Video: Helmsley's billions goes to the dogs

msnbc.com news services
updated 7/2/2008 8:47:54 PM ET 2008-07-03T00:47:54

Animal welfare groups are set to try and fetch some of Leona Helmsley's vast fortune.

At least two groups are eyeing the hotel queen's estate — estimated to be up to $8 billion — following a report Helmsley wanted her fortune to go to the dogs.

The real estate baroness, sometimes called "The Queen of Mean" for the imperious way she treated her staff, died in August. The New York Times reported Wednesday that she left instructions that her estate be spent on the care and welfare of dogs.

While the instructions are not part of her will, and there may be wiggle room for the estate's trustees, the Times reported that courts consider expressions of intent.

The Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said they will be suggesting programs and applying for funds if Helmsley's billions really end up funding dog welfare.

"You could solve the pet overpopulation problem," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society. "You could attack dogfighting. You could attack rabies in China and India, where there are tens of thousands of cases a year. You could take care of dogs left behind in disasters."

Helmsley's will named her own dog, Trouble, as a beneficiary, while explicitly leaving out two of her grandchildren. But in April, a Manhattan judge reduced the trust fund for the 9-year-old Maltese from $12 million to $2 million. The grandkids got $6 million each.

'A difference'
That added up to a tiny fraction of the estate, and the animal-welfare groups would love to get the rest.

Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder and president of PETA, said Helmsley's money "could make such a difference."

She said at least 3 million dogs are put to death each year for lack of spay and neuter programs.

"Many people cannot afford the surgery for their dogs," she said. "In these hard times, with house foreclosures, and people trying to pay for food and fuel, the last thing they're going to think about is the care and sterilization of dogs."

Peta donor
She said Helmsley's brother, Alvin Rosenthal, who is one of the five trustees of the estate, has been a PETA donor in the past. A message left at Rosenthal's Manhattan home was not immediately returned. The other trustees either did not call back or did not have listed numbers. Howard Rubenstein, spokesman for the trustees, said there would be no comment.

Pacelle noted that laws covering foundations generally require that a charity spend 5 percent of its assets per year. On an $8 billion estate, that would be $400 million — three times the Humane Society's annual budget.

"We do intend to reach out to the trustees and make the affirmative case that there is a tremendous amount of philanthropy to be done to help dogs in our society," he said.

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