Nicola Dennis delves into some of New Zealand’s leading animal charities and is interested to discover how they are run and what they spend their money on.

When I asked my fans what I should write about next, both of them said I needed to prove to the public how much farmers love their animals and the environment. And while this is true, farmers are like nuns to the church of soil and stock; I’m not sure how I can add to that particular conversation. What I can do, however, is take a closer look at why farmers feel their integrity is constantly in question.

I thought I would educate myself on what is fanning the flames of the urban-rural divide. It’s bigger than a single issue, but for this article I am going to focus on the people who keep sending the pitchforks in our direction. Let’s make it our business to find out about the business of villianising farmers.

How to check up on a NZ charity

Most of the information in this article comes from the New Zealand Charities register, which you can search at whim ( CharitiesRegister/Search). If you type in ‘animals’ it will yield 64 results, which is bolstered by every branch of the SPCA and a few deregistered charities. Alternatively, any registered charity should be proudly displaying its charity registration number on its website so you can pop this into the charities register. As a caveat to that, I was unpleasantly surprised to discover how many groups asking for donations are not actually registered charities.

Once you have located your target inside the charities register, then you can dig around in seven different tabs off to the side, such as its group members, annual returns, purpose and structure. Let us take a look under the hood of two vegan charities. If you came for blood then feel free to skip over the cute and harmless ‘Vegan Society of Aotearoa’ and dive straight into the frightening financial machine that is ‘Save Animals from Exploitation Incorporated’.

Vegan Society of Aotearoa (Registration Number CC45333)

I snooped on their website and through their charity documents and, meh, who am I to deny the vegans of Aotearoa a society and a quarterly magazine. These guys are only featuring here as a helpful contrast with the next charity.

It’s all about the food for the Vegan Society, which lists its beneficiaries as “people who want to live a vegan lifestyle”. A $50 annual membership buys you a quarterly magazine that is almost exclusively vegan recipes, vegan lifestyle articles, and advertisements from vegan food manufacturers. I have perused a copy of this magazine and I am sad to report that they are not talking about us farmers much at all. It’s almost as if their choice to adopt a tremendously restrictive diet has been made entirely for reasons other than hate. I found one slightly condescending article on how NZ is falling behind other countries in the adoption of plant protein production, which I thought glossed over the fact that NZ lacks the flat land and climate required for broad-acre soybean production. There was also an advert from ‘CareSaver’, a KiwiSaver plan that boasts that it does not invest in farming, fossil fuels, animal testing or environmental exploitation. Having worked in an animal laboratory previously, I would have to say that is fair. Our lab mice were very well cared for, but the financial return on investment couldn’t have been anything other than dismal.

For the most part, the Vegan Society seems to be about celebrating vegans, and their perceived healthiness, rather than hating farmers. They get a bit snarkier on their Facebook page, but isn’t that the point of Facebook?

In their charity documents, the Vegan Society lists its purpose as ‘The advancement, promotion, development and resourcing of education among New Zealanders on issues relating to veganism’. If you are not familiar with veganism, they also list a definition in their charity rules which is ‘the practice of living on grains, pulses, nuts, fruits, vegetables and other products of the vegetable kingdom, without the use of eggs, milk, milk products, and the entire exclusion of the flesh of all animals’. This includes honey, in case you are wondering. I learned from their vegan magazine that their main objections to honey bee keeping was the feeding of sugar over winter and the selective breeding of hives.

Anyway, in its last financial year the Vegan Society brought in just over $87,000, mostly from subscriptions and the selling of goods and services. I assume the latter is the selling of advertisement space as they don’t seem to have an online shop. Only a quarter of their income ($22,000) was from donations and their workforce is exclusively volunteers. Both of these factors explain some of the ambivalence towards farmers. Volunteers don’t have time to dream up hate campaigns. And, you don’t need to keep the public outrage at fever-pitch if you are running a subscription-based model rather than mugging people for donations.

The Vegan Society’s total income has been showing steady growth since 2010 and their total expenditure is usually below their income so they have a tidy $54,200 squirreled away that earned them $212 in interest/dividends in the last financial year.

I’m no forensic accountant, but I would say that SAFE has shied away from serving a community of like-minded people through membership and the exchange of goods/services and has instead embraced a model of outraging the public in exchange for donations.

Save Animals From Exploitation Incorporated (CC40428)

Let us click on ‘Save Animals from Exploitation Incorporated’ or ‘SAFE’ as you may better know them. In their own words, their mission is to ‘educate, inform and empower people to make cruelty-free, plant-based and vegan choices’. That doesn’t read too differently from the Vegan Society above, which was achieving this aim for less than $100K and with 22 volunteers. But, SAFE is pulling in millions of dollars. In their 2018 annual report, SAFE detailed $6.1 million of income, of which $6.05 million was from donations. Their latest annual report is not quite as impressive at ‘only’ $2 million in donations and the $200k in interest from investments. You might wonder what SAFE makes in membership fees; well, in the latest return it was $355. I am not missing any zeros on that sum. The entire membership revenue from SAFE, which used to run at $14-22K, 10 years ago, is now worth about the same as a top of the range wheelbarrow. Revenue from trading goods and services, which has been as high as $900K in the past, has dwindled down to $1650 – a mere fraction of the $36K that the Vegan Society was pulling in.

