Mullen: Animals' rescue raises questions

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You can't beat the feel-good factor of an army of volunteers fanning out across bomb-scarred Beirut, rounding up 300 homeless dogs and cats and airlifting them to a no-kill animal shelter in Kanab, Utah.

Best of all, the story has gut-wrenching video, which virtually assured its placement last Friday on the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric" in a feature called "Assignment America." Best Friends Animal Society, sponsor of the $450,000 rescue of the stranded pets, could scarcely contain its excitement.

"Our expenditure may even go higher," says Best Friends president Michael Mountain of the early-September airlift. "Our aim is not simply to rescue 300 dogs and cats, but to help reconstitute the only humane society in the entire country of Lebanon."

Meanwhile in Utah, Salt Lake County Animal Services was investigating a rash of kitten abuse cases. The probe centers on a man who has adopted several kittens through newspaper ads, then allegedly tortured them and presented them to an ex-girlfriend for help. Authorities suspect it's the man's way of winning the woman's sympathy.

That's just the latest animal cruelty case making headlines. As for the pet overpopulation crisis, Utah's animal shelters never slack off. Last year the state euthanized 30,000 homeless pets.

All of it has Josh Blumental a little crazy, trying to figure out priorities in the animal welfare business.

"Every media organization in town, including your own, jumped all over the Best Friends rescue story," Blumental told me on Monday. "It makes me furious. Somebody had to bring this up."

He did the math, too. The price tag for each pet saved in Lebanon comes to $1,500.

Blumental, a self-employed photographer who has made a reputation fighting the building of monster homes in his Holladay neighborhood, is now elbow-deep in an e-mail debate with Best Friends over the issue.

He signed a Sept. 28 missive "Josh 'I love animals but this is just asinine' Blumental."

It isn't that Blumental opposes animal advocacy. Quite the opposite. He pays a $25 premium each year on his auto registration for a "No More Homeless Pets" plate (Best Friends collects a portion of the funds for its operations). He has donated his services making pet portraits at pet boutiques in the area as fundraisers for animal welfare.

But as he wrote to Best Friends: "You are wasting our money flying a few dogs and cats halfway around the world on some silly peace crusade when we have plenty of animals needing care here."

It is hardly a new argument to supporters of Best Friends. In its 20 years in Kanab, the nonprofit shelter has built a worldwide persona, with movie stars, politicians and other VIPs on its board. Volunteers rescued animals after the south Asian tsunami of 2004 and again in New Orleans last year after Hurricane Katrina. Both efforts tugged at animal lovers' hearts. According to Best Friends tax records, annual contributions jumped from $19.2 million in 2003 to $31.9 million by the end of 2005.

"Josh makes a perfectly valid point," says Best Friends' Mountain. "If you look at any of these operations in the cold light of day you can legitimately ask 'why are we going there when we have animals in our back yard in need of homes every day?'"

He notes that members were asked to earmark their donations for the Beirut project.

What it apparently comes down to is Best Friends is so awash in cash that its work in Utah won't suffer a whit.

Which doesn't necessarily assuage others in the business. Temma Martin, spokeswoman for Salt Lake County Animal Services, says bottom line, "these efforts hurt existing shelters."

"Instead of getting people interested in a shelter animal, it suddenly becomes a novelty to get an animal from Beirut," Martin says. "They've attacked a sliver of the problem, but we could have easily given them 300 animals from our shelter."

Blumental frames Best Friends' position a bit more sharply. "It's like buying a Mercedes when your kids have no shoes."