EXCLUSIVE: Big Dog Ranch changes mind, will hold event at Mar-a-Lago

Updated Oct 30, 2017
Dogs transported from a shelter in Houston arrive to waiting staff and volunteers at Big Dog Ranch Rescue in Loxahatchee on September 3, 2017. About a dozen dogs were transported on a private plane from a shelter that couldn’t support them after flooding caused by hurricane Harvey. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

Two months after publicly announcing it was pulling its main fundraiser from Mar-a-Lago, Big Dog Ranch Rescue has done an about face, revealing it will in fact hold its annual luncheon at President Donald Trump ’s Palm Beach private club as originally planned.

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In August, Big Dog, the largest no-kill dog rescue in the southeast U.S., said it would yank its fundraising event from Mar-a-Lago after Trump’s controversial comments following the neo-Nazi and white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Va.

But in an advertisement published in the Palm Beach Charity Register, Big Dog revealed it will hold its 5th annual Wine Women & Shoes event on March 10 at Mar-a-Lago. The event is chaired by Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, and Georgina Bloomberg, daughter of billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

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Back in August, Big Dog tried to distance itself from the controversy over the president’s Charlottesville remarks, when it announced it would ditch Trump’s Palm Beach private club, as more than a dozen other charities were doing at the time.

“In the interest of being better able to focus on our core mission of helping animals and saving dogs, we have decided to hold our next annual luncheon at our new facility in Loxahatchee Groves,” the organization said.

But after only two months, the organization announced it is indeed holding its fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago. So far, the 20 other charities that fled Mar-a-Lago are sticking with the alternate sites they secured after announcing their departure from Trump’s club.

In an interview Monday, Big Dog President Lauree Simmons explained the organization’s reversal.

She said Big Dog initially“never had an any intention” of leaving Mar-a-Lago, even after numerous charities decided to pull their fundraisers. During the previous four years, she said Mar-a-Lago has gone “above and beyond” in hosting the luncheon for the animal rescue organization.

Even as charities were dropping Mar-a-Lago in droves, Big Dog said on Aug. 17 it would keep its luncheon at the private club. Robin Friedman, Big Dog Ranch director of development, said Mar-a-Lago is “one of the only venues where we can do an event of our size in the daytime.”

But then Big Dog began receiving “nasty emails,” Simmons said, leading the organization to announce it would hold its fundraising luncheon at its new facility in Loxahatchee Groves.

Simmons said Big Dog did try to plan the luncheon at the rescue, but because the complex still is under construction, the fundraiser would have required tents. After pricing out the cost of tents and other party necessities, Simmons said the whole affair became too expensive.

So it’s back to Mar-a-Lago, with no apologies.

“This isn’t about politics,” Simmons said. “This is about the dogs and the work we do. It’s about expanding our mission. And quite frankly, if people want to take a political stance, then they don’t care about what we do and the animals.”

“It would be financially inressponsible to move from a venue that has been so generous,” she added. “Those who are truly committed to saving innocent, homeless dogs will still support us.”

Her comments echo remarks she made back in April to the Post.. Simmons said at the time that a venue choice should have “nothing to do with politics or who your choice was for president. It’s about supporting the charity that you’re coming to.”

Back then, complaints about Trump’s policies, including his Muslim immigration ban, were just starting to spark criticism and push-back for charities.

Around that time, just a few organizations said they were reconsidering holding their functions at Mar-a-Lago. One of those was the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, the Harvard-affiliated hospital in Boston, which said it would avoid “controversial venues” going forward after its Feb. 18 gala at Mar-a-Lago was preceded by protests.

In April, Big Dog’s Simmons said she received “three or four” complaints from people upset about having the rescue’s fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago on March 11. The complaints were overshadowed by the success of the event, she said, which raised $1.1 million and sold out all 600 tickets. Simmons said she wanted to expand the event to 650 tickets in 2018.

Big Dog’s flip-flop on Mar-a-Lago reflects the challenge charities face over their winter fundraisers, considered prime time for securing money from donors.

Those that stayed at Mar-a-Lago risk the wrath of donors appalled that Trump said there were “very fine people” on both sides of the Charlottesville protests, which featured neo-Nazis, white supramacists and counterprotestors. The conflict left one counterprotestor dead. Two police officers were killed when their helicopter crashed.

Charities that left Mar-a-Lago have not had an easy time, either. Securing alternative sites has been difficult, prompting Susan G. Komen, the world’s largest nonprofit in the fight against breast cancer, to announce plans to hosts its 2018 gala to be held aboard the Grand Celebration MV Cruise Liner at the Port of Palm Beach.

There’s another challenge faced by charities that left Mar-a-Lago: Philanthropists say feelings were hurt and allegiances split when charities announced they would leave the club. Some donors vow to boycott charities that canceled at Mar-a-Lago.

Despite the departure of 20 charity fundraisers, the club will not be hurting for business this winter.

In fact, Mar-a-Lago’s roster this season is packed with events, ranging from charities holding their first-ever fundraisers there, to private parties hosted by club members. “All I can tell you is we are really doing fine. It will be a good season,” said Bernd Lembcke, Mar-a-Lago’s general manager.

Even Tuesday’s Halloween party will be busy, with up to 300 members and their friends planning to attend the festivities, which begin at 6 p.m. that night, Lembcke said.

As for Big Dog, the organization expects this year’s Mar-a-Lago luncheon to be very well-attended.(Simmons said she has anticipates “no issues” about the property’s high security, which ramps up when Trump is in town and sometimes causes delays for event attendees.)

During the past eight weeks, Big Dog has made numerous high-profile rescues from areas affected by the hurricane, including Texas and Florida, she said. Right now, the rescue group is in the process of evacuating hundreds of animals from Puerto Rico, which was ravaged by Hurricane Maria.

“Our support base has been growing as people find out more about our mission and work,” Simmons said.