We Spend $60 Billion a Year on Our Pets—Give a Gift to Wildlife This Holiday Season

Here’s a guide to groups working to save elephants, tigers, wolves, and other imperiled animals around the world.
(Photo: pndtphoto/Getty)
Dec 19, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

You’ve probably already noticed this while flipping through the contents of your overstuffed mailbox or scrolling past the endless stream of email solicitations, but this is the time of the year when nonprofit organizations ramp up their pleas for your donations. And with good reason: About a third of all charitable giving in the United States takes place in December. This is, of course, due to holiday cheer and a spirit of giving—not anything so cynical as tax write-offs.

But don’t be so quick to hit delete. Charitable giving makes us happier, and it has the potential to make wildlife happier too, or at least to keep monarch butterflies, wolves, elephants, songbirds, and other creatures a part of this world. Government funding for wildlife is declining everywhere, even as the pressure on wildlife from poaching, climate change, and expanding human populations dramatically worsens. “Conservation is often an early casualty of any government funding squeeze,” the authors of a recent Nature article noted. In the United States, for instance, the National Park Service has seen a 13 percent drop in funding over the past five years, and it’s much worse in many other countries. That means many wildlife and conservation organizations, and the animals they protect, increasingly depend on charitable contributions.

So how do you handle the tricky task of choosing just which organizations to support? Charity Navigator rates nonprofits on their financial efficiency and transparency (but not on the effectiveness of their services and programs). It lists 271 organizations under the Environmental Protection and Conservation heading, and that’s just organizations it has evaluated. Behavioral economists have shown that too having many choices leads to inaction, and the check never makes it into the mail. So let’s cut down the choices.

When I asked conservation-minded contacts on Twitter and Facebook and via email for their ideas on donating to help wildlife, responses generally fell into one of two camps. Some people suggested heavy hitters like The Nature Conservancy, where yearly expenses top $750 million. Such big groups naturally do much more work overall than small, local organizations. But others argued that the little guys, whose yearly budget might be less than $1 million, get more done with each dollar donated.

Clint Boal, a wildlife ecologist at Texas Tech, argued that it’s hard to beat TNC or Ducks Unlimited for “effectiveness of conservation dollars put to work.” TNC boasts that it has protected 119 million acres of land and 5,000 miles of rivers since its founding in 1951, and it now also operates more than 100 marine conservation projects worldwide. Ducks Unlimited, which works to maintain critical migratory habitats in North America, calls itself “the world’s largest and most effective private waterfowl and wetlands conservation organization.”

The trouble is, you have to think about it. Charity Navigator gives both these organizations only two out of four stars, mainly because the percentage of their budget spent on fund-raising and administration is a little too high relative to the amount spent (just 72 percent for TNC) on the actual services they deliver. Philosophical considerations also matter. Maybe you’re troubled by assertions made by Peter Kareiva, TNC’s chief scientist, that “conservation is failing” and that we need a new vision of conservation that rejects “idealized notions of nature, parks, and wilderness” and “in which nature…exists amid a wide variety of modern, human landscapes.” Or maybe you think that Kareiva’s realpolitik is the way forward. Likewise, you might have philosophical issues with the hunting orientation of Ducks Unlimited. I think both organizations do fine work. But the important thing is to decide what you think.

In the course of writing the “Strange Behaviors” column, I have repeatedly found researchers funded by the Wildlife Conservation Society doing important work around the world, whether in East Africa to prevent poaching of elephants or in China to shift consumer attitudes away from wildlife products. The WCS 96 Elephants program (referring to the number of elephants killed every day in Africa) has kept the ivory trafficking issue on the public’s mind while also working behind the scenes to effect change among government officials. WCS gets three stars from Charity Navigator, with 83 percent of its budget spent on programs, and as with TNC and other large organizations, you can specify which programs you want to fund.

The other way to fund specific projects—say, conservation of a certain region, ecosystem, or species—is to go with a smaller, more targeted nonprofit. “I am less and less convinced about the efficacy of… ever bigger organizations with ever bigger budgets of which a smaller and smaller amount goes to ‘boots on the ground,’ ” wrote John Anderson, a seabird ecologist at Maine’s College of the Atlantic. He recommended the Mono Lake Committee, which has worked for more than three decades to protect that weird and iconic lake in the Sierra Nevada range east of San Francisco. Mono has a brine shrimp ecosystem that makes it a critical stopover for migrating songbirds, and the committee (two stars, 78 percent) is “actively involved in stream restoration…plus their public education program is pretty phenomenal.” The staff and volunteers, Anderson wrote, demonstrate “in full what a handful of dedicated, passionate people can do for conservation.”

Another way to choose among the myriad nonprofits is to support organizations working to solve the most pressing wildlife and conservation issues of the year. The Xerces Society (not rated) has been fighting the alarming collapse of pollinators in the U.S. and worldwide, including honeybees and monarch butterflies. Almost all wildlife species are also vulnerable to the looming menace of climate change. The Natural Resources Defense Council (four stars, 84 percent) has been a strong force, especially in the courtroom, fighting against oil companies and for stronger carbon regulations. Because the Western war on wolves has been in the news so much this year, I also like Defenders of Wildlife (three stars, 75 percent) for taking the bastards to court, and a small group, Keystone Conservation (unrated), for helping ranchers learn to live with native wildlife.

On the other hand, I urge you to bypass the Humane Society or any other group that advocates “trap-neuter-return” as a solution to the rapidly worsening problem of feral and outdoor cats. These cats kill billions of birds every year, and TNR is a cruel and ineffective hoax that simply puts them back out on the street to kill again. (As an alternative, consider the American Bird Conservancy, which has led the fight against TNR.)

One final thought: We Americans are a little crazy about our pets. We spend $60 billion on them every year. That’s not entirely a bad thing. I love my dog, and our pets allow us to remain at least a little in touch with the natural world. But here’s a New Year’s resolution: From now on, think about matching some of that money—say 10 percent, or $100 for every $1,000 you spend on Fifi—for the world of other animals now being left out in the cold.