I’m no forensic accountant, but I would say that SAFE has shied away from serving a community of like-minded people through membership and the exchange of goods/services and has instead embraced a model of outraging the public in exchange for donations.

But, what does SAFE do with its money?

If you look on their website they object to a raft of animal activities taking place in New Zealand including, but not limited to, the control of animals labelled as pests, horse racing, duck shooting, greyhound racing, zoos/wildlife parks, rodeos, puppy breeding, the use of wool and fur, animals used in experiments, and all forms of farming, be it intensive indoor farming or free-range. There is drone footage of what I assume is the Five-Star Beef feedlot in Ashburton (you would struggle to find many other feedlots to film in New Zealand) with a blurb that says “Most Kiwis imagine the cattle raised for beef grazing on lush, green pastures, but sadly this isn’t the reality in New Zealand. Tucked away out of sight cattle are kept in barren, grassless pens known as feedlots.” And that, as far as SAFE is concerned, is all anybody ever needs to know about the NZ beef industry.

You might imagine that SAFE is burning money fighting for this endless array of causes. Sure they are getting their money for nothing, but $2 million is mere coins if you are intent on wiping out multiple industries.

There are currently 20 staff at SAFE working about 621 hours a week and this racked up $1,191,288 in salary and wages in the last financial year. In case you were about to reach for the calculator, that’s an average hourly rate of $37/hour. SAFE spent $36K on advertising and marketing, $50K on contractors/consultants, $20K on IT support and $37.5K on legal fees/court costs, $94K on rent/utilities, $10K donation to Farmwatch, $19.7K donation to the NZ anti-vivisection society etc, etc. This brings them up to $1.89 million for the year. Colour me intrigued, but I note that SAFE never spends more than $2 million, which is the threshold for full financial reporting required by Charities Services.

Instead, SAFE tucks $200-400K annual surpluses into the charity’s bank accounts and term deposits and has so far amassed $5.9 million in net assets. Maybe this is not unusual; I note that the SPCA is sitting on $78 million of equity. But, the SPCA has 42 animal shelters to run. It is less obvious what SAFE plans to do with its money. At the end of SAFE’s annual report, the chairperson, who is a well-known aerospace entrepreneur, signs off as ‘Rocket’. That is in no way pertinent, but I do think it is cute.

Safe in schools

So what does SAFE do when it’s not squirrelling money like Scrooge McDuck? Well, 54% of its expenditure goes towards campaigns (which a cynic would see as revenue generating), 21% goes to supporter engagement and 21% goes to education programmes. SAFE is proud of the textbooks it generates. Since 2007 every secondary school in New Zealand has received free copies of the ‘popular’ Animals & Us education series produced by SAFE. There are five separate Animals & Us textbooks sitting at a high school near you, featuring a special thanks to Farmwatch, who supplied many of the photographs. Farmwatch is the crew who covertly film farming operations and publicise any disturbing footage they manage to capture.

Each SAFE textbook contains a ‘selection of lessons and resources ready for classroom and individual study’. There is one titled Animal Rights, Human Values, Social Action which is apparently suitable for years 9-13 in social studies, history and English. There is Battery Hen Farming in New Zealand, which is for teaching English. Move over Janet Frame. Step aside Shakespeare. The chooks will take it from here.

There is Animals in Factory Farms, which covers social studies, science, biology and English. Animals in Science is for science and biology. I could not get access to this particular textbook, but entries such as ‘Rats have no gallbladder: The validity and ethics of animal experimentation’ in the table of contents was enough to wreck any illusion of impartiality. And let’s not forget Animals on Show: a critical analysis of the animal entertainment industry, which is for English, social studies and biology classes.

There is also the SAFE Animal Squad, which offers all primary school teachers free classroom subscriptions to its Animal Bites newsletter, which works towards ‘helping kids to think critically about our use of animals’. I shudder at the thought.

Wait, what about PETA and the others?

You would be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but ‘People for the ethical treatment of animals’ (or PETA) apparently has zero presence in New Zealand. If you search for PETA New Zealand you will be directed to a company that markets dispensing equipment for water troughs.

PETA Dispensers of Hamilton would probably do well to add a ‘Donate’ button on their website. The vegan PETA seems like it is in NZ, given the amount of NZ topics they are prepared to wade into. They even urged our Minister of Finance to consider a meat and dairy tax in the 2020-21 budget. But PETA and a few other extreme movements are all offshore organisations.

PETA is as not-for-profitable as our homegrown SAFE, with an annual haul of US$50 million in donations and $1.7million in investment returns … and just $108K in merchandise sales. It is easier to scream for donations from the sidelines, but the folk at PETA aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty either.

PETA volunteers deliver pet food and equipment to poor neighbourhoods, run mobile veterinary clinics, and they euthanise a lot of animals. The majority of animals (66%) that go through PETA’s animal shelters are euthanised. Upon viewing the SAFE volunteer handbook, I see no mention of any animal assistance. Where SAFE sticks strictly to ‘campaigning’ in NZ, PETA is prepared to venture into porn. In 2011, PETA planned to launch a pornography website to further the vegan movement. A hard-nosed journalist would have visited this site to see if it were still in operation a decade later, but I surmised that I had already damaged my google search reputation enough at this point. Animal exploitation awareness porn definitely felt like my cue to leave.