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Humane Society donations plunge 50 per cent after year of bad publicity

Donors have turned their backs, the elderly have changed their wills, and despite efforts to turn the Toronto Humane Society around, the future of one of Canada's oldest and largest animal welfare charities is uncertain.

Fundraising is half of what it once was, down from $10-million last year to a projected $5.5-million this year, which amounts to barely enough to cover the operations of an underutilized shelter with just 224 animals in its care.

The financial strain has wedged the charity's new leadership between a rock and a hard place: The mark of years of overcrowding and substandard care has hurt fundraising, which forces shelter numbers to remain low and makes some donors feel the shelter is not doing enough.

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The shelter was closed last spring for more than two months as part of a court-approved agreement that saw animal-care procedures revised and a new board of directors elected in May. The old leadership had been charged with animal cruelty; the charges were thrown out in August, but the months of bad publicity still haunt the charity.

"Bequests are down and it has to be because people have lost confidence in the Toronto Humane Society," said Michael Downey, the charity's president. "…We've heard stories of estate lawyers actually saying, 'Don't leave your money to the Toronto Humane Society.' "

It's a dangerous cycle, and the missing magic ingredient is money.

This weekend, the shelter will hold an adopt-a-thon hosted by Loretta Swit, the actress who played Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan on the TV series M*A*S*H. The hope is that there's significant overlap in Toronto's animal-loving and TV-viewing community, and that the shelter will raise funds and generate positive headlines to help pull it out of its financial funk.

"What we want to prevent is a downward spiral," said Garth Jerome, the THS's executive director.

The new board of directors wants to open a spay-neuter clinic, and to grow the nascent trap-neuter-release program, which is badly needed in Toronto where the booming feral cat population was the subject of a recent documentary, Cat City. And expanding the shelter's capacity for dogs will save lives, as new partnerships are helping the shelter grant stays of execution to the most adoptable canines in overcrowded pounds in other parts of the country.

The silver lining is that there's lots of room for improvement.

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"The Toronto Humane Society was an insular organization, self-focused, highly litigious, and it severed ties with its partners in the animal welfare industry," said Mr. Jerome. "We've completely reversed that."

There will be 100 dogs and cats available for adoption this Saturday. Ms. Swit will be at the shelter from 2:30 p.m. onwards to meet members of the public and sign autographs.

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About the Author
Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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