane Society of Canada has always been clear about its mandate and never suggested people should not donate to local societies as well, he said.

Over the last 10 years, the group has spent $900,000 more on charitable works than the 80% of income that is required by Revenue Canada, said Mr. O'Sullivan.

It has helped causes ranging from dog-bite prevention to abuse of captive dolphins and most of it is detailed openly on the group's Web site, he said. Legal counsel and auditors have approved the government returns listing the group's work as being solely in Canada, the CEO added.

"We spend everybody's dollar carefully and wisely as if it was my own. And it's not mine. It belongs to the donors who give it to us and the charity itself," he said.

"At the end of the day, we're not going to permit you, the federation of humane societies or anybody else to harm our reputation, because that harms our ability to help animals. We're simply not going to stand for it."

Some others in the field say they have no problem with the group, noting that its emphasis on public advocacy is just one of many ways to fight for animals.

"He did a very credible job for us," said Doug Jeffrey, president of the Windsor-Essex Humane Society, where Mr. O'Sullivan was a general manager in the 1980s, adding that he has "nothing derogatory" to say about the Humane Society of Canada.

A spokeswoman for the Toronto society, one of the country's largest, said it was comfortable with the role played by the group, noting that "everybody has a cause that is dear to them."

Mr. O'Sullivan certainly has the credentials to run a national humane organization. Armed with an agriculture degree from the University of Guelph, he has managed the Canadian branch of the World Society for the Protection of Animals and the Windsor-Essex and Toronto humane societies.

But along the way, Mr. O'Sullivan has clashed bitterly with some of his colleagues in the animal-welfare movement, including organizers of Hay West, the much-lauded effort to send feed to drought-stricken Prairie livestock, and an animal-rights group whose board member offered mild criticism on a Web site.

His departure from the Toronto Humane Society 20 years ago was part of a headline-grabbing internal dispute and spawned at least two court cases.

Although its profile at home is relatively low, the Humane Society of Canada found itself immersed in controversy in the U.S. capital when it bid for, and last month won, the $2-million-a-year contract to operate Washington's animal shelter. A month later the deal was cancelled after complaints about the U.S. capital hiring a foreign operator and questions about the society's ability to do the job.

By coincidence, one of the other bidders earlier in the process was the Humane Society of the United States.

It was that group that launched the Humane Society of Canada, part of the American organization's attempt to set up an international network of such agencies. It hired Mr. O'Sullivan as the chief executive and invested money in an all-important direct-mail fund-raising system, according to a court ruling.

But three years later, Mr. O'Sullivan decided to break away. In his January, 1997, decision, Justice Bruce Hawkins refers to the "purported coup d'état" in which Mr. O'Sullivan removed the two American directors, both executives with the American society, and replaced them with a board of Canadians. In response, the Humane Society of the United States seized more than $1-million from the Canadian group, claiming the money was owed for fundraising-related expenses.

In an interim judgment, Justice Hawkins ruled that Mr. O'Sullivan had not legally changed the board and that it was still dominated by the two Americans. But he blasted the U.S. directors for seizing the money, saying he could not imagine "a more glaring conflict of interest or a more egregious breach of fiduciary duty. It demonstrated an overweening arrogance of a type seldom seen."

An out-of-court settlement was reached in the spring of 1998, but the details of it were sealed. Nick Braden, a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States, said the organization has had no connection with Mr. O'Sullivan's group since that time.

Mr. O'Sullivan refused to reveal why he decided to break ties with the American organization, saying that to do so would breach the confidentiality agreement around the court settlement. But he insisted that his group was never "part of" the Humane Society of the United States.

There were difficult circumstances, too, around his departure a decade earlier from the Toronto Humane Society.

After he served as acting general manager of the Toronto society for less than a year in 1983, the board decided to split the top job into two positions and offered one to him. Mr. O'Sullivan refused to accept what he termed as a demotion, and was backed by five members of the board who felt the society was being mismanaged. The organization eventually had to go to court to obtain an injunction to physically force him out of his office.

He later filed a wrongful dismissal suit against the Toronto organization, according to press reports at the time.

Within a few years, after his stint with the world society, he was heading the Humane Society of Canada.

The group, a registered charity, now raises about $800,000 in donations a year, according to publicly available returns filed with Revenue Canada.

In 2001, the most recent year for which a return is available, the society reported that it spent $210,000 on administration and $161,000 on fundraising. It devoted $550,000 to charitable work and gave $129,000 to the Ark Angel Foundation, another animal-welfare charity operated by Mr. O'Sullivan. Mr. Van Tongerloo notes that the society's director seems to travel extensively in other countries, although the return indicates that the organization did no charitable activities outside Canada.

The society's Web site mentions a visit the executive director made to the Jerusalem SPCA and includes an appeal for funds, to be channelled through the Humane Society of Canada, to aid the Israeli agency. Mr. O'Sullivan boasts that he has travelled to 80 nations on animal-welfare business, both before and during his time with the national society. A biography on the Web site for the Ark Angel Foundation comments that "his frequent trips are often the subject of domestic debate and his children carry his picture with them, so they can remember what their father looks like." He received media attention in 2001 when he returned from a conference in Vietnam with five dogs he had "rescued" from a live-animal food market.

