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L.A.'s deep pockets give creatures comfort

In elegant environs, a special breed of the wealthy raises millions for animal causes.

December 19, 2007|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

The elephant researcher stood in the living room of the sleekly modern Pacific Palisades home perched high on a hill. Slides of an African preserve flashed by on a screen.

Elephants "are so social, so communicative, so intelligent," said Joyce Poole, who has dedicated her life to documenting and protecting pachyderms.

It is a task that takes money, and the admiring audience was ready to help.

"I'd like to put up $25,000," businessman Gil Michaels said. His condition: The rest of the room had to match that amount in total donations.

There were a few small offers, then a long pause. The hostess, standing in the back of her living room, filled the void.

"I'll match the rest of his donation," Patty Shenker said.

The living room erupted in applause. The elephant researcher burst into tears.

"You don't know how hard it is to raise money," she said.

Poole had tapped into a cadre of Los Angeles residents with deep pockets and an equally deep, unabashed concern for animals. Across the area, in hilltop homes and elegant hotels, people open their checkbooks to protect a vast array of creatures -- cows and chickens, elephants and marine mammals, feral cats and pit bulls.

It is difficult to quantify the amount of money given in Los Angeles -- or nationwide -- to the myriad animal welfare and conservation causes. Philanthropy watchers said Americans gave $295 billion in cash donations to U.S. charities last year. About 2% of all giving goes to animal causes, estimates Merritt Clifton, editor of the Animal People newspaper and the annual Watchdog Report on Animal Protection Charities.

In the last 12 months, well-moneyed Angelenos have raised millions for animals at a series of parties and dinners where fine wine, vegan nibbles and, sometimes, cocktail attire are the order of the day.

Michaels spent more than $50,000 in September at a gala for Farm Sanctuary, which investigates and works to stop cruelty toward animals in factory farms and runs two sanctuaries.

"I've been doing this for 25 years," he said. "I've been fighting animal cruelty in all its disgusting forms."

Michaels estimates that he has donated more than $30 million to animal-related causes over the years.

"Animals have no voice," said Michaels, who lives in the Hollywood Hills with two dogs and stables horses in Ventura County. "They are helpless."

Just a year ago, Shenker pledged $100,000 toward a retirement fund for Ruby, a female African elephant that the Los Angeles Zoo was considering retiring to PAWS, a nonprofit animal sanctuary in San Andreas, Calif. (Ruby was moved there this past spring.)

Shenker put up the money after retired game show host Bob Barker -- the dean of West Coast animal benefactors -- announced that he would match donations for Ruby's costly care, dollar for dollar, up to $350,000.

Some donors are so immersed in the cause that they maintain a vegetarian or vegan diet. They generally have a gaggle of their own pets, proudly immortalized in digital photos on their Blackberries and I-phones and almost always rescued from shelters. In this community, it would be sinful to buy a designer dog from a breeder when municipal shelters nationwide euthanize 2 million to 3 million unwanted dogs and cats each year.

Few of those donors are part of the outspoken ranks of the animal welfare activists and advocates who attend zoo commission meetings, confront politicians and trade impassioned missives on the Internet. Most activists don't have the money.

There are exceptions. In addition to her financial support, Shenker goes to Los Angeles City Council meetings and protests, as well as firing off letters.

Cheri Shankar estimates that she and her husband, Naren Shankar, an executive producer of the original "CSI" TV show, gave $75,000 last year to animal causes. Meanwhile, she lobbies for changes in the city's shelter system, goes to meetings -- and persuaded her husband to do an episode this season involving the evils of dog fighting. (It recently aired.)

Paul Watson, the charismatic founder of the ocean and marine wildlife protection group known as Sea Shepherd, has captivated Hollywood celebrities, animal welfare activists and ocean conservationists with his aggressive tactics aimed at, among other things, halting illegal whaling ships and fur seal hunters.

It seemed natural, when the group held its first $500-a-plate vegan fundraiser in October, that the venue would be an elegantly appointed tent near the Santa Monica Pier. Producer Bob Yari's company, which hopes to do a film on Watson, donated $150,000 to underwrite the event.

"Probably 25% of our contributions are from Los Angeles," Watson said. "The only other place that even approaches it is all of Australia."

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