THE LIFE SAVER • Naomi Pfefferman, Jewish Journal (p18).
Michelson started his Found Animals Foundation after he learned of the tens of thousands of pets who starved to death and drowned after Hurricane Katrina — and of the Katrina victims who lost their animals in the disaster. He came up with the idea to provide free microchips to pet owners nationwide, which he did for a while. The foundation continues to offer low-cost microchips.
Then he turned to the many stray animals. “In the United States, the government spends more than $2.5 billion collecting cats and dogs in order to kill them,” he said. Surgically spaying and neutering pets was one answer, but “there were no drug companies researching how to induce infertility in animals.”
Michelson’s foundation hopes to stimulate such study by offering grant and prize money for the inventors of a sterility vaccine; among many other efforts, it also searches animal shelters for pets destined to be put to death the next day and finds owners for the animals through an adoption program. Its website is a resource for pet adoption and microchipping, as well. So far, the foundation’s programs have helped some 1.5 million pets.
Michelson said he has received sporadic hate mail for focusing some of his philanthropy on animals. “But people are entitled to give their money to whatever they want,” he said. “You need to do what you are passionate about. But it’s not true that I care more about animals than people.”
In fact, Michelson started his Medical Research Foundation, which benefits humans, with an initial gift of $100 million.
He got the idea several years ago, when he chanced to read an opinion piece, written by a pre-eminent tropical disease specialist, describing how “1.4 billion people in the world are infected with worms that are eating them from the inside out,” he said. “Some of these little kids you see with the swollen stomachs — those are all worms.”
These parasites are also a leading cause of death during childbirth among infected mothers, and a top contributor to developmental disabilities among their children. “So it was shocking and disturbing to me that nobody seemed to care,” he said.
Thus emerged Michelson’s plan to fund an anti-worm vaccine. His medical foundation also benefits additional research that would be considered too avant-garde to be funded by the National Institutes of Health or other conventional sources, he said.
The philanthropist’s numerous efforts have also included two major reforestation efforts in Central America, resulting in the planting of seven million trees in some 50 square miles.
Asked why he has not made Jewish charities a focus of his work, Michelson said, “To me, that’s like a small-world view of things. It’s never occurred to me to ask what religion people are.
“What do I want on my tombstone?” he said. “ ‘He made a difference. He tried to change the world, and to leave it a little bit better.’”