One letter writer to the Ottawa Citizen, which covered the story, asked "why would I want to donate to the humane society when its executive director squanders my money on a hypocritical crusade against Vietnam?"

Mr. O'Sullivan said he always tries to investigate animal welfare in countries where he attends conferences, and makes no apologies for what he calls gestures of compassion. He said the returns to Revenue Canada have been vetted and approved by legal counsel and auditors.

He also once issued a news release to warn dog owners about what he thought might be poison set out in the Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto where he lives, generating media coverage. It turned out to be chalk used to mark out a foot-race route, said Barry MacKay, a former Toronto Humane Society colleague and once a close friend.

Others complain that the Humane Society of Canada has, since its birth, attracted donations from people who wrongly thought they were supporting the kind of work done by the local organizations, such as sheltering abandoned or abused animals and investigating alleged cruelty to animals.

"They're all trying to raise money to assist animals and when somebody comes poaching, it's irritating for them," said Mr. Van Tongerloo.

"Local humane societies are forever in financial difficulties because they get their money from the same Canadian public and are providing services locally to cats and dogs and other animals ... They have even more difficulty when the money is being diverted elsewhere."

Critics would be satisfied if they knew the money was being used productively, but the society has rejected requests to provide a detailed breakdown of where its donations go, he charged.

Mr. O'Sullivan said the group's spending is no secret. The money is spread evenly for work on five basic issues: pets, wild animals, lab animals, farm animals and the environment, he said.

Projects include a dog-bite prevention campaign, which included posters (largely provided free by an ad agency) and information on the group's Web site.

The society has also encouraged Canada's further participation in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, attending its conferences around the world as an observer since 1997.

It recently wrote a letter to Gordon Campbell, the Premier of British Columbia, offering to raise money to aid rare wild horses threatened by the province's forest fires, and wrote to authorities in Nunavut offering to help reduce the number of dogs killed there. The group developed a protocol for release and rehabilitation of dolphins.

As to how much of the $500,000 a year is spent directly on abused or endangered animals, he repeatedly cited $1,000 paid to the Newfoundland SPCA to help care for abused horses it had seized but could not afford to treat, and $167 the society spent on an injured cat.

"We help animals, we do it cost effectively and we follow the law."

When Mr. O'Sullivan has tried to get actively involved in tangible causes, though, the results have not always been happy.

The Humane Society offered to accept donations and issue tax receipts for Hay West in its efforts to raise money to buy feed for Western livestock, said Bob Plamondon, a key organizer of the effort. When Hay West discovered that the group was not, in fact, the national representative of like-minded societies across Canada, they cancelled the arrangement and hooked up with the Federation of Humane Societies, Mr. Plamondon said.

Mr. O'Sullivan disputes that account, though, saying that an Ottawa city councillor involved in Hay West told him that the federation was brought in after it accused the society of being a "fraud." The society eventually "resigned" from the cause, but only after another Hay West organizer threatened to end the program entirely if the society did not withdraw, said the CEO.

But in the meantime, the Humane Society of Canada had received a $10,000 Hay West donation from McCain Foods. Despite requests from organizers, he refused to pass it along to Hay West. Mr. O'Sullivan said he instead returned it to McCain's charitable foundation.

"We do not believe that from your offices in Ottawa, you have the moral and legal authority to make a decision to turn away offers of assistance," Mr. O'Sullivan wrote in an angry letter to Hay West organizers after they terminated their relationship with him.

Weeks later, convinced the society's Web site still suggested a link with Hay West, the drought-relief organization hired a lawyer to write a "cease and desist" letter to Mr. O'Sullivan. But it is "absolutely, categorically" untrue that the society continued to advertise a Hay West link after splitting with the group, he says now.

Mr. O'Sullivan reacted angrily as well when Mr. MacKay, while praising his old friend as "extremely competent," questioned the Humane Society's work on a private chat room called Animals Canada.

"The work currently done seems to amount to little more than various forms of rant and ... revelations that official government policies and practices are sometimes harmful to animals," wrote Mr. MacKay during an e-mail exchange over whether a Humane Society of Canada employee should be allowed into the chat room.

"It looks good for a media and public who can't tell one humane society from another and assumes that anything with 'Canada' in its title must be somehow 'official.'... I'd hope that people would seek more for their donated dollar."

Mr. O'Sullivan now says he considered the statements to be libelous.

He responded at the time by sending stern letters to the several organizations Mr. MacKay works for, demanding to know whether he was speaking for them. All said no, but the Animal Alliance of Canada, fearing that it could expose Mr. MacKay to some type of legal action, refused to discuss the matter with Mr. O'Sullivan.

In response came another sharply worded letter. "It would be a serious error in judgement on your part" to not talk about the issue, said the Humane Society director. He had already shown up at the Alliance's offices in Toronto, confronting Liz White, the Alliance's head, she says.

It seemed to her that he was trying to intimidate her so "I would just do what he wanted," Ms. White recalls.

"But he picked his match."

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