The New York Times‘ Stephanie Strom today reported that Leona Helmsley has directed that her entire estate—valued at between between $5-$8 billion—be devoted to promoting the welfare and care of dogs. If her wishes are fulfilled, as they should be, it would represent the largest investment in animal protection in U.S. history. Currently, the largest foundation for animals, Maddie’s Fund, has assets of $300 million. There are many smaller foundations, but in the aggregate, their holdings do not approach the size of the Helmsley fortune.
If her estate is put to use in a way that is consistent with her instructions, a total of $8 billion would result in $400 million flowing to the cause of dog protection per year (if the standard five percent of the corpus is allocated each year).
Such an expenditure, if made wisely, has the potential to solve some of the major dog welfare problems in society, such as ending the needless euthanasia of millions of healthy and treatable animals in the United States, halting the scourge of puppy mills, the barbarism of organized dogfighting, and ending the mistreatment of dogs in the greyhound racing industry. It could also be used to find cures for medical problems for dogs or provide urgent care for suffering animals, or even disaster planning for people and their pets. If also put to use internationally, it can address these problems on a global scale, including the public health problems associated with free-roaming and unsocialized dog populations.
But we must be vigilant about efforts to redirect this funding. And we have reason to be worried, as the Times story indicated. In a number of cases over the years, including several multimillion and billion dollar estates, trustees appointed to oversee distribution have arbitrarily diverted the funds from the testators’ animal protection wishes to other philanthropic concerns. This is an affront to the memory and wishes of the people whose money it was. And it diminishes the caring impulses of those who wish to help the animals who share our world and our suffering. We should support and encourage such impulses, whether on behalf of animals or on behalf of people because, as research has demonstrated, we all benefit in the end.
The Helmsley billions have the potential to transform the cause of animal protection, and it’s been a day I’ve been waiting for. Many people in America have accumulated great fortunes, and I’ve been fervidly hoping that at least a few of them would devote their riches to the cause of alleviating the suffering of animals. There are many great causes in the world, and protecting animals from cruelty and alleviating their suffering is surely one of them.