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Mixed reactions greet heart-tugging animal ads

The image is jarring: A close-up of the sad, moist eyes of a dog, its fur matted, sores on its body, as the haunting wails of Natalie Merchant’s “My Skin” play in the background.

A similar shot of a house cat, its face cut below its blue eyes, is accompanied by the words “Why did they hurt me?”

Many New Yorker undoubtedly have seen these images and others like it on NY1, FOX News and other cable channels as part of a national ad blitz by the Human Society of the United States.

The commercials, running since August, are jolting some, moving many, and — the non-profit hopes — opening people’s wallets.

“I can’t watch them, I feel sad when I see them,” said Manhattan resident Joy Kreveillant, 21. “I usually have to flip the channel.”

The ads provoked such strong emotion that Fox pulled them off the air in December after viewers complained. “The feedback we were getting was that they were depressing,” said Alexis Baker, a spokeswoman for the cable channel.

Meanwhile, the two-minute ads continue to run on NY1 about 30 times a week, according to a station spokeswoman.

Officials at the national Humane Society - unaffiliated with local Human Societies — said pulling on the heartstrings is exactly the point. “We find the ads are resonating across the spectrum,” said spokesman Michael Markarian.

He acknowledged that the TV campaign is unusual for a non-profit. The ads are tied to a membership drive, though Markarian would not say how much the campaign cost or if it’s boosted membership.

However, ad executives estimate that a 30 second segment on a local news channel such as NY1 would cost $200. And the group’s nonprofit tax filings for 2008, the latest year available, show that it spent $24 million on fund-raising efforts and reaped $87 million from contributions and grants.

The spots have drawn the ire of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a group supported by the food industry, which has questioned the Humane Society’s use of funds.

“On this scale it starts to look like a business and not a charity,” said research director David Martosko.

The Humane Society doesn’t run shelters but wages public campaigns against puppy mills and factory farms and responds to natural disasters. It recently helped rescue animals from Haiti.

Ad exec John Zaher said the Humane Society faces “a balancing act” between reaching people and turning them off. “You can accomplish most of what you can do without being graphic,” he said.

Julia Borovskaya contributed to this story.

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