Radical out-of-state activists are back in Maine using deceptive astroturf tactics to drum up support for their “animal rights” agenda.
Astroturf – or, fake grassroots support conjured from the digital ether by consultants in Washington, D.C. – is becoming more and more popular throughout the nation, as activist groups and corporate entities capitalize on digital technology to shape opinion and advance their interests. In Maine, the latest effort to make it appear as though Maine citizens support the choice policies of out-of-state interest groups comes in the guise of FairBearHunt.com—tagline: Mainers for Fair Bear Hunting.
FairBearHunt.com contains no disclaimer about the source of its funding or who is in control of its content. The website projects the appearance of a locally cultivated citizens’ movement in favor of legislation to ban traditional bear hunting methods. However, a review of the site’s registration information provided by WhoIs.com shows that the website was registered in March via the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
One of the most controversial and radical lobbying groups in the nation, HSUS is known mainly by its heart-wrenching commercials depicting suffering cats and dogs. Sarah McLaughlin sings In the Arms of An Angel as a soothing voice urges watchers to give just 19 dollars a month to save forlorn household pets from animal abuse. In truth, HSUS sends astonishingly little of its more than $100 million annual budget to animal shelters. In 2008 and 2009, according to the organization’s tax filings, HSUS sent less than 1 percent of its total budget to hands-on animal shelters. In other words, an organization that claims to be saving cats and dogs from euthanasia is doing something altogether different with the vast majority of the money it raises.
HSUS intentionally creates the impression that donations will go to animal shelters and its effort is effective. Several polls have shown that a majority of the American public believes HSUS operates and financially supports animal shelters. But rather than funding a pet shelter in every state, which the organization is more than financially capable of doing, it instead funds expensive lobbying operations. On top of that, HSUS operates a plush pension fund for its executives. According to HumaneWatch.org, from 1998 to 2009, HSUS made $16.3 million contributions to its pension while making only $14.8 million in shelter donations.
HSUS has been the subject of national criticism from watchdog groups and Congress. In 2011, 6 congressman sent a letter to U.S. Treasury Inspector General Eric Thorson complaining about HSUS’s political activities. Nothing ever came of that effort because, perhaps, the IRS’s energies were directed elsewhere… CharityWatch, formerly the American Institute of Philanthropy, has given animal-rights group a “D”. The grade is low, according to CharityWatch, because HSUS spends 49 percent of its budget on actual program costs, meaning the majority of its money goes toward overhead costs (salaries, pensions, etc.) The group also determined that HSUS spends nearly 49 cents for dollar it fundraises.
In Maine, the top HSUS lobbyist is Massachusetts lawyer Kathleen Hansberry. Hansberry recently ran afoul of the Maine ethics commission over her failure to properly disclose her lobbying activities to the state. Following a complaint from Rep. Dale J. Crafts (R-Lisbon Falls), who is a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the commission voted 3-1 on July 29 to impose a $200 penalty on Hansberry for her failure to disclose her lobbying activity.
In June, after Crafts initial complaint, Hansberry told The Maine Wire that her failure to disclose lobbying activities was a product of her inexperience with Maine’s ethics laws. However, opponents of HSUS’s anti-hunting agenda, such as the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine don’t buy her excuse.
Former Republican lawmaker David Trahan, who now serves as executive director for SAM, believes ethically questionable behavior are of a part with HSUS’s operation in Maine and across the nation. In a June op-ed for the Bangor Daily News, Trahan described an unfriendly encounter with HSUS’s finely besuited lawyers wherein he exposed their attempt to extort him and Don Kleiner, executive director of the Maine Professional Guides Association (MPGA), into supporting a bit of anti-hunting legislation:
Wrote Trahan, “Five HSUS lobbyists, including their Washington liaison, summoned Don and me to an impromptu meeting in the closed state office building cafeteria. As an experienced ex-state legislator, I have seen the dark side of partisan negotiations, but even I was shocked by what I heard next: “We have $3 million dollars, polling data that says we can win a bear referendum in Maine, and if SAM will support LD 1474, HSUS will not submit a referendum to ban trapping and hounding. If SAM doesn’t support LD 1474, HSUS will add baiting to their bill and go to referendum, and Mainers would likely lose baiting, hounding and trapping.”
When I told Trahan about HSUS’s latest astroturfing, he laughed and gave a Reagan-esque there they go again…
“These latest unethical tactics by HSUS are no surprise to me,” said Trahan. “I got a taste of their tactics earlier this year when they tried to extort my organization and the professional guide association into supporting their bills,” he said. “Their tactics around the country are ruthless.”
He said HSUS must “manufacture a façade” because people in Maine do not actually support their radical agenda, which, he contends, is nothing short of the complete abolition of hunting.
As proof of his assertion that HSUS lacks any semblance of organic supporters in the Pine Tree State, Trahan points to its need to fly in lobbyists from Massachusetts like Hansberry. “The second example is that Keisha, a California native and pop music singer, who admittedly has only been to Maine once, has endorsed their campaign, yet has no clue how bears in Maine are managed.”
In addition to concerns over how to manage Maine’s growing black bear population, Kleiner, a Master Maine Guide, said HSUS’s attempt to ban hunting will severely impact the economy of northern Maine, particularly for registered guides.
“Guides everywhere are concerned,” Kleiner told me. “Bear baiting and hounding is a significant part of the guide economy.”
“I would estimate that 20% of our members earn their living through bear hunting,” he said.
Kleiner does not intend to let HSUS trample Mainer’s hunting rights unopposed. “If they are able to gather the signatures [necessary for a ballot initiative], we will fight back.”
Despite the avalanche of out-of-state money that will soon be pouring in to support yet another anti-hunting ballot initiative, Trahan is confident that the people of Maine won’t be hoodwinked by high-paid lawyers from away. “Before this campaign is over,” he said, “I believe the people will realize that these are people from away with a very narrow agenda: to end hunting and the proper management of our wildlife.”