Although they are generally regarded as a good cause, some animal protection agencies have been receiving lots of criticism for not wisely spending their money.

Each year, several thousand dogs and cats are put to death because there's not enough money to build adequate animal shelter space. In the meantime, saving a whale in the Puget Sound is costing $500,000, with taxpayers picking up half the tab.

"Would we have had the choice realistically of leaving her in Puget Sound for the whole of the summer and watching her get sicker and sicker and die a painful and unpleasant death? I don't think realistically anyone in this agency or anyone in the Pacific Northwest really thought that was an option," said National Marine Fisheries Service spokesman Brian Gorman in defense of the millions spent to capture and then release Keiko the killer Orca that starred in the blockbuster film Free Willy and its sequel.

But there are those who say letting nature take its course should be the "only" option. Critics of this and other expensive animal rescues say not only do they demonstrate priorities way out of whack, but they hide another agenda: The more media attention a rescue gets, the more donations flow into the private organizations involved.

"If you look at the foundations that were created for some of the previous rescues you'll see there's a fair amount of money in rescuing animals, like millions," Patti Strand, a board member of National Animal Interest Alliance, said.

In fact, freeing Willy has been anything but free, costing $15 million so far. Keiko is still under human care in Iceland because no whale pod has taken him back.

All that money, many say, could be used to save tens of thousands of animals, not just a few. It is estimated that around $1 million is enough to run most municipal shelters for a year, and that, supporters say, is the truly humane thing to do.

Dan Springer joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in August 2001 as a Seattle-based correspondent.