By Sue Manning
In 1954, the Humane Society of the United States was founded with borrowed money by a small group of people who wanted to protect animals, end slaughterhouse abuse and stop overbreeding.
Turning 60 this year, the HSUS has millions of supporters, about 630 employees and a budget of $170 million. It also has a long list of successes that has improved life for millions of animals.
Examples include federal laws the organization lobbied for like the 1958 Humane Slaughter Act, 1970 Animal Welfare Act, 1973 Endangered Species Act, 1992 Dolphin Conservation Act, 2001 Chimp Act, 2007 Animal Fighting Prohibition Act and 2010 Truth in Fur Labeling Act. Other milestones included founding the Humane Society International in 1991 and rescuing 10,000 pets after Hurricane Katrina.
The society is holding three parties to mark its six decades. The first in Beverly Hills on Saturday recognizes the agency's Hollywood and celebrity activists who support animal causes with picket line and pocket book. Galas will also be held in New York City and the society's hometown of Washington, D.C.
Proceeds from the $350-a-plate gourmet vegan dinner at the Beverly Hilton go to the group's companion animal and farm animal protection campaigns.
Actor James Cromwell will receive a lifetime achievement award. "He's been a friend to the HSUS and to animals for decades. He is somebody who has used his fame and platform for farm animal protection, animals used and abused in labs, horses who are used for horse racing, you name it, if an animal is in trouble, he is there," said Michelle Cho of the HSUS.
Cromwell changed his thinking about animals on a 1975 coast-to-coast motorcycle trip. "I went through feed lots in Texas for what seemed like an entire day, with animals on either side of the road as far as you could see, waiting to be slaughtered. The stench, the sound and the horror of it. I said, 'I can't do this anymore.' I began the journey of becoming a vegetarian, learning that I can live without cheese, I can live without corned beef hash. This was a personal odyssey," Cromwell said.
He overdid the dietary change at first, and his health suffered, but he kept working at it, learned more about how animals are turned into meat, and eventually became a vegan, he said.
"The Humane Society of the United States has become more politicized and more courageous in the last 10 years," Cromwell said. "I support them and am honored to be receiving this."
During Saturday's gala, California Gov. Jerry Brown will get the Humane Governor Award for bills he's approved, including one that ended the use of lead shot. Lead bullets left behind were being consumed by wildlife, putting more than 200 species in jeopardy, said HSUS spokesman Alan Heymann.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite will receive the HSUS Impact Award for "Blackfish," the documentary about orcas at SeaWorld. The theme park company disputes the film's claim that keeping orcas in captivity is harmful to the animals or their trainers, but Cho said the film represents "the first time anyone has shed a global spotlight on captive orcas."
Actor Paul Wesley of "The Vampire Diaries" will receive the Humane Generation Award.
Some of the battles the HSUS is waging today began six decades ago, Heymann said. Staging animal fights is now illegal in every state but breaking the law isn't always a felony and prosecutions are often a low priority.
Wayne Pacelle has been president and CEO of HSUS for 10 years and Heymann said that under his tenure, "more laws have been passed in more states more quickly in the last 10 years than any other decade in the society's history."
Some critics say the HSUS spends too much money on lobbyists and staff. Heymann says federal law determines how much the HSUS spends on lobbying, and that its "finances are an open book."
Future goals for the HSUS include:
—Keeping U.S. horse slaughterhouses closed while fighting the shipping of American horses overseas.
—Promoting spay and neuter programs with a goal of eliminating euthanasia of healthy, adoptable pets.
—Fighting for the Humane Cosmetics Act to ban cosmetics testing of animals.
—Fighting bear-hunting in Maine, wolf-hunting in Michigan and seal hunts in Canada.
"If any animal is in trouble, the HSUS is there," Cho said.